$1m Famine memorial a monument to kitsch

 

Last Sunday in Boston, Minister of State Seamus Brennan unveiled a memorial to the Irish Famine - and about time, too. The Famine is a central part of the city's history. When Irish refugees landed on its quayside, Boston was the archetypal white AngloSaxon Protestant city with no significant immigrant community. By the 1880s, close to half of the city's population was Irish.

The potato blight is as crucial to Boston's history as is the Tea Party. With the streets full of tributes to Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Han cock and the other founding fathers of the American Revolution, it is only proper a much more harrowing act of foundation should be duly marked.

About 7,000 people turned out for the unveiling at the corner of Washington Street and School Street in downtown Boston. The usual paraphernalia were in evidence: green sweatshirts, Tricolours, the stars and stripes, the Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipe Band, glad-handing politicians. The newspapers gathered the usual quotes: "It's a wonderful day to be Irish"; "I feel today a sense of pride that I have never felt in my life before."

Seamus Brennan played up the feel-good factor by assuring the crowd that "We are building in Ireland today a mature, modern nation in the European Union." The very fact that we can now acknowledge the Famine was, he said, evidence of this. "An ability to face our past . . . is part of a maturing Irish identity throughout the world."

There is, though, just one problem. The actual monument, the permanent mark of this global, maturing Irish identity, is a dreadful piece of kitsch. Beautifully crafted kitsch, certainly. Expensive kitsch - it cost a million dollars - but kitsch nonetheless. It shows not an ability to face our past, but a complete inability to imagine it. As a memorial to the dead, it offers pious cliches and dead conventions. As an effort to confront a national trauma, it shows a depressing immaturity.

The monument is the work of Robert Shure, an American sculptor who does the kind of heroic but realistic statues which governments love to commission. Corporations, churches and state institutions like him. He did a statue of George Washington which stands inside the Washington Monument in the nation's capital. He did a giant teddy bear for the Boston store of the toy chain F.A.O. Schwartz. The official description of Shure's monument to the Famine gives a pretty accurate impression: "two life-size sculptures, one depicting a family leaving Ireland's shores, impoverished and desperate, and another depicting a family arriving in Boston, filled with hope and determination." It really is as banal as that.

The first group is dominated by a young woman clad in what are meant to be rags but seem more like a rather cool summer dress. She is looking skywards in what might be either a conventional appeal to God or wonderment at the sigh ting of a UFO. Around her are slumped other figures and an empty woven basket. The basket is a simple, eloquent image, but the people might be Jews weeping in Babylonian captivity, Trojans mourning the fall of their city or, come to think of it, England fans devastated by David Batty's missed penalty.

The sculpture is, in other words, a mere exercise in generalised neo-classical forms, an illustration of the theme "Dejection". It bears no relation ship to the words on the nearby plaque, taken from William Carleton's eyewitness description of Famine victims: "The features of the people were gaunt, their eyes wild and hollow, and their gait feeble and tottering." Nothing here evokes the empty, ghostly, inhuman forms that we know far too well from television footage of contemporary famines. The effect is sentimental, demanding from the viewer an emotional response that has not actually been created by the work.

The second group, "filled with hope and determination", is much, much worse. Four beefy, well-fed people, two adults and two children, arrive at Boston waterfront and stride purposefully forward towards the American Dream. Think of High Stalinist statues of heroic workers. Think of Maoist depictions of the glorious peasantry marching towards the utopian future. Think, even, of pure Aryan stock parading into the Thousand-Year Reich.

Somehow, having gone down into the hold of a coffin ship as starving refugees and endured a nightmarish passage across the Atlantic, this family has, at the mere touch of American soil, acquired flesh on its bones, a set to its jaw and hope in its heart. Sure, it seems to say, the blight might have been bad at the time, but if it hadn't been for that little taste of starvation, typhoid and eviction, we'd never have come to America in the first place. We'd still be digging spuds on the side of some rain-swept mountain.

I don't think there's any other culture that would accept such blithely optimistic images of a terrible catastrophe in its history. I certainly can't envisage Jews being happy with a Holocaust memorial that juxtaposed statues of people in Auschwitz with sculptures of a rugged, healthy family striding through Jerusalem, implying that the tragedy had, after all, a happy ending.

Yet the terrible thing is that Shure's monument is, as far as I can tell, entirely uncontroversial. It was chosen in an international competition by a unanimous vote of the committee of business people and Irish-American activists set up to bring the project to fruition, and it's clear that a heavy-handed, literal message is exactly what the organisers wanted. Paul O'Brien, a member of the organising committee, told the Boston Globe it "pushed for a memorial that would be easy to comprehend". The Irish, he went on, "are nothing if not to the point". Part of the point here was "focusing on the Irish triumph over adversity".

The awkward reality is that those most profoundly affected by the Famine didn't triumph over adversity. They died. So did their world, but if you want the deaths of a million people and the implosion of a culture to be easy to comprehend, you're going to end up with something trite and fatuous.

If you think the Irish are incapable of understanding anything open, complex or ambiguous, any decent work of art, in other words, then you are going to give them stylised poses and sentimental posturing. If you don't think people on the street are capable of contemplating for a moment the awesome suffering that is woven into the creation of a "modern nation in the European Union", then you're going to offer the vapid consolation that everything was all right in the end.

But if this is the best that you can do, don't ask, at the same time, to be congratulated on the maturity of "Irish identity around the world".

A mature culture is one which can, among other things, create complex images of its own past. Three years into the 150th anniversary of the Famine, there's not much sign that Irish culture, at home or abroad, is capable of doing that. We prefer the past to be presented in easily comprehended parables and undemanding effigies. We can swallow them quickly and march on towards the American Dream.