Everything about the famine is still woven into the fabric of how the Irish see themselves as a people; how they view the world beyond their shores; how they look to replenish their native-born children; how they maintain their culture and heritage; and how they are now looking to future with the modernization of their economic and social growth. This is a damaged people, but one with resilience and fortitude. They take pride in their survival and refuse to allow the world to forget the injustices heaped upon them during that period where over one million souls perished from starvation and millions more fled in search of something better and didn’t always find it.
In the capital city of Dublin, those reminders are everywhere. We toured the Jeannie Johnston immigrant ship, one of the first to set sail for The United States and Canada with hundreds aboard. The Emigrant museum across the street is a fully interactive and multi-media experience that takes the guest through each and every wave of Irish emigration to all parts of the globe. (Did you know that former Israeli President Chaim Herzog has a grandparent from Ireland or that former US President Barack Obama’s great-grandmother was Irish?) The ability to maintain Irish culture and heritage so far from home has been nothing short of astounding and the number of people across the world who can trace some Irish ancestry numbers in the tens of millions.
Perhaps the most poignant memorial we encountered here in Dublin is an art installation that is right down on the banks of the river Liffey. A series of seven bronze statues, each depicting a starving Irish emigre, is shown getting ready to board a vessel bound for…wait for it…Toronto. Entitled Famine and created by artist Rowan Gillespie, shows the seven desperate, hunched over, and with terrified vacant expressions. There is the realization that they must board this boat, but a knowledge of all that they are leaving behind. They know that they will probably never see their homes or families again. The really cool part of this work is that there is a corresponding gathering of bronze figures in Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst and Queen’s Quay in Toronto. There are only five statues in Canada as the artist wanted to diminish the set to account for the thirty percent lost during the journeys. A woman sculpted in Dublin appears pregnant in Toronto as many women became pregnant on their voyages. From Mr. Gillespie himself.
“Possibly the most dominant feature of the site are the huge grain silos which seem to symbolize the abundance of food in Canada, in contrast to the situation in Ireland. So there would be another figure of a man (they were mainly men who make the journey) in humble prayer and gratitude as he looks in almost disbelief at these symbols of plenty.”I honestly never knew that these sculptures existed and that they are located not ten minutes from my home in Toronto. I am so terribly excited to visit them when we return.
The Irish experience has touched me deeply during our visit her in Dublin. I think I understand our bounds a bit better.