Where Did It All Begin, Attymass in Co. Mayo

When officially dedicated on Tuesday July 16th 2002 the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City brought to fruition efforts dating back several decades to build a famine memorial in New York, where so many Irish immigrated to escape its reach. So extensive was Irish immigration that between 1847 and 1851 more than 848,000 Irish arrived in New York City alone. By 1930 Irish Americans were more than 21 percent of New York City's population. In 1980 about one in seven Americans claimed Irish ancestry, and more than 40 million Americans described themselves as predominantly Irish. Almost 800,000 residents of New York City and 2.8 million residents of New York State trace their ancestry to Ireland.

Yet it was not until 1999 that the first real steps were taken to initiate the building of a memorial. It was then when Timothy S. Carey, President and Chief Executive of the Battery Park City Authority, one of the richest municipal authorities in New York, accompanied Governor of New York George E. Pataki on a trip to Ireland. The pair were visiting Governor Pataki's grandmother's home in County Louth. Pataki noted for his interest in human rights issues and Irish culture, had already signed a law in 1996 requiring that the New York State curriculum include instruction on the famine in Ireland. However both men wondered if they could do more to educate Americans about the horrors of the Great Famine in Ireland. The two men began to discuss Vesey Green, a half-acre square in Battery Park City as a possible site to create a memorial. Their mission was to design 'a contemplative space devoted to raising public awareness of the events that led to the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1851' and which would also serve as a catalyst towards addressing world hunger. Upon their return Governor Pataki charged James Gill, a native of Co. Sligo and Chairman of the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority, with overseeing the design of a memorial on this site. Mr. Carey selected a steering committee and hired Joyce Pomerantz Schwartz, an experienced art consultant, to guide the process of selecting the artist.

Battery Park City

The lower tip of Manhattan (called Lower Manhattan or Downtown), where the East and Hudson rivers meet, is where New York City began. It is here also that the Irish Hunger Memorial is located. At the bottom of the island is Battery Park (Manhattan's green toe), a wonderful waterside haven with 30 acres of gardens, playgrounds, a one-mile esplanade, public art, and views of the Hudson River. The Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is here as is the brand new Ritz-Carlton. Battery Park has fine views of harbour islands - Governor's Island, Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, and Ellis Island, the famous immigrant gateway to America (1892-1954) for ancestors of one in four present-day Americans.

Frequent ferry services to Staten Island, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty depart from South Ferry & Battery Park. Part of the authority's mission is to provide public cultural amenities on the 30-acre parkland site. The location chosen for the memorial was significant because of the large numbers of famine Irish who first arrived in New York City, the views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and the huge numbers of international visitors the city attracts, he added.

Irish Hunger Memorial Design Competition

In 2000 an extensive call to artists seeking interest and a request for qualifications was sent to national and international artists, artists registries, galleries, curators, and other art professionals announcing an open competition. Hunger Memorial organisers began the artist selection process by looking at the work of 150 artists. Committee members and their chairmen were also charged with selecting a theme, message and goals for the Famine Memorial. The only conditions were that the memorial be a contemplative space, retain the harbour view and incorporate text. Decision-makers whittled the number of candidates down to fifteen and then five. The artists were responsible for selecting architects and/or landscape architects who would assist them in making expansive proposals with models and drawings. At that point the finalists were each given a $10,000 stipend to design a model. The five artists invited to participate were St. Clair Cemin, Agnes Denes, Richard Fleishner, Kiki Smith and Brian Tolle. Most of the competing artists visited Ireland immediately prior to conceiving their proposals. They returned with heightened awareness of the significance of "An Gorta Mor" to the Irish people. Being of Irish ancestry was not considered a criteria for artist selection. More important was the evidence shown about the specific artist's ability to understand and develop a concept sensitive to the charged content of the Irish Hunger through their own aesthetic sensibilities and visionary approaches.

The eventual winner was artist Tolle who collaborated with David Piscuskas, Jurgen Riehm of 1100 Architect and with the landscape architect Gail Wittwer. The selection of Tolle's model was all but unanimous. It featured a displaced quarter-acre of the Irish countryside, cantilevered out over the sidewalk - a combination of postmodern monument and landscape. All of Tolle's work deals with memory and the memorial and this one was no different. His objects grew out of detailed historical research that was materialised through crafted work combined with the latest techniques of production. Carey said he had been overwhelmed by Mr. Tolle's proposal. "Even before the artist explained it, it had an emotional impact," Carey said.

Brian Tolle

Brian Tolle with Irish roots in Co. Armagh is a New York City native who graduated from New York's Parsons School of Design in 1992 and Yale University of Art in 1994. Before his selection Brian Tolle was already a mover and a shaker on the art scene. His first group exhibit was in Hartford, Connecticut in 1994, while his first solo exhibit came just two years later at Basilico Fine Arts in New York City. He had another solo show at the same venue in 1998. Tolle was touted as an up-and-coming young artist by Interview magazine back in 1995, while The New York Times, Artforum and The Village Voice have reviewed his exhibits and career.

Since then he has exhibited his work in galleries, museums and public spaces around the world. His other public works include Witch Catcher at City Hall, New York City, Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe for Crossing the Line, Queens Museum of Art, New York, Dropped By for Locus Focus, Sonsbeek 9, Arnhem, Netherlands, and Eureka for Over the Edges, Ghent, Belgium.

