The Irish National Famine Monument
What was the Great Famine, and when did it occur?
Ireland was devastated by the Great Famine which hit the country around the mid-1800’s. The famine itself came about when the potato crop—a staple food—did not adequately produce for 4 years in a row. Ruthless British landlords had no concern for their tenants—evicting the locals while not helping with the food supply. Millions of Irish died of famine and disease and millions also attempted to escape by ship to Britain, America, and Australia. Many attempted to escape on merchant ships, however these vessels were poorly equipped for passenger travel—especially with overcrowding and poor sanitation. Many died during their journey to freedom. These ships came to be dubbed ‘coffin ships,’ such was the degree of death involved (Michigan State University, 2009). It is said that about a quarter of the Irish population—nearly 2 million people—emigrated to the USA in a ten-year period during Famine times (National Museum of Ireland, 2023). The Irish population decreased from roughly 8 million to 4 million during these tragic years. However, the exact number of people who died is not known as state registrations of marriages, births and deaths did not yet exist, and the estimated count by the Roman Catholic Church was flawed (Michigan State University, 2009).
The Irish National Famine Monument itself
In 1996, the Irish Government solicited nominations for an appropriate location for a National Famine Memorial-- to commemorate this tragic period in Irish history, and the village of Murrisk, near Westport in Co. Mayo was chosen as the site. John Behan, the renowned sculptor, was commissioned by the Irish Government to try to encapsulate the magnitude of suffering and loss endured by the Irish people during the years of the famine (Mayo-Ireland, 2003). John Behan created the monument to resemble a ‘Coffin Ship’ (The Wild Atlantic Way.com, 2015-2023). The sails are made of skeletons, which aimed to depict the many multitudes who did not survive the journey to freedom. The monument was unveiled by President Mary Robinson, in July 1997 (Michigan State University, 2009). Guide Ireland (c. 2021) says of the National Famine Monument that “It denounces the tragedy experienced by the Irish people, ready to do anything to leave their Famine-hit Ireland.” “However, taking the boat was just as risky as staying in Ireland…”
Conditions on the ‘coffin ships’
Many people died of sheer hunger on these ‘coffin ships’ because, as Guide Ireland (c. 2021) reveals, “each passenger had to bring his own food for the journey, not exceeding 3 kilos of food.” “A terrible rule, because most Irish people at the time were too poor to buy their own food!” (Guide-Ireland, c.2021). Many passengers had to decide to make the journey with very little if anything to live on “hoping to find the physical strength to survive the deprivation during the journey” (Guide-Ireland, c.2021). The Clew Bay Archaeological Trail (2003, p 30) amazingly claims that “The Irish Famine resulted in the single greatest loss of life in 19th century Europe,” and it clearly had a devastating effect on Irish culture and the Irish language.
The Irish Hunger Memorial, New York City
Designed by Brian Tolle, the Irish Hunger Memorial opened in 2002 in Battery Park City in Manhattan, New York. It is intended to raise awareness about the tragedy of the Great Irish Famine (Irish Central Staff, 2022). Staggeringly, by 1855 over 900,000 emigrants from Ireland entered the port at New York City-- so by that time, almost one third of New York City’s population was Irish born (Shrout, 2021). Given New York’s robust Irish connection, perhaps the Irish Hunger Memorial is perfectly situated in the city of New York. The memorial depicts a rural Irish landscape, and it includes a constructed 1820’s Irish cottage which was transported all the way from Ireland. It was donated by the Slack family from Attymass, Co. Mayo—who were part of the artist’s extended family (Irish Central Staff, 2022). The memorial was officially opened by President Mary McAleese in 2002, and is appropriately situated facing Ellis Island as well as the Statue of Liberty. Stones for the landscaping were taken from all of Ireland’s 32 counties. There is a garden also, and inside it is a potato field as well as the type of plant life that can be found in Mayo wetlands (Irish Central Staff, 2022). Irish Central (2022) writes that the memorial “is both a metaphor for the Great Irish Famine and a reminder that world hunger today is often the result of a lack of access to land.”
Anelise Hanson Shrout (2021). (RTE) How the Irish Famine changed New York City forever. Available at: https://www.rte.ie/history/post-famine/2020/0914/1165099-how-the-irish-famine-changed-new-york-city-forever/ Accessed 24th of March, 2023.
Clew Bay Archaeological Trail. County Mayo: South West Mayo Development Company Ltd., 2003. Print, p. 30.
Guide-Ireland (2007-2021). National Famine Monument. Available at: https://www.guide-ireland.com/tourist-attractions/national-famine-monument/ Accessed 13th of March, 2023.
Irish Central Staff. (2022). What is the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York? Available at: https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/what-is-irish-hunger-memorial-new-york Accessed 24th of March, 2023.
Mayo-Ireland (2023). National Famine Memorial, Murrisk in Co. Mayo. Available at: https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/murrisk/history/national-famine-memorial.html. Accessed 13th of March, 2023.
Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). National Famine Monument. Internal Report: Folder 4, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.
National Museum of Ireland (2023). Irish Emigration to America. Available at: https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Collections-Research/Folklife-Collections/Folklife-Collections-List-(1)/Other/Emigration/Irish-Emigration-to-America#:~:text=The%20peak%20of%20Irish%20emigration,year%20period%20at%20that%20time. Accessed 28th of March 2023.
The Wild Atlantic Way.com. (2015-2023). National Famine Memorial. Available at: https://www.thewildatlanticway.com/sight/national-famine-memorial/#:~:text=Close%20to%20Murrisk%2C%20there%20is,shows%20a%20%E2%80%9CCoffin%20ship%E2%80%9D. Accessed 24th of March, 2023.