Some 100 people attended a dedication ceremony of the new Irish Hunger Memorial in Eugene’s Saint Joseph’s Cemetery on Saturday, Sept. 10. The memorial was the concept of the Irish Cultural Society of Stanislaus County and the San Francisco Chapter of the Irish American Unity Conference.
The cemetery is located on the Stockton-Sonora Road. Eugene was the name of the tiny community. The first settlers there were two Irishmen 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.
The Irish Famine of 1845-1851 (also known as the Great Hunger 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.
Russell Fowler of Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen’s office presented the Irish Cultural Society of Stanislaus County a Certificate of Recognition for their efforts in honoring the victims of the Irish Hunger.
More than a million people died during the Irish Hunger from 1845 to 1851, and more than a million more fled the country, mostly immigrating to America, said Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland in San Francisco.
The memorial at the cemetery on Sonora Road, the first in California, is a modest simple headstone with a plaque, but holds great importance, Grant said.
“On the East Coast the Irish were late arrivals. (They arrived) in boats starving to death, ill, uneducated, illiterate, many of them not even speaking the English language. They weren’t welcomed, they weren’t wanted, they were the wrong religion and they found themselves in the slums of the cities,” he explained. “When the Irish came to California, they were among the first pioneers … there were no cities to find themselves in the slums of; instead they built the cities.”
Grant went on to say that the rural memorial is a fitting tribute.
“It is as important to have a famine memorial in a small rural cemetery in the middle of the foothills in California as it is to have it in Boston or New York or New Orleans because this is a very important part of how a people found salvation, how a people found hope,” he said.