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Famine Memorial a Haunting Vision
by Tom Deignan
The haunting Irish Hunger Memorial, to be unveiled on Tuesday, July 16 in downtown Manhattan, offers visitors a stunning view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. This is fitting, given that these landmarks have greeted generations of Irish immigrants to New York City.
Sadly, however, as visitors will learn when the Hunger Memorial officially opens, your eyes cannot avoid another site Ground Zero, just footsteps from the memorials Battery Park City location at Vesey Street and North End Avenue, on the banks of the Hudson River.
Back when ground was broken for the $5 million, 1/2 acre memorial on St. Patricks Day 2001, the ceremonies were held in the shadow of the Twin Towers. The memorial, shepherded by Governor George Pataki and officials at the heavily Irish American Battery Park City Authority, was to open St. Patricks Day 2002. Of course, September 11 intruded.
You can come down here and reflect on the Famine. You can come down here and reflect on September 11, says Dr. Maureen Murphy, the projects historian.
So, when public officials, musicians and dignitaries gather on the 16th, just one block from Ground Zero, to unveil a memorial to the Hunger which killed over 1 million Irish, it will be a solemn occasion to say the least.
Still, during a private tour of the Irish Hunger Memorial last week, officials told the Irish Voice that New Yorkers should be proud to have this world-class, state-of-the-art memorial in their backyards. To have it so close to the site where nearly 3,000 people perished on September 11, many of them Irish American, merely heightens emotions the memorial is meant to evoke.
You can come down here and reflect on the Famine. You can come down here and reflect on September 11, says Dr. Maureen Murphy, the projects historian, whose knees and work gloves were stained brown with soil on the day the Irish Voice toured the memorial site.
Visitors will be able to stroll onto the Hunger Memorial at street level, before slowly winding up a dirt road which ultimately rises nearly 30 feet. The site was patterned after ruins - as well as information gathered by folklorists - in Attymass, County Mayo. But Adrian Flannelly, the Irish radio personality who is also the projects cultural liaison, says, Really, this could be (a ruin) anywhere in rural Ireland. Flannelly has a more-than-professional attachment to New Yorks Hunger memorial. His father, Patrick, was one of the educators who helped gather information about living conditions in Attymass after the Famine. When the Hunger memorial opens on July 16, visitors will be stunned at this burst of greenery amidst the concrete and asphalt of Battery Park City. Only after you get over the initial view will you be able to appreciate the degree to which the site truly looks like a Famine-era ruin, with the leveled cottage and stone walls, and winding road lined with plants native to Ireland.
The greenery is one reason why James F. Gill, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority referred to the site as a living memorial.
Gill added, Its very emotional to have this magnificent piece of Ireland here in New York City. But for all its 19th Century trappings, make no mistake about it the Irish Hunger Memorial is very much a 21st Century historical exhibit.
According to Brian Tolle, the artist who won the fierce competition to design the Irish Hunger Memorial, it is important that visitors learn not just about the Irish Famine, but hunger in the contemporary world. Its a living alert, a center for hunger around the world, says Tolle, whose design was inspired by a trip to Co. Mayo following his selection. What happened in Ireland in the 1840s should never be repeated anywhere in the world.
According to Tolles design, the road winds upward to what seems a cliffs edge, overlooking the Hudson. Visitors can also descend into the abandoned two-room cottage. However, if you stroll around the exhibit, you will be able to read passages from history books, or Famine-era political debates on the structures wall. You will also hear songs about immigration, or even hear news updates about contemporary famine, thanks to the memorials audio component.
Tolle wanted to do more than just post bland, written descriptions about dates and places. The Irish Hunger Memorial will actually be updated, with new and different writings.
Meanwhile, the memorial is also handicap-accessible, which allowed Tolle and his team to create a powerful entrance hall into the cottage, with its hearth and bed space. Inside the entrance hall there will be additional writing and audio. As Tolle put it, This is not just some guy on a horse.
Of course, there have been raging debates about the extent to which the British were to blame for the Great Hunger. Tolle hopes to address this problem by offering a diversity of information at the Hunger Memorial. Well put it all out there and let the visitor decide, said Tolle, who discovered, while designing the Famine Memorial, that his family tree includes Irish Catholics named Brady, who emigrated from Armagh.
What is not up for debate is the huge amount of material from Ireland which went into this memorial. Though most of the stones are from Mayo, all 32 Irish counties are represented by rocks on the site.
Many of the plants, meanwhile, are not only native to Irish soil, but they were actually grown from Irish seeds. Kilkenny stones have been used for the walkway, while limestone from Clare was used to build the walls.
Once it is unveiled on July 16 at 11 a.m., the Irish Famine Memorial will be open from sunrise to 1 a.m., as with most Battery Park facilities. However, the cottage interior will be closed and gated earlier. Though it was still being planned, officials promised a gala opening. Irish musicians, as well as performers from the Irish Arts Center and Irish Repertory Theater will be on hand. Irish President Mary McAleese will also travel here for the opening.
Many elected officials will be on hand as well. But Flannelly said New Yorkers who appreciate the Irish Hunger Memorial should understand the prominent role Governor Pataki played in its completion. This is George Patakis baby, Flannelly said, adding that the governor was moved when he visited Ireland with his children and Irish American mother.
