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History comes alive on the streets of sunny and solemn Philadelphia

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What could possibly bring the Irish Famine, an underwear model, a criminal doctor and a crude, brilliant sitcom together? It’s gotta be the Philadelphia Irish. These days the Irish kings of Philly are Dennis, Mac, Dee and the rest of the crowd at Paddy’s Pub, the center of the insane universe that is the FX TV show "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

Last week, however, my wife and I set some time aside and got a chance to visit the real Philly, and sample not only some awesome local food and drink but nearly two centuries of Irish as well as American history.

Our first stop on the waterfront was a solemn one.  At the intersection of Front and Chestnut streets, not far from historic Penn’s Landing, is the city’s impressive memorial to the Irish Famine.  Like New York’s memorial – which recreates a humble slice of rural Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger – Philly’s memorial is much more than just a statue.

The landscape is expansive and beautiful, and includes a modest but revealing narrative of the events leading up to the Famine.  Known in Irish as Leacht Cuimhneachain na Ngael, the memorial park’s centerpiece is a 12-foot high, 30-foot long sculpture which attempts to convey both the horror and the hope Famine immigrants experienced.

Sculptor Glenna Goodacre (best known for her tribute to women who served in Vietnam on the Mall in Washington, D.C.) was selected from a pool of over 100 artists to create the memorial.

Things got interesting in Philly when I noticed a touching poem inscribed on the sculpture, reading in part: “The hunger ended / but it never went away / it was there in silent memories / from one generation / to the next.”
It turns out the words were written by none other than Irish American novelist Peter Quinn.

“Back in 1997 I wrote a commentary to accompany Irish composer Patrick Cassidy's ‘Famine Symphony,'” Quinn noted, when I asked about his contribution to the Philly Famine Memorial. Quinn’s commentary, along with Cassidy’s “Famine Symphony,” debuted at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and featured a reading by legendary Irish American actor Gregory Peck.

“There was a person in the audience,” Quinn continued, “who was working on creating the Famine Memorial in Philly and they asked if they could use an excerpt. It was Glenna Goodacre, the sculptor.” When Quinn later attended the Philadelphia Famine Memorial dedication ceremony, it just so happened he was seated next to a very attractive woman who turned out to be Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre, who happens to be married to musician Harry Connick.

That’s right. Jill Goodacre is the sculptor’s daughter. “It was about time something good came out of the Famine,” quipped Quinn. It was, indeed, an interesting time to recall the Famine. Just this week, in my home borough of Staten Island, NY, the remains of Famine immigrants who were buried unceremoniously after dying in a local hospital were reinterred more respectfully. 

“The severity of the Irish Famine meant that there were more immigrants with illnesses than the quarantine could contain, and more were dying than could be given a proper burial. As a result, thousands of bodies were stacked anonymously, three and four deep, in trenches dug behind the hospital,” The New York Times noted in a report this week.

But the Philly Irish aren’t just about the past. Next week, the Philadelphia Fleadh will be held in Pennypack Park.
Meanwhile, Tyrone-born filmmaker Phelim McAleer is currently raising funds hoping to make a documentary about notorious Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of committing botched abortions.
So, as we walked (to quote Bruce Springsteen) “the streets of Philadelphia,” all sorts of history came alive.

We strolled all the way over to the Italian market district, then all the way up (past Con Murphy’s Pub) to the Rodin Museum and the famed Rocky stairs and, of course, through the historic Liberty Bell/Independence Hall district, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence (which had three Irish-born signers). About the only thing we didn’t see was an underwear model. That could be the next episode of "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia."


(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)

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