Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Irish Hunger Memorial

The Irish Hunger Memorial is in Battery Park City, on the west side of lower Manhattan. Approaching it from the southeast, one gets the impression of a sod and boulder covered spaceship having crashed to earth there.


Supporting the slab that holds the stone and earth above are walls of black stone striated with white bands on which are quotations about the Irish famine and other instances of starvation or mass death caused or exacerbated by government policy.


The entrance is through a tunnel lined by the same striated walls bearing more quotations. The effect is supposed to be like entering one of the ancient Irish barrow graves; having visited Newgrange, I can attest to its success.

On entering the tunnel, one hears part of a continuous taped program that includes voices reading commentary about the famine, poetry, singers performing ballads a capella and mournful tunes played on keening tin whistle.

At the far end of the tunnel, one emerges into the roofless ruin of a typical Irish farmer's cottage of the time of the famine. This is the actual ruin of the Slack family cottage, which was taken apart, shipped to New York and reassembled.


On leaving the cottage, one steps onto a path that follows a reverse "S" shaped course to the top of the Memorial. The ground through which the path wends is covered with plants native to Ireland, grown from seeds brought from there. Strewn among the plants are large stones, each inscribed with the name of its county of origin.


Rounding the first curve of the "S", one comes to face a standing stone engraved with the cross of St. Brendan.


Brendan was a sixth century Irish monk who, according to tradition, set out on a seven year sea voyage with several other monks in a currach, a frail vessel made of oxhide stretched over a framework of sticks. Legend has it that Brendan and his companions reached a distant island, which some now believe to have been in the Canaries and others think was Newfoundland. In 1976, an adventurer named Tim Severin set out from Ireland in a currach built to the same specifications as those made in the sixth century, and did manage to reach Newfoundland in June of 1977. An account of his voyage is here.

If Brendan did land in the New World, he was four centuries ahead of Lief Ericsson, and odds on the first European to make the voyage. Perhaps more significantly, he pioneered the route taken centuries later by many thousands of his compatriots, the largest number of which left their native land because of the Great Hunger of the late 1840s, which, through starvation and emigration, reduced Ireland's poplation by one fourth, and which increased the population of New York City by an appreciable amount.