Bill seeks to require 'Black '47' course But some oppose plan to teach students about Irish potato famine

January 20, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As the Ancient Order of Hibernians sees it, Maryland schoolchildren are failing to learn about one of the great tragedies of world history: the Irish potato famine.

So -- in an effort that has ruffled feathers among educators and diplomats -- the group is asking the state legislature to require all Maryland schools to teach "Black '47," ensuring no child will graduate without knowing about Ireland's mass starvation of the 1840s.

"All stories of suffering need to be told," says Joe Roche, 62, of Abingdon, a former national president of the 80,000-member Irish-American Catholic group who serves as its national political education director. "Schools just aren't teaching this tragedy."

But the legislation isn't expected to sail through without opposition. State and local educators say politicians shouldn't be setting curriculum. And the British government has become upset by similar bills elsewhere, saying Irish-American groups are trying to stir up anger against England.

"We don't regard these kind of bills as very helpful," says Robert Chatterton Dickson, press officer for the British Embassy in Washington.

The bill -- which comes up for a hearing tomorrow -- is part a national trend of state legislatures adding the Irish potato famine to required curriculum. At least five states, including New York and New Jersey, have similar laws, and several more have proposals pending in their legislatures.

The Irish potato famine -- or Great Hunger, as many Irish-Americans prefer to call it -- refers to the period from 1845 to 1850 in which a fungus killed almost all of the country's potato crop. More than 1 million of Ireland's 8 million people died and at least another 2 million emigrated from Ireland, many to the United States.

The famine was worsened by the British decision to continue exporting food from Ireland as people were starving, though historians have argued for years over the degree of British responsibility. Last year for the first time, the British government acknowledged some blame for the famine.

Port for Irish immigrants

State Sen. Perry Sfikas, the Baltimore Democrat who is the bill's chief sponsor, says it's important for all students to learn about this period -- particularly because Baltimore was one of four primary ports for Irish immigrants.

"If we want to have a multicultural and pluralistic society, then it's important that Americans be taught all of their histories," Sfikas says. "The famine transformed this nation's political, social, ethnic and religious fabrics, especially here in the eastern United States."

Irish-American groups estimate that up to 20 percent of Americans have some Irish background, including a similar proportion of Marylanders.

Senate OK'd resolution

"With so many people of Irish descent, everyone needs to be aware of the role of this tragedy," says Ann Marie Price of Fallston, a member of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. She says that neither she nor her children learned about the famine while attending Baltimore City or Harford County schools.

"It isn't being taught in the schools -- at least not as much of it as we believe should be taught," Price says. "The most important thing is awareness."

Last year, the state Senate approved a resolution on St. Patrick's Day remembering the 150th anniversary of Black '47 and encouraging schools to teach more about it.

Price and others suggest that the Irish potato famine could be added to the Maryland School Performance Program's "core learning goals" -- the content that all students are expected to learn. They said they hope that the Irish potato famine bill will spark other groups to seek similar legislation to require that their ethnic history be taught in Maryland schools.

"Like the Holocaust and slavery, the Irish potato famine needs to be part of what all children learn," says Edward O'Rourke of Glen Burnie.

But local educators say the Irish potato famine is taught -- mostly as part of reasons for European immigration to the United States.

"We try to view that event within the context of immigration to America," says Rex Shepard, a social studies supervisor in Baltimore County schools. "I don't know that there is a pressing need to single out the famine for an extended period of time."

Besides New York and New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Illinois have passed bills requiring all schools to teach about the famine, Roche says. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have similar bills pending before their legislatures.

Some educators opposed

The spokesman for the British Embassy says his government supports accurate historical lessons about the famine but objects to comparisons between the British government's actions and genocide.

For state educators, the problem with the Irish potato famine bill isn't the subject matter. They simply oppose politicians telling schools what to teach.

"The legislature, in its wisdom, empowered the State Board of Education to set statewide curriculum," says Susan R. Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "For that reason, we generally oppose attempts by the legislature to set curriculum."

The association opposed a bill several years ago to require all schools to teach boating safety. The proposal failed.

But Sen. Michael J. Collins -- a Baltimore County Democrat and retired high school history teacher -- said that he can't recall teaching the Irish potato famine as a separate lesson at Kenwood High School, and he doesn't have any problem with the legislature telling educators what to teach.

"For the legislature, we're the ones who control the money, and sometimes we need to be able to say to the educators: 'You should teach this,' " Collins says.

The hearing will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow before the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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