Monuments and Memorials



Lilian Lucy Davidson


rian Tolle’s Irish Hunger Memorial (2002) in Battery Park City, New York, offers several points of entry for the viewer. It can be accessed from the street through a passageway, like the entrance to the ancient Irish passage grave at Newgrange. In the passageway, texts inscribed onto the walls and an aural accompaniment offer facts and commentaries about the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th century, and the politics of food around the world today. Alternatively spectators can climb straight onto the sloping plot of land and follow a circuitous path through its unyielding ground to the ruined stone cottage in the center. Other loftier views are afforded from the secure heights of the towering offices of New York’s financial sector that surround it. Either way, the path is like a great question mark. Why is this site abandoned? Where have the occupants gone? What is it doing here? 

"The burden of human history must be accepted and faced if we are to understand ourselves."

Commemorative projects, born out of memories that often are conflicting, are inherently problematic. In the catalog to his exhibition “Naming the Fields,” painter Hughie O’Donoghue wrote about the apparent paradox of memory: “Although it [memory] is not always accurate it is always true; it tries to present the truth as it is felt.” Faithfulness to historical accuracy offers no guarantee of emotional satisfaction and at the very least, is always compromised by selectivity. Sometimes historic detail, because of the trauma it engenders, defies the act of representation. 

Yet the burden of human history must be accepted and faced if we are to understand ourselves. Commemorative projects are nuanced and complicated by a multiplicity of issues: the perspectives and motives of those who originate and execute them, whether they are the victors and perpetrators or victims and their descendants, the often partisan and divisive nature of the evidence, the complexity of the original contexts and the often conflicting agendas of recording and commemorating. We must be constantly aware as well, as historian Mary Daly told a conference devoted to the commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916 that, whatever else it may be, “commemoration is always political.”

This blog post has been extracted from Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine by Catherine Marshall part of the “Famine Folios” series by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum | Quinnipiac University Press ©2014. Visit: for more information.