By Stephen McKinley
In Lower Manhattan, there is a corner of a field that is forever Ireland. One hundred and 50 years since the Famine, the Irish Hunger Memorial, a quarter acre of Irish land and stone, opened in Battery Park City on Tuesday.
Much anticipated in the months before its completion, the finished memorial stunned onlookers with its scale and its unconventional commemoration of not just the Irish Famine, but the stark message that hunger still stalks the world today. Its location — New York City — also brings to mind those who escaped and found a new life in the new world.
Around its granite and glass plinth, words that speak of Ireland’s hunger and of current starvation strike the eye and the heart: “Willful waste makes woeful want — an Irish Proverb” reads one line from a total of two miles of text.
“Everyday, 25 percent of our food supply is wasted:” the words of President Clinton in 1998.
And most harrowing, the words of John Costelloe of Galway, from 1847, describing his eviction, were read aloud by Sir Bob Geldoff at Tuesday’s dedication: “He threw my three children out on the street . . . ”
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The sloping field, the abandoned cottage, the useless potato beds overgrown by grass, clover, heather and rushes are swept on the western side by the breeze from the Hudson River. On the three other sides, the memorial is reflected in the glass and polished stone facades of lower Manhattan’s commercial buildings.
It is a scene that allows the visitor to ponder lessons about the human spirit. Said Mary Daley of the New York State Education Committee, “You cannot walk in here without having questions to ask.”
Addressing the audience, Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, said that out of great tragedy, good can and will come: “Wherever people suffer, you will find the Irish bringing hope.”
She drew laughter from the crowd while praising the memorial’s artist, Brian Tolle, for his accurate re-creation of the Irish countryside.
“I just don’t know who to thank for the very accurate re-creation of the Irish weather,” McAleese said, on what was a cloudless, hot summer’s day.
Because of the Famine and immigration experience, because of determination and grit, she said, “today Ireland is a first world country with a third world memory.”
As final preparations were made for the dedication, commuters on their way to work stopped to see the memorial. One Englishman shook his head in awe, and said, “I had to come to New York to learn anything about the Irish Famine.”
The 69th Regiment provided an honor guard leading the dignitaries to their places: President McAleese, Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and artist Brian Tolle. Ciaran Sheehan sang the Irish and American national anthems. Paddy Reilly moved the crowd with his rendition of “The Fields of Athenry.”
The chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, Timothy Carey, was master of ceremonies, assisted by Adrian Flannelly, also a member of the memorial’s committee.
Cardinal Edward Egan opened the dedication, reminding listeners that the memorial was about “the tragedy of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.”
Each speaker sought to remind those present that hunger still afflicts millions across the world: “Eight hundred million people will go to bed hungry tonight,” said Timothy Carey, before reading a letter of greeting from President George W. Bush.
Malachy McCourt stood to read one of the lines of text from the memorial’s plinth, and noted, “30,000 children will die today of starvation . . . ” He added, “I call on politicians to stop bombing people and bring food to them.”
Ironically, McCourt’s first reading was from early 1840s Ireland, when an observer noted that potato blight had broken out in America but that no such thing was likely to occur in Ireland.
Sir Bob Geldoff, founder of the charity the Live Aid Foundation, told listeners, “I see a lot of what this memorial describes in Africa, almost every year.”
Other speakers noted how the Famine had brought thousands of Irish immigrants to America’s shores, whose many descendants inspired the world with their heroism on Sept. 11.
“The incredible, strong, indomitable spirit of our police department and fire department,” said former Mayor Giuliani.
“What is important to point out is the close proximity to the site of the World Trade Center,” said Martin McGuinness, the Northern Ireland Minister for education. “Many of the people who died on Sept. 11 would have been descendants of people who just managed to escape the Famine.”
During his remarks, Gov. Pataki recalled how he had gradually become aware of the Famine during his teenage years. He remembered wondering how the potato crop could fail “year after year, for seven years,” and how he found out about the effects on Ireland of British policy at the time.
“This memorial is not to point the finger, but to open eyes about the Famine and about world hunger,” he said.
After the ribbon was cut, guests and the public were allowed to step through the memorial’s rear entrance, or on to the grassy slope at the front, and spend time reflecting on its complex message.
Martin Rooney, from Longstone, Co. Down, came wrapped in an Irish flag. “It’s very nice to have a piece of Ireland in Manhattan,” he said.
Jim Mooney, an Irish American trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange next door to the memorial, said: “I watched them build it for two years. My grandparents from both sides came from Kerry and Donegal. We’ve been starved of visitors and tourists down here. I hope this will bring people down here.”
Busy with guests eager to inspect the memorial, artist Brian Tolle took a moment to run his hand over a portion of the stone wall that last stood in Attymas, Co. Mayo. “This represents the place, it represents home,” he said simply.
Unnoticed by almost everyone at the memorial, a sparrow perched watchfully on the cross bar of a street light, just above the first clump of grass, clover and rushes and the commemorative county stones for Westmeath and Laois.
The sparrow has a nest in the cross bar, and as an opportunity arose when there was a lull in the passing crowds, it darted down into the grass and foraged for food: watching, hopeful and persistent, adopting to the surprise of green Irish land in New York City, the sparrow seemed to represent the indomitable human spirit, inextinguishable even by starvation.