How Potatoes Overwhelmed the Irish Narrative
The History of Irish Migration to the Americas
Irish immigration to America began predominantly with the Great Famine. From 1845-1949, the Irish Potato Famine led to the death of over 1 million people and the dispersion of over 2 million Irish throughout the world. As a result of this great Diaspora, over 80 Famine memorials have been erected around the world, located in places like Dublin, Liverpool, Sydney, and Toronto. More specifically, monuments in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston all commemorate the event with different visual representations of Irish culture. The multitude of these specific monuments resembles how the narrative of Irish immigration to the United States is limited to the history of the Great Famine. It also shows how “memorial culture” shapes the way in which Irish Americans are represented in society; in “Valuing Immigrant Memories as Common Heritage” by Torgrim Guttormsen, memorial culture is defined as, “how a community has defined its narrative and symbols through monuments […] intended to reflect its identity […] within the society it contributes to,” (Guttormsen, 85). Using both the memorials and the concept of memory culture, this exhibit will examine how certain memorials limit or widen the narrative of Irish immigrants, affecting how they are remembered and represented in society.
The Limits of Remembrance
How Irish suffering clouds the narrative of the Great Famine
The Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a multi-faceted monument that represents the various stages of the Great Famine. Featuring 35 life-size bronze figures, the monument depicts the starvation of Irish people in Ireland, their embarking on ships to America, and their arrival onto American shores. Tied to these three stages are also the emotion of each, including the misery of the starvation, the anxiety of the journey and the hope of new life in America. What the monument does not depict, however, is the causes or political turmoil regarding the Famine. In Marian Eide’s article titled “Famine Memory and Contemporary Irish Poetry”, she discusses how this lack of information is a common trait among Irish famine memorials. Using the Dublin Famine Memorial for reference, Eide says how, “the causes of the Famine are not voiced, the politics of hunger are unexplored, the connection between colonial occupation and indigenous starvation […] is never made,” (Eide, 22). More concisely, she describes the monument as, “emptied of political history while gesturing toward cultural memory,” (Eide, 22). Comparisons between the Dublin and Philadelphia memorials can be made, as both represent the suffering of Irish immigrants but fail to reflect on the political history of the event.
How redundant imagery limits the narrative of Irish immigrants
Located in Boston, Massachusetts, the Irish Famine Memorial is a memorial park that features two statues commemorating the Great Famine; one statue shows a family dying of starvation in Ireland, while the other statue shows a family flourishing in America. The park was opened in 1998, marking the 150-year anniversary of the Great Famine. This memorial and the Philadelphia memorial represent Irish immigration in similar ways, sharing the same images of suffering and prosperity. Scholar Marion Casey writes about this such redundancy in her review of the New York Famine exhibit; she states that, “the predictability of the imagery – now practically a certificate of authenticity – is indicative of the way the Famine has been reduced to shorthand,” (Casey, 280). Casey’s analysis reinforces the idea that the shared themes and images among Famine memorials, which encapsulate the memory culture of Irish immigration, limit the narrative of Irish immigrants in America. It shows the way in which a, “group or a social community has chosen to remember the past,” (Guttormsen, 85). In this context, society has chosen to remember the history of the Great Famine focusing solely on the two contrasting feelings of devastation and prosperity. The combination of this memory culture and the variety of famine memorials shows how the narrative of Irish immigrants is greatly limited to these sentiments.
The Power of the Homeland
A new perspective to Irish migration
Lastly, the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City, New York is a Famine memorial that defies the stereotypical images of suffering Irish immigrants. The memorial is a titled 16,320-square-foot plot of land that features landscape and architecture that is unique to Ireland. A cottage and passageway are erected from limestone and over sixty plant species native to Ireland are planted among the field. In Marion R. Casey’s review of the exhibit, she describes how, “visitors stand virtually on ‘Irish’ ground, mentally and emotionally,” (Casey, 781). Rather than representing the suffering of Irish immigrants, the memorial shows the beauty of the land from which they came. It nods to the hardships caused by the hunger crisis, with, “glass bands inscribed with quotations about the Irish Famine in particular and hunger,” (Casey, 780), but does not limit the story with said suffering. In total, the exhibit widens the scope of the Irish immigration narrative and brings a new light of remembrance to the event that brought them to the Americas.
Great Famine Remembrance
Because of the severity and scope of the Great Famine, it is important to remember and commemorate the event that led to the wide dispersion of Irish people. Using just a few of the many memorials dedicated to the Great Famine, it is clear that some monuments are more successful in representing Irish migration than others. While both the Philadelphia and Boston memorials depict the great suffering of the Irish, they fail to represent the causes of the Great Famine and the significance of Irish culture. Similarly, while the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City pays respect to the Irish homeland, some may say that the memorial undermines the devastation of the Great Famine. Overall, the success or lack thereof of all three memorials show how memory culture affects how Irish people and the Great Famine are remembered in society. The presence of the Great Famine in Irish history overwhelms the majority of Irish memory culture, which is prevalent through these memorials.
Casey, Marion R. The Journal of American History, vol. 98, no. 3, 2011, pp. 779–782. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41510125.
Eide, Marian. "Famine Memory and Contemporary Irish Poetry." Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 63, no. 1, 2017, pp. 21-48. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libpro..., doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1215/0041462X-3833456.
Guttormsen, Torgrim S. "Valuing Immigrant Memories as Common Heritage: The Leif Erikson Monument in Boston." History & Memory: Studies in Representations of the Past, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 79-115. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libpro..., doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.2979/histmemo.30.2.04.