Americas, Travel

Let them Eat Nothing

Finding myself in Manhattan yesterday, I decided to make a pilgrimage of three blocks to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, between the World Financial Center and the East River. It’s an unusual monument dedicated to the memory of the Great Famine Gorta Mór of 1845 to 1849. It’s built in the shape of an abandoned stone cottage, open to the sky. Its outer walls are lined with quotes to do with the Irish Famine and to famine in general.


looking towards Manhattan from the top of the monument


There is a great animated history of the famine’s causes in this video by Extra Credits. While it has traditionally been attributed to unlucky crop failure, it actually had more to do with money and bitter sectarian strife, like the famine in Yemen right now.  


After the English Civil War, Cromwell took 80% of Ireland (in orange on the map) and gave it to his troops in lieu of cash.  The displaced Irish farmers were moved to poor-quality pasture in Connaught. In 1702 the (completely Protestant) Irish Government passed severe Penal Laws that restricted Catholics from holding offices or owning land.

Perhaps understandably, the majority-Catholic Irish were not particularly happy with this state of affairs. A 1798 Uprising failed. In 1803 Robert Emmet was hanged for attempting another rebellion.  In the first three decades of the century, Daniel O’Connell campaigned peacefully for Catholic Emancipation and was finally successful, leading to the Tithe War of 1830-1836, in which a large chunk of the Catholic population resisted paying taxes to the Church of England.


Punch cartoon depicting Irishman ‘Mr G. O’Rilla’


By 1840, most of the land in Ireland was owned by English aristocrats, many of them absentee. Irish farmers rented the land but could be evicted as soon as their rent fell into arrears—they had no security of tenure. Forty percent of the population lived in one-room mud huts and subsisted on potatoes.  

Meanwhile, laissez-faire capitalism was gaining fans across Europe. One particularly ardent proponent of the system was Charles Trevelyan, who was appointed assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury in January 1840. Trevelyan held his position for nineteen years and was in charge of distributing relief during the famine. In 1848, he was rewarded with a knighthood for his efforts.


‘he had a remarkable insensitiveness’ — Cecil Woodham-Smith


In 1845, when a fungus-like organism turned Ireland’s potatoes black, and the Irish began to starve, Trevelyan decided that they should be left to their fate. The Economist, a magazine founded in 1843, endorsed this view, opposing any food aid. In 1846, Trevelyan ordered that relief programs be shut down. His greatest fear was that the starving Irish would grow to depend on the relief. Like other members of the British upper and middle classes, he believed the famine was “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, as he wrote in his book The Irish Crisis (1848), and he wrote in a letter to Lord Monteagle of Brandon that it was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”. He was right about that; as a result of the famine about a million people died and twice as many fled. My ancestors, the O’Reillys and Liddys, ended up in New Zealand and my husband’s came to New York. His great-grandparents arrived at Ellis Island with nine children and nothing else, ready to start again. 




Before visiting the monument, I was hungry so I walked into the big mall next door and bought a croissant and a coffee. Then I sat down in front of it eating and reading the walls. It seemed a bit callous to be eating mall food in front of a monument built to commemorate victims of economically-induced starvation, but there it is.

Replete, I entered a dark, claustrophic passage lined with quotes and came out into a wild meadow-like garden of poppies and grasses, interspersed with rocks, each one engraved with the name of a county. I looked for Cavan, which is where John’s family is from, and was upset when I couldn’t see it.




A couple of young boys were delighted with the path and scooted up it, the older one calling to their mother to tell her when they got to the top. The view was really nice, and rich.




Back down the bottom, I considered buying a can of red spray paint and writing YEMEN in large letters on the ground at the entrance, but of course I won’t. Maybe in a hundred years there will be a nice even-handed monument to atone for our great crime.



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