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Understanding Irish Famine Monuments

Date of news: 17 June 2022

Jacqueline Gallup

From a young age I realised my deep interest in history and remembrance practices and understood that this passion would lead me abroad from my hometown of Seattle, Washington for my studies. At the age of eighteen I moved to Ireland to pursue a degree at University College Dublin in history, literature, and folklore. Prior to moving I had little knowledge of the country’s history and therefore little knowledge of the Great Famine. In turn, during my studies I took every opportunity to choose modules focused on Irish history, gradually gaining more awareness of the Great Irish Famine and the memorials dedicated to this crisis. This awareness continued to increase during my travels of Ireland. After the completion of my studies, subjects I had researched such as remembrance of traumatic historic events, like famines, led me to my involvement with the Heritages of Hunger project.

When I was asked to contribute to their repository by selecting and describing memorials about the Great Famine, I wanted to ensure a balance between figurative and abstract(ed) examples. Additionally, my selection was based on three fundamental factors: the location, the design, and the inscription of monuments. In this blog I’ll discuss my thought process and ultimately the reasons behind my monument selections, also offering a deeper understanding of what I gained through this research.

London Rowan Gillespie Famine 1997

Rowan Gillespie, Famine (1997).

The first and arguably one of the most globally recognised memorials is Famine (1997) by Rowan Gillespie, which depicts statues of people arriving to Dublin’s Custom House Quay. The memorial’s location itself holds great historic significance as it was where thousands of individuals prepared to depart during the Famine. The second memorial serves as a counterpart to Famine; Arrival, also by Gillespie, is located in Ireland Park, Toronto, and sees the conclusion of the individual’s journey which started at Custom House Quay. There was no hesitation when choosing these statues for the repository as to me they perfectly represent traditional examples of famine memorials, examples of how the tragedy was memorialised through the realistic imagery of famine victims. Though Gillespie’s artistic style exaggerated some features of the statues, both of his works aim to equally express a realistic depiction of anguish in both the journey to the Quay in Famine and voyage to Toronto in Arrival. To me, these monuments represent a style which intends to evoke empathy in the viewer through the expression of human suffering. During my research of monuments, I found that the potential ability a memorial had of generating a feeling of empathy was crucial in creating a space that aims to highlight remembrance. Thus, these were the first examples I believed should be included in the repository due to their straightforward visualisation of the Famine’s devastation.

Maria Pizzuti Broken Heart Fountain 1997

Maria Pizzuti, Broken Heart Fountain (1997).

For the next addition to the repository, I wanted to find an example which upon first glimpse was not directly associated with the Great Famine but after further research did suit my aforementioned criteria. This example is the Broken Heart Fountain located in Limerick, Ireland. This memorial was the winner of a student competition at the Dublin Institute of Technology in 1996. The monument itself does not reflect any direct imagery associated with the Famine, being that of a realistic heart in a fountain. Therefore, I would consider this monument as an abstract example of a Famine monument. Yet, reading the inscription reveals an important connection to the Great Irish Famine at the monument’s location. Between 1845-1849, a holding station was located here, thus making this a space which witnessed thousands of people prepare for their emigration journey. I first choose this example unaware of the location’s historical significance. For me learning the significance through the monument’s inscription not only deepened the attachment to the Famine but also the connection to my criteria which highlighted the importance of location. Therefore, I chose this monument for the repository to represent how an image of a heart that seemingly had no direct connection to the Famine still produces an emotive memorial.

When choosing my next example, I wanted a monument which represented a traditional symbol associated with memorialising the Great Famine, the Celtic Cross. The Celtic Cross in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada caught my attention as it was built by descendants of survivors of the Famine. Moreover, this monument is fascinating as the inscription brings a deeper meaning this time to the traditional stone cross. The inscription focuses on three core aspects of remembrance: reference to the descendants of the Irish settlers, the memory to those who died during the journey, and a special dedication to care givers, here specifically Dr Patrick Collins. This dedication to Dr Collins is a touching recognition for the sacrifice and importance of care givers during such tragedies. I wanted to highlight this monument for not only representing the ‘typical’ Famine memorial but upon further research of my aforementioned criteria on the inscription.

Doolough Action from Ireland Famine Memorial 1994

Action from Ireland, Famine Memorial (1994).

This prior example highlights the importance of a monument’s inscription, which leads me to another Celtic Cross, in Doolough, Co. Mayo, Ireland. I admit I originally chose this example for its typical depiction of this universal symbol for Irish remembrance. I wanted to establish how this traditional type of memorial in both Ireland and abroad (Canada) demonstrates how remembrance styles could continue with the survivors. Further research revealed how the memorial perfectly encompassed the key components highlighted in my selection process for the repository. The first is how the location of this memorial is noteworthy: placed in a scenic environment, it is surrounded by the beautiful Irish countryside. The scenic surroundings provide a stark contrast to the dark history also attached to this location, as Mayo was one of the counties most impacted by the Great Famine. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, this cross holds a historical as well as international parallel. Upon reading the inscription a comparison between those who marched in Doolough during the Famine to those who marched for freedom in South Africa in 1994 is emphasised. In 1849, famine victims in the south of Mayo were forced to leave their lands to march, later being dubbed the “Doolough tragedy”. Although these two historic events are of course different, through my studies I have come to understand Ireland as a country with a long history of oppression, which in turn has inspired a deep understanding for other international cases of discrimination. Therefore, my opinion of this monument goes beyond being a humble Celtic Cross, as I see it as a vessel that depicts a universal message of human resilience as well as Ireland’s global awareness to perceived related instances of oppression and injustice.

This blog has illustrated the thought process as well as the reasoning for how I decided which monuments should be added to the repository. I based my research on memorials on three crucial factors: the location, the design, and the inscription. The monuments given as examples for this blog were intended to represent the diversity in statues of representation when remembering the Great Famine. As I furthered my research through each selected monument, I gained a deeper understanding of the layers to the monuments. I admit that my original choices were dictated by visual appearance, as in the more traditional examples of Famine, Arrival, and the Celtic Crosses or the more abstract of the Broken Heart Fountain. However, I learned that although the visual aspect is what is first noticed when looking at a monument, the depth of its meaning could only be truly understood through considering its inscription and location. My hope for those reading this blog is that my research aids as a reminder to stop and ask yourself why this monument is here. Yes, I made my choices visually at the beginning, but it was only when I researched the inscription and locations, I truly felt like I understood the memorials.

All images courtesy of Emily Mark-FitzGerald (University College Dublin), www.irishfaminememorials.com (accessed 16 June 2022).

For images of all monuments discussed in this blog, please visit www.irishfaminememorials.com.