Enduring Hunger: Memorialising the Irish Famine Overseas

In the mid 1990s, the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine inspired Irish diaspora communities around the globe to commemorate the deaths of more than one million persons and the displacement of more than two million. These communities were faced with a challenge: how do we publicly memorialise death and survival? Is there a way to both commemorate the suffering of those who died and celebrate the courage and industry of those who transformed their new homelands? Should the experience be emotional and troubling (and thus risk alienating viewers) or subtle and intellectual (and risk being ignored)? Two monuments and an innovative museum offer thoughtful responses.

The potato blight, in the form of a previously unknown fungus, reached Ireland in August 1845. The crop loss worsened in 1846, and the following year (Black ‘47) was the height of devastation and starvation. The crop slowly improved, but Ireland struggled to recover. Over the course of a decade, the island lost a third of its population to death and migration; indeed, the population of Ireland today is still below its pre-Famine levels. While individuals and organisations from India to North America reacted to this calamity with sympathy and generosity, the British government’s response was inept and cold-hearted. During a previous food shortage, the government halted exports; yet remarkably and tragically, Britain required Ireland to continue exporting grain throughout the Famine era. Poor tenant farmers were thrown off the land and forced into meaningless work projects. Britain’s long history of unequal law, anti-Catholicism, and Irish caricature worsened the situation.[1]

Most Irish who left their homeland—if they survived the ‘coffin ships’ that carried many of them overseas—settled in Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Descendants of these immigrants spearheaded movements in the 1990s to create memorials in all of these lands.[2]

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial. Photo by Tom McLean.

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial. Photo by Tom McLean.

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial (1998) is hard to miss. It stands in a small green spot in Downtown Crossing, along Boston’s Freedom Trail and across the street from the Old South Meeting House (famed for its Boston Tea Party associations). The most prominent elements of the memorial are two bronze groups of three figures each by American sculptor Robert Shure. One group, victims of the Famine, appear in tattered clothes and on the verge of death. The mother raises one arm and calls out to the heavens; her husband is bent over in despair; their child looks forlornly at an empty basket. A few metres away, on a similar plinth, a second family, clean and neatly dressed, and seemingly standing for those Irish who escaped to Boston, appear to be walking away from the distressed group, though the mother has caught sight of them. Plaques provide historical information about the Famine and the poor treatment Irish initially received in the United States. The sculpture seems to endorse the need to remember—the woman’s eyes are squarely on the suffering family left behind—but also the need to move forward. There’s no suggestion that she’s going to persuade her son and husband to aid the others. Their separate platforms reinforce the difficulty or impossibility of reuniting. It’s a brave monument that some find powerful and others unpleasant. During my visit, a strange parallel played out: while homeless men and women chatted at the park benches, oblivious tourists texted and took pictures, and pigeons gorged on dropped sushi rolls.

On the other side of the globe, the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine (1999) takes a different tack. The memorial is an addition to the Hyde Park Barracks, a museum I’ve discussed in a previous article. Built to home transported convicts, the barracks served as the centre to another complex story of colonial migration after the potato blight hit Ireland. Under Earl Grey’s Famine Orphan Scheme, Britain sent more than 4000 destitute young women from Irish workhouses to the Australian colonies between 1848 and 1850. Grey hoped the scheme would address the shortage of wives and domestic servants in the colonies and reduce the number of workhouse residents in Ireland. But colonials resented the new immigrants, and the scheme ended when the discovery of gold brought a new wave of immigrants who were able to pay their own way.

Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine. Photo by Tom McLean.

Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine. Photo by Tom McLean.

While the Sydney monument, designed by Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, calls to mind all who were affected by the Famine, it does so by focusing on these women, some of whom lived in the former barracks building. Part of the sandstone wall that surrounds the old barracks has been seemingly cut away and turned 45 degrees, the open spaces filled with glass panels etched with the names of 420 Irish women who lived there in the late 1840s and 1850s. As the visitor walks along the glass wall, the etched names become barely legible and then altogether vanish, suggesting both the fading and disappearance of these individuals from our collective memory. A table of bronze protrudes from either side of the manipulated sandstone wall: on the outside the table supports a bowl with no bottom; a farm tool and bag of potatoes sits nearby. On the inside, a plate, spoon and stool suggestive of the type used by these new arrivals accompany a shelf with books and sewing basket. The construction makes it impossible to take in both parts in one viewing; it can be whole only in memory. By (literally) connecting the monument to the Barracks Museum, the sculptors fuse two related narratives in Australia’s immigrant history. They also fuse two receptacles of cultural memory: the monument and the museum. The result is meditative rather than tragic, more artful (the bottomless bowl is a surrealist nightmare) and more open to interpretation. Unlike the Boston monument, it’s relatively isolated and easy to ignore: traffic zips by on Albert Road’s six lanes. My only companions were an older couple and a group of skateboarders.

