The 18-foot tall Celtic cross in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park marks both a memory of profound trauma and the persistence of the community that remembers it. Erected in 2011 in a public park by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, the memorial’s design reaches far back into Irish history to commemorate an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) of 1845-1852, the cataclysmic famine that killed a million and sent millions more from their homeland.
The Irish community has deep roots in Jersey City that reach back to that cataclysm. Father Mark O’Connell opened the dedication ceremony with a blessing, following a mass at nearby St. Aloysius Church, the seat of one of Hudson County’s original Irish Catholic parishes. Christine Kinealy, the author of The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion, read Jane Elgee’s poem “The Famine Year,” written in 1847. It was a moment of deep reflection on a somber memory.
Although the memory of the Famine is old, its commemoration is of much more recent origin. In Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument, Emily Mark-Fitzgerald notes that the vast majority of monuments to its memory were erected in the wake of “the remarkable outpouring of public commemoration and sentiment (described in the Irish media as ‘Famine fever’) that swept across Ireland and the nations of its diaspora during the Famine’s 150th anniversary” in 1995. Before that, she writes, it was a trauma shrouded in silence – remembered, but unspoken.
Indeed, the tardy commemoration of the great tragedy of Irish history and the founding trauma of the Irish diaspora, reflects the complex politics of historical memory. Irish nationalism had little time to remember the dead and departed. Nationalist narratives celebrated the heroic martyrs of 1916, the Volunteers of 1919-1921, remembered the victims of the Black and Tans, and largely forgot the emigrants who they believed abandoned Ireland for the green fields of America.
The silence was as deafening across the Atlantic, where Irish Americans worked energetically to find a place for themselves in a racist social order suspicious of outsiders and, by the early-20th century, hostile to immigrants. They downplayed their refugee roots and emphasized their embrace of the American Dream. Irish Americans were, after all, Americans whose popular culture evoked “the old sod” in sentimental memory. Ireland was the land of Brigadoon and The Quiet Man. Occasionally, there would be a note of tragedy, as in John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer; but there was rarely, if ever, even a mention of the Great Hunger.
That remained a distant memory for, throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, Ireland remained very far away. The Atlantic was too wide an ocean to cross easily, save for visits from entertainers like John McCormack, who often toured America singing “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” in his honeyed tenor, and lusty-voiced lads like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers.
President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 was unprecedented for an American president, and unusual for an Irish American. It was very much a product of the burgeoning Jet Age that would soon bring Ireland into more intimate and continuous contact with its diaspora. The three-day tour was hailed as a homecoming, as the president met with distant relatives in the town of New Ross, Co. Wexford, from which his great-grandparents had sailed for America in 1849. Much was made, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the return; no mention was made of the cause of Patrick and Bridget Kennedy’s emigration.
That began to change by the next decade. The resumption of the Troubles in Northern Ireland followed in the wake of decades of decolonization, and nationalist firebrands found inspiration and justification in anticolonial struggles around the world. The memory of the Famine, and especially of the shameful British colonial policies that escalated the scale of the catastrophe, now had political value.
And Irish Americans began to uncover its memory as the struggles of the 1960s released long-repressed demands for minority representation and the recognition of the place of subaltern peoples in an increasingly variegated American community. Writing in 1976 in the New York Times, William V. Shannon observed that “the Irish are fading out as a discernible group in American life” at just the moment when ethnic and cultural identities were gaining cultural capital. In this new cultural context, and in the shadow of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Irish consciousness was experiencing a renaissance in America. But, he noted “it is the tragedies in Ireland’s past, not those of the present, that shape the American Irish community’s sense of identity.” And the greatest tragedy, the one that established the Irish in America, was the Famine.
Thus, to commemorate the Famine – indeed to acknowledge it at all – was to insist on the particularity of the Irish to American history. Famine memorials plant a Celtic cross in the space of American public memory and proclaim the significance of the Irish, both as a discrete group and as members of the broader community, in America.
At its worst, this impulse has fed an ugly kind of Irish American exceptionalism. It promotes the specious myth that “the Irish were slaves, too” and argues that, since the Irish were able to overcome their poverty in America, any groups – African Americans, immigrants – still subject to structural oppression are merely whiners, and undeserving of their compassion.
On the other hand, the memory of the Famine has become, for descendants of its survivors on both sides of the Atlantic, the touchstone of a powerful humanistic universalism. In his poem “Digging,” Seamus Heaney found his identity and mission in the memory of an Gorta Mór:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
He dug deep and found a commitment to humanity. In his poem, “From the Republic of Conscience,” written to mark International Human Rights Day in 1985, Heaney wrote of emigration, immigration, and the crossing of borders as the universal human condition. Through it everyone, collectively and individually, assumes the obligations of citizenship in the “Republic of Conscience:”
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.