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NYC's Irish Hunger Memorial Pays Tribute to Victims of Potato Famine - 2002-08-16

The Irish potato famine has been called the single biggest social catastrophe of the nineteenth century. One million people died, and more than 1.5 million emigrated, a great many of them to New York. A new memorial in downtown Manhattan is honoring them, and their struggle.

Between the years 1847 and 1851, nearly 900,000 Irish arrived in New York City. They were fleeing the Irish potato famine, the result of a blight in 1845 which left millions of Irish starving, homeless, or dead.

It is in their honor that the Irish Hunger Memorial in lower Manhattan was conceived. Unveiled in July, it is 1/10th of a hectare patch of long grass, raised some 7.6 meters off the ground, and containing the stony ruins of an Irish cottage.

New York-based artist Brian Tolle, who designed the memorial, explained that the inspiration for the design came from his visits to remote and desolate parts of Ireland where evidence of the devastating famine still remain.

"The isolation of standing there with a small group of people in this vast place that had once been a lively place, and was completely vacant," he said. "And I thought, there's something in that absence [of people] that's very, very powerful."

Mr. Tolle decided he wanted the memorial to reflect this absence of life, and so chose not to include any figures of people in it.

The decrepit stone cottage that is the centerpiece of the memorial was actually transplanted from Ireland.

"Those ruins were previously located in Parish Attymass, which is in Mayo County," explains James Gill, chairman of the group that oversaw the project. "It was in Parish Attymass that the first reports of death resulting from the potato blight emanated. So the structure we have there, which has been reconstituted in exactly the same way it stood when it was in Attymass, is there right on our premises. I get goose-flesh when I think of that."

Mr. Gill said Brian Tolle's concept was "instantly and unanimously seized upon" by his executive committee when it came time to choose a design.

The size of the memorial is symbolic. The government at the time of "the great hunger" ruled that anyone with land holdings in excess of one-tenth of a hectare would be ineligible for government relief. The location of the memorial is also symbolic. It is in full view of the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island, where most of the Irish fleeing the famine first arrived. There are 32 stones representing each of the counties of the Irish isle.

The memorial is located just one block west of where the World Trade Center once stood. Mr. Tolle said that work ceased on the memorial on September 11, but not immediately.

"I was on site when one of the masons spotted the first plane coming down over Stuyvesant High School," recalled Mr. Tolle. "So, we looked up and watched the building impacted by the first plane. What's strange about the horror of that moment is that it was so huge, and so impossible to digest at that moment, that some of the men on my site went back to work setting stones."

Since the memorial officially opened in July, Brian Tolle says it gets about 1,000 visitors a day. Many come because they have their roots in Ireland. Others, like cellist Lawrence Zoernig, simply happen upon it.

"It seems to be very beautifully constructed and well-thought out," he said. "I think it's an important thing that they've built this, and I hope that it will illuminate what happened in the past in Ireland, and that it will also, perhaps, illuminate the fact that many people are still going hungry today in the world, and in America, and in New York City."

Unlike a statue or a plaque, Brian Tolle says, the grass and soil of the Irish Hunger Memorial is full of life. If it is not maintained over the years, it will die.