The Great Irish Hunger and the Art
of Honoring Memory
— By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Last week the Irish Hunger Memorial opened at the west end of Vesey Street in
Lower Manhattan's Battery Park City. It opened several months late, largely
because the area was off limits for so long after Sept. 11. In those
intervening months, the meaning of the memorial, dedicated to those who died
in that Irish famine, has inevitably changed.
The artist Brian Tolle has erected a cantilevered croft, a tilted plane of
the old sod that has been sown with native plants and incorporates, at its
center, an actual, and astonishingly minute, Irish cottage. The street-level
walls of the memorial are shadowed by the concrete that supports the green
field overhead, and they incorporate fragments of text that commemorate and
elucidate the enormous suffering of the Irish in the Great Hunger of
1845-1852. That event caused the first great emigration of Irish to America.
From the highest ridge of the memorial, you can look out not only to the
steel bones and glass skin of Jersey City rising against the sky but to Ellis
Island and the Statue of Liberty, too.
If you turn around at that vantage point, you can look directly east along
Vesey Street to ground zero. This is one of those accidental harmonies that
Mr. Tolle could never have planned, any more than he could have planned the
breezes that stir the croft's plantings to life or the sounds of birds and
children that spill onto the still strangely vacant site of this memorial.
Thoughts of all those dead a century and a half ago lead inevitably to
thoughts of those who died only a few months ago, not of starvation, but of
something quicker yet no less cruel.
Standing on the Irish Hunger Memorial and looking east along Vesey Street
also inevitably raises the question of how to memorialize such powerful,
defining moments in history. It raises the question because Mr. Tolle's
memorial accomplishes its task so effectively and so succinctly.
On one level, the Irish Hunger Memorial is as literal as literal can be. The
bearberries and burnet roses planted there are living plants, and so is the
clover. Paths thread down through the green just as paths really do. The
stones are real stones, the water dripping from the cantilevered edge real
water. And yet the whole of the memorial functions, as it must, symbolically.
It somehow suggests and encompasses the enormity of the failure that came to
Ireland with the potato blight, and with it a hunger that either drove off or
killed two and a half million Irish. But the memorial doesn't spell out that
failure. The memorial never makes its own intentions literal. It trusts the
visitor. The intelligence of this work, and its beauty, is that it relies on
the literalism, the specificity, of place and on the strength of our human
response to place. The power of that connection and the sense of absence so
evocative in the topography of this memorial are what gives it its symbolic
The discussion over the character of the Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero has
barely begun, except as a matter of allocating space. But when it does begin,
the ideas suggested by the Irish Hunger Memorial are the ones the city and
the world will be struggling with. Finding the right balance between
literalism and symbolism will not be easy. Though the emotions of visitors to
that future memorial will be easily stirred by memory, it will be hard to
stir them in ways that are as beautifully and tenderly grounded as they are
at the Irish Hunger Memorial.
To a certain extent, the World Trade Center, when it stood, was something of
an anti-place. Its enormous plaza was never inherently attractive or inviting
to most people, and the towers, to many visitors, were mainly good for
providing a high perch to look at other places. But with its demise, the
World Trade Center became a place like no other.
Mr. Tolle had to transpose the power of place from Ireland to New York. That
will not be necessary at ground zero. But what will still be needed is an artistic
vision that honors what happened there -- the literalness of place -- in a
way that goes beyond mere enumeration, mere explanation. What New Yorkers and
visitors from around the world will need to find at that memorial, when it is
finally built, is a place that rises through the power of their emotions to
become something larger and more powerful than the simplicity of its design
ever suggested it might be. There are few enough precedents for work like
this, but one of them is standing just a few blocks away.