Perhaps the most ambitious product of the 150th anniversary is Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. The museum sits outside New Haven, Connecticut, and endeavours to tell the story of the Irish Famine and diaspora through Irish and Irish-American art, supporting historical documents, and small-scale models of many of the Famine memorials that appeared in the late 1990s. This struck me as an interesting hybrid of museum and monument, one that might bring together the emotional impact of Boston’s memorial with the intellectual artistry of Sydney’s monument. On a Sunday afternoon last July I took a city bus from Yale’s leafy campus to the northern suburb of Hamden.

I was already intrigued by the name. While Great Hunger is a literal translation of the Irish an Gorta Mór, the word Hunger puts the emphasis on individual, material experience rather than the more abstract and passive Famine. Hunger also offers metaphorical possibilities that Famine lacks: hunger in the belly, but also hunger for understanding how such a calamity could occur. Perhaps hunger for revenge as well.

John Behan’s Famine Ship (2000). Photo by Tom McLean.

John Behan’s Famine Ship (2000). Photo by Tom McLean.

I was also intrigued by the history and location. In 1997 the President of Quinnipiac University, John L. Lahey, spoke frequently about the need to remember the Famine. He gained the attention of Marvin and Murray Lender, of Lender’s Bagels fame, who became the museum’s key benefactors. I found it fascinating that the sons of a Jewish immigrant from Poland would recognise the importance of such a museum. The museum itself is a converted public library that sits on a noisy stretch of suburban strip malls and auto shops. It’s easy to miss: the bus driver had never heard of the museum, even though he passes it every day. But the modest exterior belies the important institution within. Yale’s Center for British Art has the greatest collection of English art in North America in a grand, modern setting. I liked the idea that one of Connecticut’s other fine universities, Quinnipiac, would offer a collection of Irish art to challenge the beautiful narrative presented seven miles south.

Visitors descend into the museum: the entrance level, offering nineteenth-century prints and paintings and an introductory video, is below ground. There’s a slightly claustrophobic feel to the space; design elements suggest a burial ground, but it also brought to mind the hull of a ship. An internal stairway leads to a light-filled exhibition space of mostly contemporary art. Some of the works on display directly reference the Famine; others do so obliquely; still other works simply portray Irish life over the past 170 years. As noted above, one strength is the museum’s collection of models of memorial sculptures (including the Boston memorial) and related works commissioned for the museum. If future historians see the 1990s as the moment the Anglophone world finally recognised the enormous costs of the Irish Famine, then Quinnipiac’s museum will be an irreplaceable record of that shift.

Some works draw surprising connections between oppressed peoples. Kieran Tuohy’s elongated sculpture of bog oak, Thank you to the Choctaw (2005), commemorates the generosity of Native Americans who sent US$170 to Ireland in 1847. Other works, like Lillian Lucy Davidson’s early twentieth-century Burying the Child, which invokes Picasso’s blue period to portray the saddest human endeavour, and Micheal Farrell pop-inflected Black ’47, where a cartoon dog invades a courtroom indictment of British official Charles Trevelyan, suggest how later aesthetic styles reinterpret Famine history.

Perhaps the most striking work in the collection is John Behan’s Famine Ship (2000), a model of Behan’s National Famine Memorial in Ireland. During my visit the work was accompanied by a large photograph of the actual memorial and vivid sketches by the artist. Museum descriptions call attention to the three masts that evoke the three Calvary crosses. I was more struck by the floating skeletal figures, suggesting the starving humans carried on the boats but also the dead left behind that must have haunted them on the journey. Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—a poem almost certainly inspired by the slave trade—came to my mind, suggesting how Behan’s work opens up a longer history of nightmarish sea migrations.

As this too brief description suggests, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum leans toward the representational and narratable rather than the abstract and ambiguous. It’s more Boston than Sydney. But it’s an innovative and promising enterprise. I hope future donations and acquisitions bring in Canadian and Australian perspectives. I also hope the directors find room for artists whose families immigrated to Ireland after the Famine—from Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe. There should be a way to retain a meaningful focus while also exploring both Ireland’s past and its future. I’ll be watching.

[1] The website of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum provides a useful starting point for anyone wishing to explore the history of the Famine.

[2] Dr Emily Mark-Fitzgerald has created a wonderful website of images and information about Famine Memorials. I have not yet read her book, Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument (Liverpool, 2013), but it sounds equally valuable.

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2 comments

  1. Good article Tom. Great to get this information out to the public. I’d just like you and your readers to be aware that there were NEVER any ‘coffin ships’ to Australia. emigration to the long-haul destination of the Australian colonies was organised, people were fed, had to have an outfit of clothing and almost all paid something toward their passage, if only supplying an outfit. These were not the poorest of the poor except the Workhouse orphan girls whose passage and clothing was sponsored by the Poor Law Guardians and the colony. Perry McIntyre

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  2. Tony Eyre · · Reply

    Nice work Tom. It makes me want to get on and read Thomas Keneally’s “The Great Shame which has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time. Your piece also brings back memories to me of visiting a famine memorial site in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim when I visited Ireland in 2010. It was the first time I had seen a “famine pot”. It was inscribed: “In memory of those who died in Manorhamilton workhouse during the Great Famine 1845-1849.” The pots look very like the whaling pots used by Weller Bros in Otago’s whaling days, although their uses were entirely different.

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