Monday, October 13, 2008

Irish Hungers

I just read again Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in order to teach a class for a colleague. The savagery of the satire strikes me as hard as before. The outrage over the suffering of the Irish poor in 1729. The bitterness against England's exploitation. Particularly moving are the passages detailing groups such as begging mothers, and, more unexpectedly, young laborers. After dismissing the problem of the "aged, diseased and maimed," who take care of themselves by dying and rotting away, the speaker argues that the same is happening to the laborers.

And as to the younger laborers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength of perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

Thinking about this monument of English prose, I am reminded of another, a more physical one, I saw and walked on last Sunday. The Irish Hunger Memorial, standing at Battery Park City, commemorates the famine of 1845-52. Designed by Brian Tolle, a New York based sculptor, a half-acre landscaped plot is cantilevered over a base of glass and fossilized Irish limestone.

You enter the memorial through a Famine-era Irish cottage donated by the artist's extended family, the Slacks of Attymass, County Mayo, Ireland. From the open-roof cottage, the path meanders through a rugged landscape planted with gorse, ling heather, soft rush, yellow flag iris, cross-leaved heath, foxglove, bearberry, blackthorn and Burnet rose. Stones from every Irish county, and bearing the name of that county, are scattered along the path. The path ends at the highest point of the memorial, a post which affords a view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, what the Irish fleeing the famine would have seen when they sailed into the country. It was a moving experience, wandering through the memorial. 

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