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Both enduring and ephemeral, Famine memorial emerges

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City will be finished in time for an opening ceremony on July 16, according to the memorial’s artist, Brian Tolle.

Tolle, who has been working around the clock to complete the memorial, said that he is happy with the progress made since its opening was postponed from St Patrick’s Day as a result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, which was close to the memorial site.

Planting is nearly complete on the quarter-acre site on which Tolle has created a unique memorial, using an actual ruined cottage from County Mayo, and Irish plants and grasses grown in the U.S. from seed. President Mary McAleese and other Irish and Irish-American dignataries will attend the opening on July 16.

At the site last Friday, Tolle gave the Echo an update on progress. The artist, commissioned by the Battery Park City Parks Commission, has foregrounded hunger by erecting a granite plinth base through which strips of text behind glass run like veins. Visitors will be able to read hunger-related quotations through these narrow glass strips.

“The text is to exist as ephemeral information,” Tolle said, “and it will be responsive to change.” Some of the text will be taken from parliamentary records at the time of the Famine; other quotations will be taken from famines around the world. The plinth itself upholds what is a recreation of a sloping quarter-acre Irish homestead, as it may have looked abandoned after the Famine.

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“You might see a parliamentary record of Famine deaths,” said Tolle, “and two lines down, an item of how there was actually some British relief efforts, say, the Quakers.”

Significantly, the cottage was donated by the Slack family in County Mayo, from the townland of Attymas: this was the first townland in Ireland that reported deaths from starvation.

Also important for Tolle was that the site is a quarter of an acre: in 1847 as the starvation worsened, Sir William Gregory drafted what became known as the infamous Gregory clause, which ruled that any family owning a quarter acre of land or more could not receive relief until they gave up their land. The dislocation from the land seriously exacerbated the effects of the Famine.

“I had a real dilemma, was I going to simulate an Irish house here, and I didn’t want to be a colonialist and take a house away from Ireland,” Tolle said. “But I learned that the old houses there weren’t protected.”

Eventually, Brian Slack in Mayo donated the house to the side of the Slack family that had immigrated to the U.S. during the Famine. In turn, the house was donated to the memorial. It is a two-room house dating from the 1830s. It was last occupied in the 1960s.

On Sept. 11, Tolle and his team were horrified witnesses to the first plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The memorial site was completely covered in debris from the collapsing towers, which stood only two blocks away. Once the site was cleared, it was found to be undamaged and the project continued.

Authenticity was vital, Tolle said. Eighty-five species of plants and grasses natural to the Mayo area were chosen and grown from seed in the U.S. Only the soil was mixed here in the tristate area as U.S. officials balked at allowing soil from an area with a recent foot-and-mouth disease incident into the country.

“This is not a garden, it is not a park,” said Tolle, who hopes that the memorial will simply grow wild, as had the original site. “It will take a year to see how successful the planting has been.”

As Tolle spoke, he pointed out a sparrow that was already making use of the site to find food. At the memorial’s highest point, he recounted how many visitors have already spoken of the sense of calm they have experienced from looking out over the Hudson River, where a fresh breeze brought in the smell of the sea.

Tolle said he had mixed feelings now that this, his toughest assignment as an artist and memorialist, was nearing its completion. Along the way, significant problems had to be surmounted.

Thirty-two stones were sent from Ireland, one from each county, to be incorporated into the landscape. To date, Tolle has accommodated 30 of the stones — two counties sent stones carved with straight edges that he has yet to add in, but he was confident of achieving a memorial that would have a profound impact on all who visit it.

Tolle anticipates that the reaction of Irish Americans and Irish people to the memorial will be subtly different. On one hand, he noted, the Irish continue to use the land so intricately linked to the Famine experience, changing it, building new roads and new buildings. Irish America shares a collective memory of the land as something left behind at a disastrous moment, an abrupt dislocation.

“These events took 150 years to trickle down to even some form of consensus as to how they might be memorialized,” Tolle said.

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