Trip to Ireland

After receiving the commission Tolle was compelled to make a trip to Ireland. He travelled the western seaboard from Galway to Mayo in search of inspiration and was 'struck by the wildness of the landscape.' The vast number of abandoned small stone farmhouses that dot the land left a lasting impression on the artist. His visit included a trip to the deserted village of Slievemore on Achill Island. This same deserted village had, fifty years previous, inspired the work of Heinrich Böll, a former winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. In his publication Irish Journal - A Traveller's Portrait of Ireland - he too remarked on the frequent occurrence of abandoned villages in Ireland. Böll also noted that the people of the area informed him of every trivial local detail but never mentioned the abandoned village.

There are two possible reasons for this; perhaps, the skeletal remains of the village are seen as cenotaphs by locals, a bleak reminder of lost friends and neighbours. The second more plausible reason is that abandonment of settlement has been relatively constant in Ireland since the famine, but not wholly as a result of the famine, that it is accepted and occurs without comment. In both these instances it has been the outsider that is struck by this phenomenon. Therefore, a ruined cottage for the foreigner is perhaps a more potent and immediately striking symbol than for the Irish native.

'As I approached the deserted village at Slievemore on the Achill Islands, County Mayo, a stone ridge became visible at the base of the mountain. Drawing closer I could see that the ridge was actually a row of stone cottages hewn into the hillside…I climbed the hill and looked back over the abandoned village. Never had I witnessed a more potent and more powerful memorial.' As he wandered over ancient potato furrows softened by time, between stone walls built with boulders cleared by farmers long ago, he became aware of the fragility of the soil and a way of life scraped from the mountainside. Between the potato fields, indigenous plants held their ground. The wild flowers were beautiful not only for their colour but also for their tenacity. They had adapted to life in this harsh place. Mr. Tolle continued, 'Questions came to mind. Who had lived there? What had become of the people? Was this a family lost to the hunger?

The forlorn, silent site made Tolle's thoughts turn away from a memorial that might have been an artist's rendering of, say, hungered and poverty-stricken Irish people leaving Ireland for America. Instead, he saw the scene as "a fragment torn from Slievemore, and transplanted to Manhattan. Too many memorials are representational. This memorial will make the viewer the actual subject," said Tolle. Slievemore was abandoned as a permanent settlement some time in the late 1800s. Undoubtedly the Great Famine (1845-49) would have been a significant factor.

Centrepiece of Memorial

Now that Tolle had been chosen as the designer of the memorial and had visualised his design, his mind turned to the cottage that would eventually become centrepiece to the memorial. Tolle had a real dilemma, was he going to simulate an Irish house in the States or was he going to be a colonialist and take a house away from Ireland. However he soon learned that the old houses in Ireland weren't protected. Brian Clyne, a co-partner of Mr. Tolle, recalled a photograph of his grandmother's cottage that fitted the designer's description of the Hunger Memorial: 'an extraordinarily humble place, the interior of a ruined fieldstone cottage, now emptied of the family that it once sheltered.' The photo belonged to Brian's mother Maureen whose mother Mary Slack lived in the cottage and also was an immigrant to the US.

The derelict cottage located at Carrowdoogan in the parish Attymass, County Mayo belonged to the Slack family. The townland of Carrowdooogan lies at the foothills of the Ox Mountains about two miles north-east of the village of Attymass. Brother's Tom and Chris Slack were approached, by their cousin Mr. Clyne, with the idea of removing their ancestral home across the foam. The Slack family in Ireland were delighted and presented it as a gift in memory of all the Slack family members of previous generations who emigrated to America and fared well there. The cottage was seen as a generous gesture between two families and a poignant gift between two nations.

The cottage, which was inhabited until 1963, was built in the 1830s and originally had just one room. Chris Slack, the last person born in the house, tells that since the 1960s the thatch of the roof had fallen in and that 'bits of it were taken and used to build walls, slatted houses, different things. The inside walls had been gutted out of it so that when the Americans came along and looked at it they thought it was a two-roomed house, which is how it is described… its actually three or four roomed house…depending whether you count a split bedroom as one or two.'

Chris said that the family wasn't too nostalgic about the loss of the family home: 'Well my brother gives the best description; he said that only for the ground around the house was so hard he would have buried it long ago. It was just the want of a way of disposing of it…(that) it survived at all.' Mr. Slack further commented that he hoped that now that mass emigration has stopped from Ireland, the cottage could cross the ocean as a symbol of the hope that Irish emigration is at an end. Tolle rejoiced at 'the idea of protecting and preserving a very simple structure that talks about big things - like the Irish Famine and world hunger.' Mr. Slack's and Mr. Tolle's remarks highlight the way in which the cottage as centrepiece to the memorial may be viewed - as a symbol of a dark past or as a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

The response in the parish of Attymass was subdued, many perhaps not understanding the degree of American interest in an old ruined cottage. Tom Slack, elder brother of Chris, attests to the Irish belief in the functionality of the cottage. He told The Irish Times that he didn't feel too sentimental about the loss of the ruin 'it did its duty, it kept a roof over my head for 20 years, and I have my own place so I won't be left out in the cold.' One local from Attymass expressed her bewilderment at the logic behind taking a ruined cottage from the west of Ireland across the Atlantic: 'I think it's a daft thing…do they not have stones of their own?' The remark wasn't intentionally sarcastic; it was a genuine expression of confusion.

When Chris Slack, the last person to be born in the cottage, was asked about the local response to the project he said, 'Bemusement, I think is the best word there is. It's a bit of a laugh I suppose. Most people didn't believe it at first… but most people think it's a lovely idea.' Mrs. Ellen Ferguson of Shanaghy, Ballina, Chris' Godmother and former neighbour of the Slack Family, offers a different way of viewing the Slack cottage. Mrs. Ferguson grew up in the cottage on the opposite side of the boreen to the Slack cottage, in the 1920s. She remarked that she was 'sad' to see the cottage go because for her it was a symbol of her youth and the 'fun' they used to have in that house.