Flannelly also credited The Battery Park City Authority. Its no wonder. Look at their names, Flannelly said with a smile. Aside from Chairman James Gill, the Battery Park City Authority leadership also includes Irish American Tim Carey (president and CEO), while the memorials Executive Committee was made of William F. Plunkett, Paul J. Curran, Michael Finnegan, Sister Brigid Driscoll, Thomas Moran, Margaret Pataki and William Whelan.
Remarks of Irish President, Mary McAleese
Governor Pataki, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be back in New York and to be here as we celebrate a great, but poignant occasion. Poignant, because the Irish Famine represented such a wrenching disturbance of the course of Irish history, and poignant because of our proximity to the devastation of the World Trade Centre. Doesn't it seem almost prophetic though, that the site for the Irish Famine Memorial should be in the memory-shadow of that tragic absence that is the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The spirit of the people of this city now fills that space with their courage, generosity, kindness, resilience and decency.
That spirit took the tragedy visited upon this country by the poison of human hatred and turned it spontaneously into the triumph of love. There can be no better next-door neighbour for the new memorial, for this is now an area where a bustling noisy city, silently but powerfully holds its most sacred memories. Against that backdrop both physical and psychological, the Irish Famine Memorial evokes memories of a dreadful time in nineteenth century Ireland that is tragically repeated today in so many parts of our 21st century global homeland. The monument is an outward call to conscience and to responsibility, daring us, challenging us to care about the stranger in far off lands who is dying right now of hunger, who is wondering does anyone care and who despairs for his or her children and their future.
Human solidarity could not give life back to those who died on September 11th but it gave hope to those who survived. Human solidarity cannot recreate the millions of lives wasted through poverty, hunger and disease but it gives us hope that we can together consign them to history - we can by our efforts and our care help our world to reveal its truest strength, its truest potential when all its children are nourished, educated, housed and living through times of peace and prosperity. An illusion, a pipe dream? Only if we walk past on the other side and when this city was tested there were none who walked on by.
Many people have worked with a real passion to make this event possible. Each is a champion of those far-off strangers who is hoping for a new and better day. Each, is a champion of our own Irish famine dead whose sad lives seemed then to be so shrouded in indignity and worthlessness. You have vindicated their suffering, made it a resource for good, conferred on them not just a righteous dignity but an opportunity to be the provokers of global change, the bringers of global care. I would like to thank Governor Pataki in particular, for the personal interest he has taken in this remarkable venture. It demonstrates, not just his deep appreciation for things Irish, but also in a wider context, his commitment to raising awareness about world hunger, both through the teaching of the famine curriculum in New York public schools, and in supporting the magnificent memorial which we will dedicate tomorrow.
I would also like to congratulate, Jim Gill, President of the Battery Park City Authority, and CEO, Tim Carey, who, along with their dedicated committee, have been the driving force behind this project. I commend all of those who have worked so hard, both here in the US and in Ireland, to realise this splendid work of public art. The Slack family from Attymass, Co. Mayo, who donated the cottage for the memorial, and who are with us this evening surely deserve special mention as does Brian Tolle who has transformed the cottage into a new conscience at the heart of New York for the suffering, hungry people of our world. Little did those who first built that little humble cottage dream that it would grace such a different quarter acre site, on the banks of the Hudson river and in the absent shadow of the tragic World Trade Centre.
The reaction in Ireland to that awful September 11th day carried with it manifest traces of the past we share from those grim famine days when so many of our people came to this city with nothing but the breath in their bodies, the memory of death and the hope of the desperate. Generations of their children have prospered and we in Ireland are immensely proud of the success of our Irish family here. We are grateful too for the unfathomable contributions they have made to life at home in Ireland. Your success gave us faith in ourselves. Your support gave us a lifeline to a new future. Your showcasing of Irish identity and Irish culture gave us renewed pride in our heritage and with your help that heritage is deepened, enriched and widened in every generation.
Ireland was once cursed by starvation and poverty in the same way that so many still are cursed today. The folk memory of our own loss has never faded from the Irish psyche which is why you will find Irish men and women working in every part of the world where there is famine, working to bring hope where there is only despair. But there is a job to be done in building up the conscience, restoring the memory, ensuring that we do not forget, putting the sorry state of our brothers and sisters in front of us where we can see it, where we can reflect and respond. That is the job this memorial is about. WB Yeats put it so well:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Those who tread the half acre will meet the strangers on whose dreams they tread and as they make their way home we hope that in their hearts will be lodged a new and unforgettable memory and a new vision they each can commit to of a world where hunger is a memory and where happiness is in the grasp of all. Go raibh maith agaibh.
Transcript provided by the Consulate General of Ireland, obtained and forwarded by The Wild Geese Today, Chronicling the Epic History and Heritage of the Irish. You can find coverage and photos from today's dedication of the long-awaited New York Hunger Memorial on their pages -- where you'll also find Irish History, Non-Stop, Worldwide.
Note: We would like to thank Tom Deignan for his kind permission to reprint this article which first appeared in the Irish Voice
Feature Image: Ellis Island
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