By Stephen McKinley
Ground was broken in Battery Park City last Thursday for an innovative and moving new Irish Famine memorial that will be unveiled on St Patrick’s Day 2002.
The memorial will appear as a half-acre piece of real Irish land, torn from the island of Ireland, and replanted in New York, symbolizing the fate of Irish people during the Famine who were scattered across the world. It will be the work of NYC-based artist Brian Tolle, who was commissioned the Irish Hunger Memorial Executive Committee, associated with the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority.
The Committee selected the site, which stands at windswept Vesey Green, at the corner of Vesey Street and North End Avenue, with views of the Hudson River, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Freedom and liberty were very much to the forefront of the speakers remarks on Thursday. The event, heavy with symbolism, was attended by many Irish and American dignitaries, from New York State Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and this year’s Parade grand marshal, Ed Malloy, to Irish Minister for Health Micheal Martin and Northern Irish Minister for Education Martin McGuinness. All of them looked back to the tragedy of the Famine, then warned that the fight against hunger and oppression around the world was far from over.
The master of ceremonies for the occasion was Timothy S. Carey, who opened the ground-breaking ceremony by saying, "The future of our world will be determined by what we remember of our past."
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Speaker after speaker spoke of the significance of the tragedy, and the ironies bound up in Irish destinies ever since. Mayor Giuliani captured the sentiment when he said, "The beneficiaries of that terrible tragedy were the City of New York and the United States of America."
The event was not without its moments of humor, such as when Carey thanked "Mayor O’Giuliani" for his speech, and also pointed out Gov. Pataki’s mother for special thanks for her work on the committee. Mrs. Pataki’s own mother was from County Louth, where, said Carey, "They don’t build them any tougher."
Looking back at the tragedy of the Famine, Health Minister Martin said that the memorial’s location clearly showed the Irish strength to survive and prosper against the odds.
"The memorial will serve as a great motivating force," he said. "It is a lasting monument to the triumph of the Irish community over adversity."
Lt. Gov. Mary O. Donohue praised Pataki for his long-term work, putting the Irish Famine on the New York State curriculum. She underlined the importance of never forgetting that hunger was still prevalent around the world.
"The governor and I hope this will increase discussion around hunger. It will remain conspicuously alive through this memorial," she said. In 1996, the governor signed a law making instruction on the mass starvation in Ireland a part of New York State curriculum.
It was left to Pataki to describe the memorial itself, a model of which was unveiled after his speech. With the Hudson River at his back, and occasionally punctuated by ships’ fog horns, Pataki spoke of the view that would be seen from the site of the memorial.
"You can look out and see Liberty and Ellis Island that welcomed teeming hordes with nothing but a dream and a belief in the ideal of freedom. This memorial represents a gently sloping field of lazy beds [potato drills] and in the midst of the field is an abandoned home, a symbol of the reality for 2 million people."
In his speech, Minister McGuinness pondered the work that was still being done in Ireland and made his own comparison: "In parallel with the construction of this memorial, we are trying to construct peace in Ireland."
After the speeches and accompanying music provided by the New York City Fire Department Emerald Society Bagpipers, the dignitaries gathered to pose for photographs, while holding shovels at the site of the ground-breaking.
Afterward, many members of the crowd appeared moved by the event. Chris O’Farrell of the Emerald Society said that as soon as he saw the model of what the memorial looked like, with its abandoned cottage and deserted potato rows, "the tears just wouldn’t stop."