California Irish gathered for the first commemoration for the Great Irish Hunger on Saturday, May 20 at the California Irish Hunger Memorial, in Eugene, California. The newly installed memorial was dedicated last year to the Innocent Victims of the Irish Hunger. The Irish Cultural Society of Stanislaus County sponsored this year’s event.
The memorial, located in Saint Joseph’s Cemetery was the concept of the Irish Cultural Society of Stanislaus County, San Francisco Chapter of the Irish American Unity Conference and the Campaign for a United Ireland. The Campaign for a United Ireland not only built the memorial, but also along with the Brennan family installed it.
Saint Joseph’s Cemetery is located on the Stockton-Sonora Road. Eugene was the name of the tiny community. The first settlers there were two Irishman named Dillon and Dooley. The two built a barn and maintained a change station for horses for the Kelly and Reynolds stage line. Later Dooley operated a four-horse stage line from Stockton to Knights Ferry.
By 1870 the little settlement reached its peak. It was granted a post office on May 2, 1870. James Nolan, native of Ireland was its first postmaster. Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church was built in 1886 on land donated by Nolan.
The settlement at Eugene lasted until the 1890s. The church was the last remaining building until it was torn down years later. The little cemetery that filled up around the church is all that remains today. This lonely little burial ground is the final resting place for many of the Irish pioneers of that region. Brennan, Hennessy, Fitzgerald, Nolan and Kelly are just a few of the family names throughout the cemetery. The Brennan family serves as the current caretakers of the cemetery.
Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1845-1851 (also known as the Irish Famine or An Gorta Mór) is one of the most catastrophic famines in modern history. The given cause of An Gorta Mór was the failure of the potato crop, on which most Irish were solely reliant for food, due to a Europe-wide blight. However, there was enough food produced in Ireland during the years of 1845-1851, to keep most of the victims alive; but that food was taken from the Irish by (mainly English) landlords as rent. Keeping it for themselves meant sure eviction from their land and therefore sure starvation.
Campaign For A United Ireland Chair, Seamus Canning stated “It was with great honor that Campaign For A United Ireland worked on this to remember those who came before us in this country. To the many men and women who have fallen in seeking a better life from English occupation and causing the Great Hunger.”