Understanding Irish Hunger Memorials

The United States has memorialized the fleets of Irish immigrants as they escape their homes in search of promising stability in North America, seen specifically in response to the Great Famine of 1845. While the United States had no direct affiliation with Ireland, the country acknowledges the thousands killed by symbolizing their hardship in memorials, found in areas like Boston and New York. There are many political motives examined by historians on the commemoration of Irish immigrants caused by the Famine, but the underlying objective of the memorials emphasize that unexpected problems, such as a famine, are still prevalent in the contemporary world and serve as reminders of the unity that the United States assures when facing such issues. The sites’ materiality and location reflect a common rhetoric that aims to bring visitors to a moral obligation of recognizing and appeasing the suffering of others, regardless of national or cultural barriers. Yet author Emily Mark-Fitzgerald looks at the commemorations and states that “however productive the revival of Famine memory has been for some purposes… [the construction] is not an indicator of an assured mastery of the Famine past, but a signifier of social anxiety, political conflict, and crises of identity” (Mark-Fitzgerald, Conclusion). In examining the Irish memorials, it could be perceived that some of the focus diverges from recognition to political activism, emphasizing more on how to face these contemporary problems than honoring those who have passed or survived. To what extent are Irish immigration memorials built for political means in contrast to solely dedicating them to the Irish population for their hardship in migrating to the United States?

Immigration from Europe has been led by the Irish population for most of the nineteenth century; while it started as early as the 1700s, immigration caused by the Great Famine gained attention worldwide, displayed by the global commemorations for those who survived (Kenny). Between 1846-1855, the Great Famine killed approximately 1.5 million people in Ireland, with 2.1 million fleeing the country; out of the 2.1 million, 1.5 million had migrated to the United States. Immigration memorials could be seen in largely populated areas in the east coast, such as Boston and New York, but they can also be found in other parts of the United States beyond the east coast (Kenny).

The Boston Irish Memorial is part of a $1 million memorial park placed in downtown Boston near the Freedom Trail. While the “textual apparatus surrounding the monument… contains worthy and admirable aspirations towards… the commemoration of the Irish Famine,” journalist Fintan O’Toole voices one of the most common criticisms of the memorial when he writes that it “blithely [depicts] optimistic images of a terrible catastrophe” (Kelleher; O’Toole). Foundationally, the Boston Irish Memorial honors the Irish population currently residing in the city, but the memorial arguably focuses more on recovering from tragedies, such as the famine, rather than memorializing those who were lost or survived the migration. This is evident in comparing the memorial’s inscription and the monuments of the people.

Boston 2.jpg
The plaque on the memorial reads: “The conditions that produced the Irish Famine – crop failure, absentee landlordism, colonialism, weak political leadership – still exist around the world today. Famines continue to decimate suffering populations. The lessons of the Irish Famine need to be continually learned and applied until history finally ceases to repeat itself.”

According to the memorial’s inscription, the purpose of the structure serves as a reminder of the existing suffering in other countries. To enhance the structure’s purpose, the depiction of Irish immigrants reflects them as “starving refugees” with bare skin on their bones, stated by O’Toole. This depiction of Irish immigrants as escaping survivors skews the image of the Irish Famine as a whole. The memorial appeals to viewers’ emotions through “figures embodying desperation and success,” but in turn it romanticizes the suffering and depersonalizes those affected by the Famine (Kelleher). It “revert[s] to a simplistic restaging of the encounter between victim and viewer,” “embedding narratives” that narrow the famine to images of “generalized” suffering (Kelleher; O’Toole). In combination, the memorial’s inscription and the representation of the immigrants result in a stronger call for preventing these tragedies from occurring but does not effectively commemorate the Great Famine.

Irish Hunger Memorial (Wikipedia.com)
Irish Hunger Memorial found in New York.

The Irish Hunger Memorial in New York reflects “about one group’s experience… as opposed to it being for that particular ethnic group, Irish New Yorkers…” (Cullen). In contrast to the other Irish Memorials in the United States, The Irish Hunger Memorial in New York is an exception to memorials being built with a strong focus for political means. Rather than allowing for “easy sympathies” and providing a “shorthand of ethnic signification,” the memorial lacks the “Famine clichés and Irish ethnic stereotypes” such as coffin ships and focuses on a reaction towards the Famine (Mark-Fitzgerald). While the political means of memorials include learning from history’s mistakes, the New York memorial reflects on the famine in an inclusive manner that does not narrow the image of the event to starvation and suffering, but rather to the state of Ireland as a whole.

By using a ruined Irish stone cottage in the center of the site, the memorial steers away from the standard imagery of starvation and depicts the country as “an emblem of poverty, despair and displacement” (Mark-Fitzgerald). This focuses the memorializing on the destruction of the state rather than “reducing history” to a “historical text to be pedagogically ‘read’ or learned [from]” (Schama).

Irish Memorial found in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Similar to the Great Famine National Monument found in Murrisk Co. Mayo, Ireland, the Irish Memorial features a “coffin ship,” a name coined for ships used during the Great Famine that referred to the high death toll caused by overcrowded and disease-ridden conditions (Ryan). The use of a coffin ship arguably dramatizes the Great Famine and the survival of immigrants; the ship itself is a “barometer of contemporary attitudes to Famine memory and commemorative symbolism…. [in which] modes of transport substitute as symbols of oppression… [like] the slave ships of the nineteenth century and the railways boxcars of the Holocaust” (Mark-Fitzgerald, Major Famine Memorials). By placing an overemphasis on the death surrounding the Great Famine, the monument in Philadelphia exemplifies a memorial built to evoke the viewers into a sense of sentiment and greater reflection of the event, in contrast to solely honoring the immigrants of the Famine.

The memorials dedicated to the Irish Famine in the United States reflect commemoration to the surviving Irish immigrants while honoring those who passed away during that time. While the monuments included in the exhibit evoke sentiment for the survivors and the current American-Irish population, they also include rhetoric that is focused on politics and contemporary issues. Arguably, most of the monuments are seen to be created more for political means—seen in the dramatized perception of Irish immigrants or the symbolization of starvation and death—over solely being built to memorialize the event and Irish people.

Works Cited

Cullen, Fintan. “Ireland in New York.” Wasafiri, 11 May 2010, doi:10.1080/02690051003651605.

Kelleher, Margaret. “Hunger and History: Monuments to the Great Irish Famine.” Textual Practice, vol. 16, no. 2, 2002, doi:10.1080/09502360210141484.

Kenny, Kevin. “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study.” Journal of American History 90, no. 1 (June 2003): 134–62. Accessed: 24 February 2019. doi:10.2307/3659794.

Mark-FitzGerald, Emily. Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument. Liverpool University Press, 2013. Liverpool Scholarship Online, 2014. Accessed: 22 February 2019. doi: 10.5949/liverpool/9781846318986.001.0001

O'Toole, Fintan. “$1M Famine Memorial a Monument to Kitsch.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 3 July 1998, www.irishtimes.com/opinion/1m-famine-memorial-a-monument-to-kitsch-1.169414?fbclid=IwAR0NuzERPlGGJ945dDBZLMzNf53bOljLcCt-tt6Vlkq3JvsTANtRNFC0mnc.

Schama, Simon. “A Patch of Earth.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 Aug. 2002, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/08/19/a-patch-of-earth.

Ryan, Jeanmarie. “Coffin Ships.” Irish Studies, 26 Nov. 2018, irishstudies.sunygeneseoenglish.org/2018/11/26/coffin-ships/.