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Dublin's memorial to the Great Hunger. A new book examines the tragedy’s commemoration in Ireland and abroad. Photo by: Photocall

How the world remembers the Irish Famine

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Dublin's memorial to the Great Hunger. A new book examines the tragedy’s commemoration in Ireland and abroad. Photo by: Photocall

After the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine in 1995, a resurgence of interest in the tragedy manifested in the construction of more than 100 monuments around the world to commemorate the Famine.

A new book, entitled ‘Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and Monument’ by Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, tries to understand the way the Famine has been remembered and the process of its commemoration in Ireland and abroad

Nearly 30 memorials have been constructed in the United States since 1995, most installed in busy and affluent areas, reports the Irish Times. In contrast to Ireland, the monuments in the US generally celebrate triumph over disaster and speak to the wealth of today’s Irish Americans instead of focusing on the struggles that immigrants coming to America had to face.

Many of the monuments, such as the Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, have been criticized for their sentimentality and simplistic message. The most controversial monument lies in downtown Boston. An Irish commentator criticized its “pious cliches and dead conventions” and readers of the Boston Globe named it the worst public monument in the city in a 2002 poll.

On the other hand, New York City’s stark Irish Hunger Memorial, which includes a reconstructed cottage from Co Mayo, has been praised for its lack of cliche.

Mark-Fitzgerald’s book only has a short section on Northern Ireland, which perpetuates the idea of the Famine as a Southern and Catholic tragedy, says founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, Prof Christine Kinealy, in her review of the book in the Irish Times.

The chapter ‘Famine Spaces in Ireland’ concerns only the Republic, whereas the section on monuments in Northern Ireland is contained in the chapter ‘Community Famine Commemoration in Northern Ireland and the Irish Diaspora.’ The only monument in Northern Ireland examined, albeit briefly, is that in the Cornagrade graveyard in Enniskillen, near the site of the local workhouse.

The book reinforces Niall Ó Ciosáin’s idea that “there is no unitary memory of the Famine.’ The monuments in Ireland are mostly local and organic to the community and built with little outside funding.

While many of the monuments constructed abroad focus on immigration as a central theme or reference world hunger, they also fail to relate to the challenges that new immigrants face today.

“Clearly, it is challenging – perhaps impossible – to create in a public monument a cohesive narrative of an event of such longevity, geographic spread and localized impact. The Irish sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie have been widely praised for the creative compassion they have brought to this task, but, as this book demonstrates, every monument has its detractors,” Prof Kinealy writes.

Examining the diversity in the origins, motives and outcomes in the construction of these memorials, ‘Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and Monument’ is an engaging look at the memory and memorialization of the Famine.

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