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New York Times

The Great Irish Hunger and the Art of Honoring Memory
 
 — By VERLYN KLINKENBORG

 
Last week the Irish Hunger Memorial opened at the west end of Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City. It opened several months late, largely because the area was off limits for so long after Sept. 11. In those intervening months, the meaning of the memorial, dedicated to those who died in that Irish famine, has inevitably changed.

The artist Brian Tolle has erected a cantilevered croft, a tilted plane of the old sod that has been sown with native plants and incorporates, at its center, an actual, and astonishingly minute, Irish cottage. The street-level walls of the memorial are shadowed by the concrete that supports the green field overhead, and they incorporate fragments of text that commemorate and elucidate the enormous suffering of the Irish in the Great Hunger of 1845-1852. That event caused the first great emigration of Irish to America. From the highest ridge of the memorial, you can look out not only to the steel bones and glass skin of Jersey City rising against the sky but to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, too.

If you turn around at that vantage point, you can look directly east along Vesey Street to ground zero. This is one of those accidental harmonies that Mr. Tolle could never have planned, any more than he could have planned the breezes that stir the croft’s plantings to life or the sounds of birds and children that spill onto the still strangely vacant site of this memorial. Thoughts of all those dead a century and a half ago lead inevitably to thoughts of those who died only a few months ago, not of starvation, but of something quicker yet no less cruel.

Standing on the Irish Hunger Memorial and looking east along Vesey Street also inevitably raises the question of how to memorialize such powerful, defining moments in history. It raises the question because Mr. Tolle’s memorial accomplishes its task so effectively and so succinctly.

On one level, the Irish Hunger Memorial is as literal as literal can be. The bearberries and burnet roses planted there are living plants, and so is the clover. Paths thread down through the green just as paths really do. The stones are real stones, the water dripping from the cantilevered edge real water. And yet the whole of the memorial functions, as it must, symbolically. It somehow suggests and encompasses the enormity of the failure that came to Ireland with the potato blight, and with it a hunger that either drove off or killed two and a half million Irish. But the memorial doesn’t spell out that failure. The memorial never makes its own intentions literal. It trusts the visitor. The intelligence of this work, and its beauty, is that it relies on the literalism, the specificity, of place and on the strength of our human response to place. The power of that connection and the sense of absence so evocative in the topography of this memorial are what gives it its symbolic power.

The discussion over the character of the Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero has barely begun, except as a matter of allocating space. But when it does begin, the ideas suggested by the Irish Hunger Memorial are the ones the city and the world will be struggling with. Finding the right balance between literalism and symbolism will not be easy. Though the emotions of visitors to that future memorial will be easily stirred by memory, it will be hard to stir them in ways that are as beautifully and tenderly grounded as they are at the Irish Hunger Memorial.

To a certain extent, the World Trade Center, when it stood, was something of an anti-place. Its enormous plaza was never inherently attractive or inviting to most people, and the towers, to many visitors, were mainly good for providing a high perch to look at other places. But with its demise, the World Trade Center became a place like no other.

Mr. Tolle had to transpose the power of place from Ireland to New York. That will not be necessary at ground zero. But what will still be needed is an artistic vision that honors what happened there — the literalness of place — in a way that goes beyond mere enumeration, mere explanation. What New Yorkers and visitors from around the world will need to find at that memorial, when it is finally built, is a place that rises through the power of their emotions to become something larger and more powerful than the simplicity of its design ever suggested it might be. There are few enough precedents for work like this, but one of them is standing just a few blocks away.