Thursday, March 13, 2008

Irish Famine Memorial

One of the stops along the Irish Heritage Trail in Boston is the Irish Famine Memorial on the corner of School and Washington Streets. Its located right outside the giant Borders near Downtown Crossing, which is sort of an odd backdrop.
The memorial was dedicated as part of the 150th anniversary of the terrible famine in Ireland that killed one million people. Boston was a city deeply impacted and transformed by the Irish Famine. Tens of thousands of gaunt refugees arrived in Boston in 1847 alone (the infamous Black '47), many of them in abject poverty after spending all their money for the one-way journey to America. By 1850, a third of the city's population was Irish.
Arriving in Boston without money, their health, or a place to live, many refugees took up residence in the poor, unsanitary neighborhoods near the waterfront, such as the North End. The utterly destitute camped outdoors on Boston Common. Boston was overwhelmed, and the sudden influx of the Irish was seen by many in Puritan Boston as a threat to the city's economy, health, and way of life.
So many refugees perished during the voyage to America that the vessels became known as "coffin ships." The picture to the left shows the National Famine Memorial in County Mayo, Ireland. Located in the shadows of Croagh Patrick, on whose summit St. Patrick supposedly spent Lent in the year 441, the memorial is designed to look like a coffin ship. As you get closer, however, there are the disturbing images of skeletons tied to the masts and prow. (I much prefer to this simple Celtic cross at Doo Lough in County Mayo.)
There's nothing so shocking or eerie with Boston's memorial. The centerpiece of the memorial are two statues on two separate pedestals a few yards apart from each other. One statue depicts an Irish family, dressed in torn rags, in terrible suffering from the famine. Agony is etched on the face of the woman who gazes up towards the heavens, no doubt wondering why God has deemed them to suffer so greatly.
The other statue is said to depict a hopeful Irish family as they arrive on America's shores. To be honest, that intent wasn't that clear to me when looking at the statue. The family in this statue is certainly much better-dressed and appear much healthier but the man and boy are looking distinctly away from the famine victims, while the woman looks back at the suffering victims over her shoulder. In a way, it almost struck me as a depiction of people either ignoring the suffering of famine victims or recognizing it but doing nothing to help. But the interpretation that was intended was to depict the Irish journey from tragedy to triumph.
Eight plaques that surround the two statues recount the story of the famine on the Irish people, described how Bostonians responded to the crisis (both positively and negatively), and how descendants of these famine victims have made an indelible mark on Boston.


trevor said...

Is this the one Fintan O'Toole was so scathing about when he wrote about it in The Irish Times in July 1998? I know John Croft has written about famine memorials and Emily Mark has a book coming out on the same, both of which I've yet to see. Personally, I like the Sydney one at

trevor said...

oops I should have said John Crowley

Chris Klein said...


It's the same memorial. Shortly after it was unveiled there was an article in The Boston Globe with some criticism as well.

Thanks for passing along info on the Sydney memorial. I was in Sydney twice in recent years and stayed at the Sydney Boulevard and passed the Barracks about every day and I finally noticed it on my last trip.

trevor said...

HI Chris,
The curator of the museum of contemporary art in Sydney, Elizabeth McGregor, is a fan of the Sydney monument. She loves that it's 'understated'.

Emily said...

Thanks for the mention-- I am indeed working on a book on the subject of Famine memorials, based on my PhD dissertation which catalogued & discussed more than eighty post-1990s monuments to the Famine worldwide. Hope to have it out in 2010/11! Margaret Kelleher has also written on this topic.

Best, Emily Mark-FitzGerald

Chris Klein said...


Please keep me posted on the release of your book. I'd love to read it, and perhaps there's an article there for one of the outlets for which I write.


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