That’s the price of a return subway fare.
OK so I didn’t actually leave New York City but by visiting the Irish Hunger (also known as The Great Irish Famine or, particularly outside Ireland, the Irish Potato Famine) Memorial in the Battery Park City neighbourhood at the southwestern tip of Manhattan you are literally stepping onto a piece of Ireland.
Dwarfed by the surrounding buildings the landscaped plot uses stones brought in from each of Ireland’s counties, along with soil, and native vegetation from Ireland’s western coast. You’ll also see the ruins of an authentic Hunger-era cottage from County Mayo.
The ruined cottage on the plot reminded me of the abandoned buildings I came across with my brother Mike when we hiked the moors and fells of Northern England, Scotland and Eire many moons ago. These dwellings and other ruins always seemed to exude a certain poignancy that made us wonder why they had been abandoned.
The plot on which the cottage, winding path, and standing stones, are found is cantilevered above the sidewalk. This means that you might walk past it without realising what lies above your head.
When you visit you’ll enter from street-level via a limestone tunnel. The tunnel walls are covered in writings related to the Hunger. Take your time, read and reflect on them to get some appreciation of the context of the Hunger that claimed over a million people between 1845 and 1852. Approximately two million immigrated to the US between 1845 and 1860. Many settled in New York City, which today has the largest number of Irish-Americans of any city in the US.
The ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the Hunger were referred to as ‘coffin ships’. Conditions on board were crowded and disease-ridden. Owners provided little food, water or living space. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships because so many bodies were thrown overboard. Mortality rates of 30% were common.
Sculptures of the ships commemorate immigrants departing Ireland and arriving in the US. In the Sculpture Garden of the United Nations on First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan there is a 26-by-24-foot (8m-by-7m) bronze sculpture by Dublin-born sculptor John Behan entitled ‘Arrival’, which I’ve visited on more than one occasion.
The sculpture celebrates the Irish who traveled the world in search of a new life, the nations and countries that offered them a chance for a better life, and the contribution the Irish diaspora has made to societies throughout the world. Irish immigrants are depicted disembarking from a coffin ship along two gangplanks.
‘Arrival’ is a variation on Behan’s ‘Coffin Ship’, the National Famine Memorial at Murrisk, County Mayo, on the West Coast of Ireland. Mary Robinson, then the Irish President, unveiled the ‘Coffin Ship’ in 1997 for the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. The sculpture in Ireland, rather than celebrating the safe arrival of immigrants, conjures up the horror of the coffin ships through the symbolic representation of the ship’s rigging by skeletons and bones.
Visiting the Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City reminds you of the opportunities New York City offered the desperate Irish immigrants. It continues to be a place for new beginnings for millions of immigrants from all over the world. In return they contribute to the city’s amazing cultural diversity, economic activity (nearly one-third in 2011), and workforce (44 per cent in 2011).
Footnote: I am currently checking out what opportunities there are for visitors to the UN complex to visit the Sculpture Garden. I’ll post any details once I get them.