New York’s Irish Hunger Memorial: Remembering One Million People
New York’s Irish Hunger Memorial has no generic plaques. No tour guides. No metallic sculptures with anguish-filled faces.
It is a “contemplative space¹,” as New York-based artist Brian Tolle, the Irish Hunger Memorial’s creator, calls it. A space that fits all one millions souls claimed, directly or indirectly, by starvation during the Great Irish Famine² (1845-1852).
The Gaelic term is more lyrical and direct: An Gorta Mór, or The Great Hunger. The Emerald Isle still feels the effect of this sad, knotted-stomach period in its history.
Ireland is likely the only country whose population in the 1840s was greater than its current population (8.1 million³ vs. 4.8 million4). The Great Hunger and the immigration it prompted are this decline’s parents.
Irish Hunger Memorial: A lock of Ireland’s hair
Cutting a lock of hair from a loved one’s head is an old custom. A physical reminder to keep our memory of them vivid.
In a sense, this is what Mr. Tolle and his project collaborators, the architects Juergen Riehm and David Piscuskas, of the firm 1100 Architects, and landscape architect Gail Wittler-Laird, did when building the Irish Hunger Memorial in 2001/2002.
In place of hair, however, they brought soil, plants, stones and a roofless cottage from Ireland. Instead of recalling times of joy, these elements were arranged so that we don’t forget this bleak period.
The result is public art at its best: educational, interesting, accessible and aesthetic. It’s engaging, too.
Irish Hunger Memorial: Gray stones, gray days
Stand back from the Irish Hunger Memorial and consider the Great Famine’s dreary days.
Perhaps it’s dawn on a foggy, Roscommon morning. Nothing to eat the night before. Some water boiled with grass, perhaps. The dirt path quakes with heavy, intimidating horses’ footfalls.
Foul-mouthed British soldiers in fouler moods atop well-fed steeds. An eviction order barked at the cottage’s inhabitants. Barefoot and shivering from another hungry, wet, roofless night. Autumnal wind chews through their rags.
The patriarch pleads, but the soldiers yield not. Nowhere to go. No help available. Nothing to eat.
What would you do? Where would you have gone? Do you doubt your heart would slam your chest as theirs surely did? Do the cottage’s rusty, creaking iron gates sound like their stomachs must have? Are the Uileann pipes’ merry notes, played in happier times, still ringing off the cottage’s rough stones?
How many fathers bled into that Irish soil during The Great Hunger? How many rivers formed from mothers’ tears? Are those droopy, swaying grasses still mourning all they witnessed?
Irish Hunger Memorial: Stone by stone, symbol upon symbol
The Irish Hunger Memorial is not the first large structure New York City has imported. There’s an obelisk and a temple from Egypt, as well as a medieval abbey and a Statue of Liberty from France.
It is, however, the first that asks us to remember a foreign calamity.
Some things to keep in mind:
- It is built on a slope so as to resemble an Irish hillside.
- Near the top, there is a cairn, a cone-shaped structure made with rocks.
- Cairns were used as markers in Ireland’s countryside.
- A Pilgrim Stone is marked with the ancient Cross of Arcs symbol. These stones mark sacred sites in western Ireland.
- Families often ripped the roof off their own homes. Why?
- The government only helped the most destitute. Having no roof “proved” your desperation.
- One quarter acre is cultivated at the memorial. Anyone occupying more than a quarter acre was ineligible for relief.
- There are 32 stones throughout the memorial, one for each Irish county.
- Each stone is carved with the name of its county of origin.
- The dark stone used in the memorial’s base is 300-million-year-old limestone mined in Kilkenny
- 62 types of plants brought from Ireland, including: blackthorn, heather, wild yellow iris, nettle, and foxglove.
- County Mayo’s Connacht boglands inspired the artist. Many of the plants were brought from that area.
- The ruts in the soil recall the failed potato harvests.
- The cottage, built in 1820, was brought from County Mayo and was donated by the Slack family.
- New York Harbor, including Ellis Island and Castle Clinton are visible from the memorial’s highest point.
- Many Irish perished aboard “coffin ships” trying to reach this picturesque harbor.
- The many thousands who died aboard them from starvation, illness and overcrowding earned the ships their nickname.
Irish Hunger Memorial: Baptism by fire
The Irish Hunger Memorial is an interpreter of great sadness. As if to confirm this, six month’s after its construction began, the World Trade Center was destroyed nearby.
At the time, some of the memorial’s stones, just arrived from Ireland, were stored near the World Trade Center. That day’s powdery mayhem blanketed the Irish stones.
Rain, snow and wind have since washed the debris away. The World Trade Center was rebuilt. Still, the Irish Hunger Memorial forms part of a Triangle of Sadness in lower Manhattan (click triangle on map).
That triangle’s two other points are the 9/11 Memorial (a 5-minute walk) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage (20 minutes), which describes itself as “A living memorial to the Holocaust.”
We tend to become tone deaf to numbers we encounter in history. Especially if they are related to deaths. The Irish Hunger Memorial makes it easy to resist that tendency and difficult to say the phrase one million deaths too easily.
The memorial reminds us that the fallen Irish stared at the same stars we do. That their sun and moon are now ours. That they, too, laughed. Sang. Sweated. Cried. Felt thirst. And hunger.
Click green pin to see the Irish Hunger Memorial’s location.
Memorial is located at corner of North End Ave. & Vesey St. in Manhattan’s Battery Park City neighborhood (in southwest Manhattan).
- Take a 1, 2 or 3 train to Chambers St. stop.
- Walk west along Chambers St. (toward Hudson River).
- Cross West Side Highway.
- After crossing West Side Highway, continue along Chambers St. until North End Ave.
- Make left onto North End Ave. and walk 4 blocks south to memorial on your right.
- About 10-15 minutes walking.
- M20 & M22 bus routes stop directly in front of memorial (Vesey St./North End Ave. stop).
- For Manhattan bus route map, see Section 9B of our New York City Public Transport Resources page.
2. The Great Irish Famine is sometimes referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. At the time, the Irish diet depended heavily on the potato. A blight did ruin the potato crop several years in a row and the resulting potato scarcity did exacerbate the famine.
To say the famine was caused by a dearth of potatoes, however, is too inaccurate. Economic and social policies, coupled with what Dr. David Nally calls “political violence” in his book, Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, share much of the blame.
See also Tim Coogan’s The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy.