Searching for Ireland in Battery Park City: Brian Tolle's Irish Hunger Memorial as a Site of Memory and Action
Pletneva Veller, Alena
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Created in the context of the worldwide observation of the sesquicentennial of the Great Irish Hunger of 1845-1852, Brian Tolle's Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City is a unique monument that seeks to commemorate the catastrophe, inspire future action to eradicate worldwide famine, and to both create a visual marker of American-Irish relations and encourage communication and cultural exchange between the two countries. The work is a large, multi-sensory public sculpture that occupies a historically significant part of the New York City and is easily accessible to a myriad of visitors. However, at its core, this public artwork is an Irish landscape that has been removed from its native surroundings and inserted into the urban environment of Lower Manhattan. The memorial, which eschews concrete representations of the Famine and its immediate effects, strives to go beyond historical explanations, figural representation or blame in order to address the broader, universal implications of famine. At the same time, its focus is the specific plight of the Irish during the nineteenth century. This thesis examines the role of the Irish Hunger Memorial as a commemorative object and as a symbol of Irish heritage in America. Through an exploration of the context and commissioning process of the work's creation and a reading of the experience of the work, this study will interrogate the social and political functions served by the memorial and the various ways that it engages with the creation and manipulation of collective memory and national identity. Through its alleged authenticity, the dislocated landscape both mirrors the experience of Famine era Irish immigrants to the United States, infuses physical history into an urban environment that can be seen as lacking in ancestry and heritage, and serves to perpetuate the American melting-pot myth. At the same time it aids in reshaping Irish-American history and reinforces American national identity. In order to reconcile these often contradictory aspects of the Irish Hunger Memorial and illustrate its potential impact on the public sphere this analysis will posit the work as a site of what Michael Rothberg calls "multi-dimensional memory"- a location that encourages the creation of bonds among various groups and allows for the articulation of their histories and experiences.