Sunday, 16 February 2020

Irish Hunger Memorial

Have you ever been to the Irish Hunger Memorial down on Vesey Street?  It can be a lonely place – not that it’s without visitors – although judging by the Babel of languages few Irish attend during my visits.

Since I often walk down Hudson River Park I tend to feel guilty if I don’t make the pilgrimage. 

Perhaps that’s because my grandfather Thomas Hughes spoke so often about the awful year of 1847 and how his own father had witnessed An Gorta Mór.

I often wonder about the loneliness factor. At first I thought it was due to the profusion of native Irish plants that grow within the walls of the Memorial. 

Grasses, rushes, weeds, heather, and wild flowers transport you back to the fields, ditches, hills and dales of an Irish childhood. Even in the heat of dog days you can almost sense a cool Irish rain falling.

There was a time I wondered if the remains of the nearby World Trade Center provoked the loneliness. But the cool glow of the Freedom Tower seems to have soothed many of the ghosts who roamed that area.

I think it’s the view of the gently flowing Hudson that causes the turmoil. How different everything must have looked to the Famine Irish as they came ashore in the 1840’s. 

Docks, slums, tenements, saloons, ship chandlers and all the businesses of a 19th Century port lined the banks of their Hudson. 

How many destitute Irish must have stared at this mighty river with the aching realization that they would never see home again.

Perhaps that’s the particular uaigneas that I channel no matter what time of year I visit the memorial.
It’s a foreign feeling in many ways for I’ve never felt lonely in New York City. 

But then I came by choice – on a raggle taggle adventure with a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket - and never had the desire to move home permanently.

I have been lonely in other cities, in particular Buenos Aires. Back in 2000 I was down there touring with Black 47 and had decided to stay on a few days after the band’s departure. 

The jacaranda trees were in full bloom, and in those days I was entranced by the experimental Tango music of Astor Piazzolla, and the poetry of Federico García Lorca. 

But after an afternoon spent exploring the boulevards and cafes of this cosmopolitan city an existential aloneness swept over me; I knew it would only deepen as the night wore on. 

On an impulse I hailed a cab to the airport, changed my ticket and departed with the band.

How easy that was to do in retrospect. But there was no such recourse for the hundreds of thousands of Famine Irish who piled into New York sick, diseased, hungry, and desperate for any kind of work.

They were despised and hated by the Know Nothings, and feared by many decent New Yorkers because of the diseases they carried from their ravaged country.

How did these rural people  - many of them native Irish speakers - even find work as they grappled with the demands and customs of a city beyond their imagination?

I once heard Pete Hamill remark that an average Famine immigrant saw more people in his/her first hour on South Street than they had their whole lives in Ireland.

Women had it a little easier. There was always need for barely paid scullery maids and washerwomen in the big houses uptown. 

Some men cracked and took to the shebeens, but most persevered and within two or three generations the Famine Irish had moved up in society.

Despite all their sacrifices it’s indisputable that New York is now yearly becoming less of an Irish town – notice the lack of Irish saloons in the five boroughs.

With immigration policies becoming even more restrictive, is the loneliness I experience in the Hunger Memorial less a memory and more a portent of times to come when an Irish accent will be a rarity behind the stick of a New York City bar?

And so it juts out over the Hudson, a memorial to a desperate people who overcame tragedy and discrimination. 

How strange to think that the descendants of those who stayed behind will never get the chance to follow in their footsteps.

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