By Dr. Anton Anderssen
Around 1822, a humble farm of ten acres was established in Carrowdoogan (Ceathr Mhic Dhubháin), a townland in Attymass Civil Parish, County Mayo, Ireland. Carrowdoogan townland is only 498 acres in size. By 1827, the Slack family had constructed a tiny stone cottage upon these ten acres. The Parish of Attymass is comprised of vast areas of waste land, the most of which is unrecoverable marsh and mountain. The Parish of Attymass had not been established at the time the wee cottage was built; it would not become a separate parish until 1832.
Attymass Parish has a tragic history – it was here that the first deaths from The Great Hunger in Ireland were officially recorded. At the height of the potato famine, practically everyone in Carrowdoogan had either perished or fled.
The Irish Hunger Memorial is a somber, half-acre, cultural park representing a rural Irish landscape, yet located in Manhattan’s Battery Park City district near the site of the former World Trade Center, where 2,996 deaths occurred at the hands of terrorists. This memorial was created to bring attention to the Great Irish Hunger (An Gorta Mór in Irish), which claimed over a million lives between 1845 and 1852. It connotes a litany of death, suffering and emigration that left an indelible mark on our psychological landscape. It transports visitors emotionally, spiritually and physically to another place and time.
In 2001, artist Brian Tolle teamed with landscape architect Gail Wittwer-Laird and the architectural firm 1100 Architect to transfer soil, more than 60 types of indigenous flora from the western lands of the island of Ireland, and rocks unearthed from each of Ireland’s 32 counties to comprise this memorial’s design. Inside the garden, there are fallow potato fields and varieties of vegetation which can be found on the north Connacht wetlands. It serves as a metaphorical expression of solidarity between those who fled Ireland and they who stayed behind. It a place for quiet reflection in the midst of chaotic New York City. Famine statistics, quotes and poems are displayed on an extensive surrounding wall, and inside the garden. The installation (on the banks of The Hudson) is oriented facing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, evoking a sense of bittersweet repatriation for the Diaspora. It was inaugurated in 2002 by former Irish President Mary McAleese.
The original Slack Family cottage of Attymass, County Mayo, had occupants dwelling within until the 1960s. It was abandoned because it was built without running water or electricity. This historic cottage was relocated and dedicated to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan, as a tribute to prior generations of the Slack family who moved to America and garnered success in the land of opportunity. The Memorial was dedicated July 16, 2002 in “memory of all the Slack family members of previous generations who emigrated to America and fared well there.” The memorial remains a very powerful evocation of the Famine with its ruined buildings and contemporary testimonies about its devastating impact.
Food scarcity has not yet been eradicated. In 2020, when the world stopped, and life changed as we know it, my cousin Dr. David Beasley (former Governor of South Carolina) was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of The World Food Program. Upon receiving the award, he said, “The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program is a humbling, moving recognition of the work of WFP staff who lay their lives on the line every day to bring food and assistance for close to 100 million hungry children, women and men across the world.” David now lives in Italy, as do I, where he continues to work towards ending world hunger.
The Irish Hunger Memorial takes on a renewed meaning, in light of the invasion of Ukraine, and all the countries who depend on Ukrainian farmers for food – and as well for the 4.2 million Ukrainians forced to flee their country in order to survive. The Memorial inspires hope that there will be brighter days ahead for all who remain in peril of food shortages.
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