Stepping into Ireland's past in Manhattan

I know little about the Great Famine. Obviously I'm aware of how it drastically reduced the Irish population by killing one million people and forcing a further million to emigrate elsewhere, so giving rise to the culture of emigration that has created the vast Irish diaspora that exists today.

However, like most young people from Ireland, my knowledge of the Famine is largely restricted to what I have encountered in textbooks during secondary school, or have seen in the occasional film documentary.

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I've never listened to any of the folk music which recalls the Famine, and with no notable movies or TV shows regarding the period, it's difficult for any young person to get a good grasp of the conditions at the time.

So when I happened across the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City while holidaying in Manhattan, I felt somewhat out of my depth. The fairly modest structure, designed by Brian Tolle and Gail Wittwer-Laird to commemorate the Great Hunger, is juxtaposed against the lavish residential buildings and the imposing presence of the new, and still rising, World Trade Center.

This gives it a rather unique aspect when compared to other monuments throughout the city.

With its crumbling building and familiar vegetation, actually taken from Emerald Isle itself, the memorial is quite literally a slab of Ireland within the boundaries of New York City.

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It was this familiarity, combined with the haunting words regarding the Great Hunger emblazoned on its modern exterior that created the eerie and reflective atmosphere that was surely intended by its designers.

The memorial paints a scene that is intuitively familiar to Irish people: an abandoned stone cottage that could be any that you would still find in the Irish countryside, a bleak image that hinted at, in my view at least, the sort of horror that so many must have been experienced in Ireland in the mid-19th century.

So even though I had never held much interest in the Famine, this mattered little.

The memorial succeeds in striking an empathetic chord, regardless of one's historical knowledge, or lack thereof.

I found it particularly poignant that the memorial offered a view of Ellis Island, were many of the millions who emigrated from Ireland to America would have arrived.

It was a view which, to me, conveyed in a way that is only possible in New York, the stark choice that the Irish faced in the post-Famine era: stay in the collapsing nation, or leave for new lands, and in the main America, in the hope of achieving a better life.

Perhaps the most haunting realization from my visit was the relevance the memorial still holds. As pointed out in the words which line the outside of the memorial, hunger and famine are still rife today with millions losing their lives each year as a result.

Indeed, it is hard to leave the memorial unaffected, even if one has no real knowledge or strong interest in the Famine. I find it somewhat ironic that one of the most notable memorials to the Irish Famine exists some 3,000 miles away from Ireland itself, yet this is also fitting considering how deeply affected America was by the Famine, it be a catastrophe that cemented the Irish community's presence in the United States.

It may be excessively minimalist in design, but the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City offered me an engaging experience, and an insight into the life of the Irish during that long ago time.

And this is something that I doubt that I would have discovered elsewhere, maybe not even in Ireland itself.

Aidan McGrattan is a high school senior in County Down.