In hopeless circumstances at home, the Irish ﬂed their homeland by the hundreds of thousands each year. From 1845-1855, nearly a quarter of the population emigrated, mostly from rural, Catholic, often Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. They ﬂed to England, to Australia, and in greatest numbers to North America, seeking new homes in Canada and the United States. Thus began a pattern of emigration that would become a psychic trauma in Irish life for over a hundred years.
There had always been a migratory pull to the New World of the Americas. The Irish had played a major role in the earliest days of colonial life in America, but those Irish were driven by a sense of opportunity and adventure in a new world. During the starvation years, the exodus of the Irish was driven by desperation.
At the height of the Hunger Migration, the ﬁve-to-eight-week journey was especially perilous. The most desperate took unprecedented winter crossings to Canada on what came to be called “coffin ships” where fever and typhus became unwelcome shipmates. Many of these ships were cargo vessels used to bring lumber from Canadian forests to build English cities. Now Irish immigrants served as human ballast in the holds of these ships for the return trip. Thousands perished on the journey or in quarantine stations on arrival in the land they had hoped would save them. Historian Cecil Woodham-Smith writes, “The thousands who poured over the Atlantic in 1847 were fugitives, a helpless horde of the kind which ﬂees from a bombed town.” Despite the trauma of the journey, they continued to come and would do so for generations following The Great Hunger.
The New World was often hostile to this ﬂood of impoverished Irish immigrants. In America’s cities, including Philadelphia, they arrived to face the native “Know-Nothing” movement, which defined “American” in terms that excluded the newly arriving Irish as “papists,” “foreign paupers,” “a motley multitude.” Most came from rural, agricultural backgrounds, but they landed in an urban, industrial world. Many had never been more than twenty miles from home before undertaking the hazardous transatlantic journey. Apprehensive, but eager to start a new life in freedom, they disembarked at ports like this one on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. However, when seeking employment, they were often greeted with the message “No Irish Need Apply.” Yet, by 1850, eighteen percent of the population of Philadelphia was Irish.
Attitudes toward the Irish were typiﬁed by an English commentator who described Irish immigrants as “more like tribes of squalid apes than human beings.” A prominent Philadelphian wrote of the Irish that they had “revolting and vicious habits. Being of the lower order of mankind, they were repellent to those who were further advanced in the social scale.”
Philadelphia historian Dennis Clark summarizes their plight:“The antipathy toward them rested not only on their reputation for violence and their religious difference from the bulk of the city’s natives, but also upon their competition for jobs at the lower occupational levels, their menial status, their foreign aspect and clannishness…. To the grievous sufferings of the famine generation were added the cultural and class indictments of a largely hostile public opinion in the country to which they had ﬂed.”
The ﬁrst wave of Hunger Emigrants faced enormous difficulties, but they found a foothold in what became America’s ﬁrst urban, ethnic ghettos. Often, they lived in overcrowded hovels beset by disease, crime, unemployment, drink, and despair. Their communities were dubbed “Paddytown,”“Irishtown,” “Micktown.” But against great odds, they endured. They sought whatever work could be found, becoming newly industrial America’s cheap laboring force. They built railroads and bridges, dug canals and tunnels, went into mines, tended furnaces, worked as servants and seamstresses, and fought and died to preserve their new found home. Two hundred sixty-three natives of Ireland would go on to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, more than from any other foreign country. The Irish forged a cohesive communal voice by forming labor unions, political organizations, and cultural and religious societies. Gradually, they became Irish-Americans.
Their struggle paved the way for those who would follow. In the sixty years after The Great Hunger, over six million would leave their homeland, eighty percent coming to the United States, a pattern of chain emigration that would continue well into the twentieth century. In 2000, over forty-four million Americans claimed Irish heritage, many tracing their roots back to the dark days of the Hunger Migration and its aftermath in Irish life.
Over the years, the Irish have not only made a place for themselves in mainstream America, they have shaped it in new ways. By the beginning of the twentieth century, only ﬁfty years after the great migration, the Irish had become major inﬂuences in every area of American culture. Their sportsmen ﬂourished on the playing ﬁelds and in the boxing rings;their songs and music ﬁlled the stage. As time progressed, their writers redeﬁned American literature;Irish names became prominent in business, science and industry. Perhaps one of their greatest achievements would come in fashioning a place in American political life. Coming from a world in which they had no voice, they ﬂourished in the openness of American democracy. In 1960, a descendant of Hunger Emigrants, was elected to the highest ofﬁce in the United States. From great suffering can come great strength.
This memorial commemorates the struggle and pain of those Irish who ﬂed their homeland in the face of a hunger of catastrophic proportions. It celebrates their courage and honors them for opening the door for others. Their story springs from one dark period in the history of a distant island, but their journey and arrival changed the face of American life and forged an enduring link between Ireland and America.
As it was for the Irish long ago, America remains a hopeful refuge from suffering and injustice. The Irish experience, its traumas and its triumphs, stands as a model from which we can learn and grow. “The Irish, by being the ﬁrst and the largest urban minority group with which American society had to deal, and by working their way into the general society, would constitute an example for the array of other immigrants who would follow them.” (Dennis Clark).
In 1994, speaking at the site of a quarantine station at Grosse Isle, Quebec, where 5,300 Irish died in 1847, Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, challenged her listeners to be participants in history rather than mere spectators: “If we are participants then we realize there are no inevitable victims…. If we are participants, we engage with the present in terms of the past.”
In looking at this monument on the edge of a river in a great American city, we honor the past, but we are also challenged to look at the present and to the future. For the most part, the children and grandchildren of the Hunger immigrants have prospered and are grateful for the bountiful blessings of America.
We must be mindful that prejudice still exists, especially toward newly arrived immigrants. Let this memorial serve as a beacon of hope to all who come here. To them we say in greeting: “Céad míle fáilte!” One hundred thousand welcomes!
The monumental bronze is designed as a dynamic arc filled with movement. Approximately 12 feet high, 30 feet long, and 12 feet wide, the sculpture rests on a granite plinth 2 feet high and has the basic profile of a large wedge. The design suggests the multitudes with 35 life-size bronze figures arranged in clusters of vignettes.
The monument’s flow depicts the starvation in Ireland, the people embarking for America and then the immigrants stepping onto American shores. The east end, suggesting a landscape, portrays the misery of the Irish Starvation. In contrast, the higher end, suggesting a ship, faces west as anxious immigrants dock in America and a number of figures rush forward in anticipation, full of hope and looking to the future of freedom and opportunity. The design is a true sculpture in the round, with engaging subjects and intriguing shapes seen from every angle. All of the figures are in period dress but are loosely modeled and impressionistic. The figures draw you close to experience the detail and expressions in the faces. Glenna, through this magnificent sculpture, has truly captured the essence of An Gorta Mór. Each time you view the monument you notice another subtle detail or experience the story of the Starvation from a different figure’s perspective.
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