New York’s Irish Hunger Memorial – A Journey from Despair to Hope

Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City

Nestled in the protective shadow of Freedom Tower, stands a half acre plot memorialising one of the most horrific eras in history. A place that is over 3000 miles away, yet so many New York Immigrants and their descendants call home – that place is Ireland.

Distance and time do not fade the mind and heart, as this poignant New York City dedication to The Great Hunger of Ireland demonstrates. A mark of respect and remembrance for 1 million Irish who died and the 2 million Irish who ultimately emigrated out of desperation.

How the Great Hunger Began

The devastation began in a suppressed Irish nation in 1845 and continued to destroy lives, lands and communities for the next seven years – families torn apart by death and of course, emigration.

The humble potato had only been in Ireland for 100 years or so, yet it had become a food staple in Ireland due to it being hardy enough to survive Irish weather, was a cheap product and went far for the hungry mouths it fed.

Potato crops became infested with an airborne fungus called phytophthora infestans, also known as potato blight. It is believed that this fungus that seemed to originate on merchant ships between North America and Britain, actually carried on the wind across the Irish Sea and began destroying the potato crops of Dublin and the surrounding counties before it became a countrywide disaster.

The legacy left by Penal Law that prevented Irish Catholics owning land or being able to vote, combined with Corn Laws that kept prices artificially high with imposed tariffs, were going to be among the catalysts for the devastation that followed.

These restrictions, combined with the continued high level of produce continuing to be exported out of Ireland by British landowners and merchants meant one thing – a food shortage of catastrophic proportion that brought a nation to its knees at the hands of one of the most despised British men in Irish history, Charles Trevelyan.

Winter after brutal winter and failed potato crops did not matter to Trevelyan. He demanded the masses be put to work in order to earn for food, food that was not there for them as he had stopped any charitable imports of corn. The man without compassion or decency persuaded the British Government to withdraw all aid to Ireland in a bid to force them to restart the economy. They all believed the crisis would be short-lived, they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Children were left without sustenance as parents opted to feed themselves with what little they had in order to work under Trevelyan’s demands. By 1847, known as Black 47, things were worse than ever. As Trevelyan’s enterprises failed, one simple truth became evident – a nation was dying.

So much was the suffering, the malnutrition, the starvation, working with no strength for little wage and no food, death for many, was welcomed. Men, women, children, skeletal, shadows of who they once were, dying of Black Fever, Typhus and Dysentery.

Bodies were piling up at such a rate, mass pits were dug in un-consecrated ground, thrown unceremoniously on top of one another, without coffins in the shallow graves.

Once again, the situation became more dire, as the landlords who had not been paid rent for sometime, wished to reclaim their lands for grazing and crop planting. The destitute and dying were evicted from there prisons of disease, many forced to emigrate by their manipulative landlords, taken in by promises of food and care on ships to North America. Over half a million people were evicted and a further 100,000 forced to emigrate.

Coffin Ships

Dunbrody Famine Ship

Small, barely sea worthy vessels, crammed with skeletal families, broken and ravaged by disease, still hoping for a better life. Conditions on board were horrific. The journey would take up to six weeks, with only communal buckets for sanitation. Cholera and Typhus were rife and many would die onboard, their rotting corpses a stark warning of what may come to those watching and breathing in the stench of death, until the bodies of loved ones were tossed unceremoniously overboard.

One in five would not make it, others would die in makeshift hospitals on arrival. Those who survived were covered in their own filth, destitute and usually illiterate. They were not welcomed and were received with hostility and fear from the largely Puritan communities of Canada and North America.

The Irish have four vital traits however, strength of character, survival instinct, adaptability and faith. Those who made it onto American soil made New York and further afield their new home, never to return. They began a tradition of Irish emigration that was to follow through generations, including my own family who settled in New York and Washington State.

Creation of the Irish Hunger Memorial

The bond between New York and Ireland is strong, long standing and far-reaching. The introduction of the Irish Hunger Memorial is a poignant reminder of the bond, the suffering of the Irish people and a beacon of light and hope for the strength of the human spirit.

The memorial location on Vesey Street, in Battery Park City overlooks the Hudson River and out towards the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where so many Irish started their new lives. This site seems to have been carefully chosen for its proximity to the gateway to the New World and serenity for reflection, looking out over the water. An historic oasis in the midst of one of the busiest cities in the world.

The structure itself was designed by New York native and sculptor, Brian Tolle. Construction actually began in March of 2001 and while brought to a terrifying halt by the collapse of the Twin Towers and the devastation that followed, in a testament to overcoming adversity, it was completed the following year. The centrepiece is an old Irish cottage ruin, shipped across the Atlantic from County Mayo, donated by the Slack family, distant relations of the artist. There are 32 rocks, each inscribed with the name of the county from which it was collected and the moss, plants and grass are all indigenous to the Emerald Isle.

Irish President Mary McAleese officially opened the installation in 2002, however it became heavily water damaged and underwent over five million dollars worth of renovations, re-opened to the public in 2017.

Our Visit

At the time of our visit, it was a cold, cloudy January day and it was quiet. You almost stumble upon it, as there is no fanfare, no grand entrance, flashing lights or gaudy signs pointing the way. It’s just there, dignified, humble and solid. It is unobtrusive, almost disregarded by the locals walking along Battery Park, dwarfed by Freedom Tower, a silent guardian of all beneath it.

My first thought was of its contemporary elegance, unexpected and intriguing. The entrance walkway is wood and light, inscribed with old Irish proverbs, poetry and information on the atrocity as well as recorded audio excerpts.

I looked back through the street opening and it created a lively picture of the Hudson River and boats, walkers and the Battery Park promenade – a stark contrast to the poverty, death and despair the memorial represents. It opens out into a stone walled ramp, through a gate and a step back into rural Ireland, a portal to a faraway land, carefully balanced on a limestone plinth.

Scattered among the flora and fauna surrounding the cottage ruins are the county stones, a race on to see would I find my Limerick boulder before Dominic found his Dublin one! As usual, the Dub was victorious. Respectful tourists whispered as they explored each detail, pausing to look out to the water and over to New Jersey.

The Irish Hunger Memorial is peaceful and poetic, thought provoking and inspiring. For any tourist it should be added to the list to visit, if only to take time out from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. For any Irish visitor or Irish descendant, its a must. Entry is free, the only cost is your time spent remembering the fallen and survivors of the blackest period of Irish history and the bond between two nations.

For more information on Emigration and Ellis Island:

For more information on this and other Irish history, folklore and traditions go to:

All New York photos by of Ann Massey

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