Battery Park Famine memorial sparks pangs of modern recognition

New York Letter: Reconstructed Mayo cottage links to Ground Zero as icon of atrocity

Stone path and  cottage of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York.Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

Stone path and cottage of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York.Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

 

Amid the shiny skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, where Vesey Street meets Battery Park City Esplanade, a scrap of western Ireland slopes against the Hudson river.

Even if you’ve already heard about it, your first sighting of the Irish Hunger Memorial will slow your steps on the approach: there, in the shadow of One World Trade Center, sits the ruin of a Famine-era cottage in a stone-walled patchwork of soft grasses, heather, foxgloves and gorse.

Designed by artist Brian Tolle and landscape architect Gail Wittwer-Laird, the memorial, completed in 2002, is dedicated to raising awareness of the Irish Famine and to highlighting the devastation hunger has caused, and continues to cause, in so many countries.

The cottage originally stood in Attymass, Co Mayo, and was reconstructed, stone by stone, on the half-acre site as “an expression of solidarity to those who left from those who stayed behind”, according to the Battery Park City Authority.

A path meanders around the ruin and climbs a craggy landscape planted with native Irish flora to a high point that seems to reach out poignantly across the harbour towards Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

As you approach the summit of the little hill, the skyscrapers of Jersey City rise from beyond the rushes and blackthorn like an other-worldly army across the Hudson. There are marked stones from the 32 counties in various corners, and displayed on the underside of the Irish limestone plinth on which the memorial is elevated are excerpts of reports and letters dating from the Famine years as well as contemporary passages on hunger around the world.

Transported in stone

Although only steps from the honking cars and wailing sirens on West Side Highway, there’s a prevailing sense of quiet there, as though the rural Mayo environment itself had been transported along with the stones.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that this extract from William Carleton’s 1847 novel, The Black Prophet, features: “A brooding stillness, too, lay over all nature . . . even the groves and hedges were silent, for the very birds had ceased to sing, and the earth seemed as if it mourned for the approaching calamity.”

There’s a sense of quiet, as though the rural Mayo environment itself had been transported with the stones

There’s a sense, too, of one place of respectful remembrance of atrocity speaking to another: almost the entire tower of One World Trade Centre at Ground Zero is visible from the memorial, its elegant, modern angles pointing towards the grassy Irish banks a block away. On the short walk between the two sites you cannot but be struck by the universal and timeless character of grief.

The citations provide vivid, sometimes disturbing insights into how life was in Ireland some 170 years ago. James Hack Tuke, in A Visit to Connaught in the Autumn of 1847, reported: “In some cases, it is well known, when all other members of a family have perished, the last survivor has earthed up the door of his miserable cabin to prevent the ingress of pigs and dogs, and then laid himself down to die in this fearful family vault.”

The Irish Hunger Memorial with the skyscrapers of Jersey City in the background. Photograph: Chris Dooley
The Irish Hunger Memorial with the skyscrapers of Jersey City in the background. Photograph: Chris Dooley

In October 1846, the Waterford Freeman denounced the continuing thriving business of food exportation from a starving nation: “There was cleared out of the custom house in this city, for England, within the past week, 1,935 barrels of wheat and 4,279 barrels of oats, though thousands are starving in the west of this country.”

‘Starving infant’

A clearly exasperated John B Knox, editor of the Clare Journal, wrote in February 1847: “We ask does her Majesty ever read a newspaper? Does she ever cast her eye over the London Times, where the dying groans of the Irish are ridiculed, and the wail of the starving infant is laughed to scorn?”

And there are various published lists of donations to the Famine cause. In February 1847 the New York General Relief Committee reported contributions ranging from $500 from the real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, and $1,350.87 from the old St Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street, to 50 cent from “a little boy”, $10 from “a lady in Spring Street”, and $103.30 from “Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation”.

Perhaps it’s the remarks by American philanthropist Asenath Nicholson, who painted an unadorned portrait of society in Ireland back then, that speak loudest to us today, imbued with fresh relevance to world trends almost two centuries later. “Here I found a company of would-be intelligent Irish and English aristocrats who . . . were professed enemies to the poor Irish, calling them a company of low, vulgar, lazy wretches, who prefer beggary to work, and filth to cleanliness,” she wrote in her 1847 Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger. “[I]t is an established law of our nature to hate those we oppress.”

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