Reflection on Famine Memorial: Where Was Hibernian Caucus When We Needed It?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, before the Massachusetts Senate got down to business, which consisted of a long discussion and votes on multiple proposed amendments to a supplemental budget bill, the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums played some music in the Senate chamber in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that now requires a least a week to accommodate all of the celebrating that folks want to indulge in this time of year.

In welcoming the Gaelic Column, Senator Michael Rush of West Roxbury said, “The enormous contributions the Irish have made in our culture, our history and our state are profound.”
Senator Rush also introduced Brendan O’Caollai, Consul General of Ireland in Boston, calling him a “very special guest, a guest of the Senate President and those who have identified as the Hibernian Caucus.”

I had never before heard the many members of the legislature who have Irish roots described as the “Hibernian caucus.”  It’s kind of a nice formulation, although it appears to be strictly an honorary or unofficial name. There is no door or letterhead at the State House emblazoned with those words.
If the members of this caucus actually convened in a hearing room and tried to achieve a distinct goal, I am fairly certain their efforts would quickly devolve into stalemate.  We Irish are rightly known for argumentative tendencies and monumental stubbornness.

Speaking of monuments, I wish the Hibernian Caucus could do something about that one at the corner of School and Washington Streets, the Irish Famine Memorial. 
This is one of the best locations in Boston for a monument, and the event it commemorates, perhaps the greatest catastrophe of the 19th Century, is worthy of remembrance and reflection for all time, especially in a city that absorbed tens of thousands of refugees from the famine.  The eight bronze plaques at the site, which bear texts explaining the famine, the million deaths it caused, the mass exodus it set off, etc., could not be more appropriate or helpful.  

The memorial goes awry, however, in its main sculptures, two groupings of three persons each, which are mounted on wide, cylindrical, rock pedestals. The problem is a lack of art.

On one pedestal, the figures we see are emaciated, rags barely covering their bodies.  A man sits on the ground, his torso curled painfully forward.  A kneeling girl stares down at an empty basket and a kneeling woman looks up at the sky; her lips are parted, as if she’s crying, “Why us, Lord?”  Her left arm is raised and the long, thin fingers of her left hand are raised in supplication to the heavens. The whole thing shouts, VICTIMS!     
On the other pedestal, several feet away, there is a young handsome man, his young handsome wife and their handsome little boy.  They have some meat on their bones and are wearing pretty good clothes.  They are striding forward confidently, with the woman glancing sideways at the trio in torment.  She has a stern but somewhat oblivious expression.  Why didn't they just slap SURVIVORS! on this thing?

The look and feel of an old Saturday Evening Post cover is not the only regrettable aspect of this memorial -- or even the most regrettable.  Worse is the missed opportunity to make a larger point, a universal point. 

The potato famine was one of the first recorded instances of a government (the British in this case) using an existing famine, or of a government deliberately bringing about a famine (as Stalin did in Ukraine), to effect a political purpose.  In the Ireland of the 1840s, the purpose was to drive off the poor tenant farmers so that the British owners could create large, remunerative estates on the rich, newly vacant land.
I am not an art expert, nor am I a sculptor.  I can’t tell you how the creators could have designed the memorial in ways that would have suggested the complicity of the powerful in the extinction of the weak or have made one contemplate the serious defects of human nature that play out when food is used as a weapon of policy or war.

But if a Bostonian or a visitor to the city wants to experience the power of art in a public place to startle us with a new insight into an old truth or to send us on a deep journey into our own souls, all he or she has to do is take a short walk from the Irish Famine Memorial to the New England Holocaust Memorial, near Faneuil Hall, or to the Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

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