By Stephen McKinley
It started with a visit to Ireland.
The artist who will create the Irish Hunger memorial was inspired by a visit to Achill Island. After receiving the commission (he was finally selected out of an initial 120 applicants), Brian Tolle took a trip to Limerick and Achill Island off the County Mayo coast.
In an area called Slievemore, Tolle saw a gently sloping field and the tumble-down remains of a cottage that dates back to the era of the Famine. The forlorn, silent site made Tolle’s thoughts turn away from a memorial that might have been an artist’s rendering of, say, hungered and poverty-stricken Irish people leaving Ireland for America.
Instead, he saw the scene as "a fragment torn from Slievemore, and transplanted to Manhattan. Too many memorials are representational. This memorial will make the viewer the actual subject."
When Tolle’s monument is finished, visitors will be able to walk across the sloping field to contemplate the ruined cottage, with its disconcerting view of, not the broad Atlantic, but the Hudson River, Ellis Island and the statue of Liberty. Tolle, who has a maternal Irish grandparent, hopes that the experience will capture the complex emotions associated with the Famine: the horror of how starvation left a land desolate, yet the undreamed-of hopes that came from being replanted in the U.S.
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"This is not a garden or a miniature Irish landscape," Tolle said. "It is meant to be a real piece of Ireland."
Part of the arduous task of putting the memorial together is finding and selecting Irish plants that will grow in Battery Park City. As a result of this focus on authenticity, the memorial will be "a living thing, and also very fragile. It will need constant maintenance," said Tolle, drawing the parallel between this aspect of the memorial and the fragility of memory, and how, without care and education, people could easily forget the enormity of man’s inhumanity to man.
Tolle was educated at the Yale School of Art, Parson’s School of Design and SUNY Albany. He will build the memorial with the assistance of David Piscuskas and Juergen Riehm, principals of the New York architecture firm 1100 Architect, and Gail Wittwer, director of Greenstreets, NYC Parks and Recreation.