By Michael P. Quinlin
BOSTON – Last month, as workers from Suffolk Construction Company were laying the foundation for the Famine Memorial Park in downtown Boston, a woman leaned against the chain link fence and asked to have a word with the foreman.
She held out her Irish grandmother’s wedding ring and wondered if it could be blended into the concrete being mixed for the foundation. She wanted this memory of her grandmother to become a part of a larger, collective memory that will permanently enshrine the Irish immigration experience in this most Irish of cities.
And last week, as the finishing touches were being added to the park, a woman stood in the shade of the busy pedestrian intersection, reflecting silently with a pair of rosary beads in her hand.
The Boston Irish Famine Memorial, which will be officially unveiled on Sunday, June 28, has evoked such sentiments from all corners of Boston and beyond.
Pensioned widowers have sent small donations with handwritten letters extolling the value of remembering this lost and silenced generation of immigrants. Wealthy Irish Americans have shipped back stones from their ancestral fields to help build the stone wall encircling the sculpture.
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At the single fund-raising dinner last March, 1,100 people crowded into the Copley Marriott ballroom, putting the drive over its $1 million goal. And hundreds more sent checks through the mail, including barmen, bankers, retired priests and nuns, new immigrants and mainline Irish Americans.
The Famine Memorial is important to Boston for a number of reasons. It is the first major public tribute to a community whose ranks once swelled to 40 percent of the city’s population, and even today is close to 20 percent. Boston has honored Irish individuals in the past – John Boyle O’Reilly, Mayors Patrick Collins and James Michael Curley, Commodore John Barry – but never the Irish community as a whole.
The memorial is sited along the city’s Freedom Trail, a quixotic collection of 16 Colonial-era stops ranging from Paul Revere’s House to the USS Constitution. The Trail is visited by 2 million visitors annually.
The memorial is possibly the largest work of public art devoted to the Irish in the United States, and one of the major sculptures commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine.
It has brought together the area’s Irish community together in a rare purposeful way, and is endorsed by groups ranging from the AOH and GAA to the American Ireland Fund and Charitable Irish Society.
The plight of immigrants
But perhaps most important, the Famine Memorial has allowed the Boston Irish to look beyond themselves, and in the process to update the definition of what it means to be Irish in America.
When the committee was formed in April 1996 by Mayo native and businessman Thomas J. Flatley, one of the early discussions was how to portray the Irish experience in a way that was neither self-serving nor parochial.