LETTER FROM AMERICA: A ruined cottage has been brought stone by stone from Mayo to the US and rebuilt as a Famine memorial in Manhattan. Patrick Smyth visited it
Down on the lower tip of west Manhattan, in Battery Park, there's now a field that is for ever Ireland. Mayo, to be precise, but with a stone from each of the 32 counties.
The dedication on Tuesday by President McAleese of the remarkable Irish Hunger Memorial was somewhat eclipsed at home by news of the IRA's apology. But the occasion deserves better.
Attended by hundreds of Irish-Americans, it was a moving tribute to a major art work whose resonance will be felt for generations, a cultural celebration of significance far beyond this city or Ireland.
Not least it will be a glaring challenge to the city to improve on the drab alternatives proposed this week to remember September 11th at Ground Zero only two blocks away.
In a rave review, the New York Time's critic Roberta Smith declared that the memorial "could be New York City's equivalent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, an unconventional work of public art that strikes a deep emotional chord, sums up its artistic moment for a broad audience, and expands the understanding of what a public memorial can be".
She sees in it "the tradition of the war memorial in the form of a deserted battlefield. Like those at Verdun and Gettysburg . . . a figure-less terrain in which the viewer stands in for the heroic statue." That sense of a memorial as more than a static statement about the past was echoed in Mrs McAleese's moving speech, in which she talked of Ireland as a "First World country with a Third World memory", and the irresponsibilities that flowed from that. Others spoke of Ground Zero and of the indomitable spirit the two places reflect. It is a remarkable tribute to the memorial that it can conjure up so many meanings.
At a human level too it was great to meet Chris Slack, the 57-year-old Mayo teacher, who was born in the house which has been transplanted here stone by stone to be rebuilt on the small field that is the memorial. The house, dating from the 1820s, is the gift of the Slack family from the townland of Carrodoogan, Attymass, near Ballina. Both he and his brother, Tom, a farmer, were here for the occasion and he expressed delight at the final result.
The visitor walks straight from street level on to the sloping field, up uneven stones to a path. The vegetation, grasses, reeds, tiny wildflowers and heathers, is sparse, but 62 species, including wild yellow iris, nettle and blackthorn, were imported from Connemara to what must be an uncertain fate in the Manhattan sun. And the land is corrugated, suggesting the grassed-over farrows of a potato field.
The slope is sufficient to raise the gaze above New York's familiar skyline to an empty sky, reinforcing the sense of being transported to another place. And it gives the field the appearance from a distance of an object presented for inspection on a plinth, without which the whole memorial would have seemed anomalous, a jarring patch of waste ground.
Then the visitor either climbs on up the other half of the quarter-acre to a pilgrim's standing stone and the field stone wall that overlooks the Hudson River and Ellis and Liberty Islands, or turns right into the ruined cottage.
Only inside the latter does it become apparent that there is another way out, through the back of the cottage and down under the field into a dark tomb-like tunnel that also opens out on the river.
The black brick walls of this passage-tomb are divided by long glass strips, through which can be read backlit snatches from eyewitness texts of the time or of current famines. A tape track uses actors' voices to bear similar witness, or musicians. These elements can and will be changed as the monument's curators see the need, either just to provide fresh quotations or to bring attention to new tragedies.
One of the texts, from a 1847 letter by William Carleton, seems to capture the memorial's chilling effect uncannily. "A brooding stillness, too, lay over all nature," he wrote. "Cheerfulness had disappeared. Even the grass and hedges were silent, for the very birds had ceased to sing and the earth seemed as if it mourned for the approaching calamity, as well as for that which had already been felt."
From the river promenade the black walls rise 25 feet to support the massive, jutting concrete base of the field, suggesting from afar, perhaps, the prow of a boat. Not far from here were the docks where, between 1847 and 1851, many of the 848,000 Irish who came to New York landed. Alternatively it can be seen from the river perspective as a sort of giant version of the cross-sections beloved of geography textbooks.
Underpinning a living field, epitomising nature's work, an intensely ordered support structure of bricks, very much made by man, suggests the underlying reality of the Famine as a man-made construct.
The conception and supervision of the monument's execution is the work of New York artist, Brian Tolle (38) - one quarter from Armagh - who won a design competition and speaks of it as an ever-changing "living memorial", "an acknowledgement of the past that can be a catalyst to look to the future". It lives both as a piece of nature, and an evolving, constantly updated commentary and call to conscience on famine.
Above all, he says: "I didn't want another sculpture of a man on a horse and people asking who is that guy?" Tolle has sensibly avoided two other pitfalls - the temptation to depict the Famine through stick-like images of the hungry, and the easy but controversial "Holocaust" comparisons, rows about which bedevilled the mid-1990s debate on the inclusion of the Famine in the New York school curriculum.
The memorial was very much the brainchild of the state's half-Irish Governor George Pataki. Indeed, he claimed on Tuesday the memorial idea had come to him on holiday on his mother's family farm in Louth with the Battery Park City Authority's CEO, Tim Carey. The two men pushed through its $5 million funding, and his association with the project will certainly do Pataki no harm in the Irish community in the November elections, despite his (American) Republican colours.