Supporters testify for potato famine bill Panel told students need lesson on Irish starvation

January 22, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Fallston High School teacher Vincent Nastro looks at history classrooms in Harford County and throughout Maryland, he fails to see much being taught about the Irish potato famine.

"We have pointed out that the Irish potato famine is not included [in the state's core learning goals] when certain other acts of genocide are included, such as the Holocaust," Nastro told the state Senate Committee of Economic and Environmental Affairs yesterday. "As a historian, I think the history of this has been ignored."

Nastro testified in support of a proposal to require all Maryland elementary and secondary schools to teach children about Ireland's mass starvation of the 1840s.

While more than two dozen members of Maryland's Irish-American community joined Nastro, the proposal also encountered opposition from educators who said the legislature should steer clear of setting curriculum.

"My concern is that if you include this topic, who else will be next to request you include other topics?" asked Peggy Altoff, Carroll County's supervisor of social studies and executive director of the Maryland Council for the Social Studies. "And if we include, what are we going to exclude, because there are only 180 days in the school year?"

The Irish potato famine refers to the period from 1845 to 1850 when 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 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 starved, though historians have argued for years over the degree of British responsibility.

State Sen. Perry Sfikas, the Baltimore Democrat who is the bill's chief sponsor, said that "as legislators, we need to ensure children learn about contemporary human rights by learning about past tragedies."

"It is as if in the curriculum there is a gaping hole for so many of our citizens of Irish descent," said Michael May, president of the Irish Heritage Society.

Supporters of the bill say that similar proposals have been approved by at least five other states and are pending in the legislatures of several others.

But those similar bills have upset the British government, which has said that Irish-American groups that equate the famine with genocide are trying to stir up anger against England. No one from the British government testified at yesterday's hearing.

Altoff, the Carroll County social studies supervisor, insisted to the committee that the Irish potato famine is taught in social studies classes as one of the reasons for immigration to the United States. She also said it is included in the state's learning core goals under that area.

But Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the committee, suggested that the legislature sometimes needs to get involved in curriculum because educators take too long to make changes.

"What a bill like this does is upset the apple cart a little bit," Blount said. "It shakes things up so they will focus on it."

Blount said he will ask the committee to vote on the bill today.Several committee members said they expect it to be approved and sent to the Senate.

A similar bill is expected to be sponsored in the House of Delegates by Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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