Triumphalism in Boston’s Famine Memorial

November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy. IMG_0791

I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes.  For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting.  They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc.  The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous. FamineMemorial.jpg

The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World.  Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine.  Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo.  This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship.  In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.

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The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however.  They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland.  But they offer a glimpse of what is to come.  Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.

The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown.  Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s.  The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998.  It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking.  It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.

It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures.  The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.

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But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic.  This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy.  In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream.  But, there are a few gaps here.  First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States.  And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.  IMG_0516.jpeg

Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States.  The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation.  But this was not instantaneous.  It took a generation or two.  It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960.  Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.

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And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today.  And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.

 

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on.  By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie.  Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century.  And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland.  This is a refreshing change.

McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants.  This is what makes his book so valuable.  Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.

As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland.  I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism.  I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me.  When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me.  The picture, however, is beautiful.  Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics.  His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back.  He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t.  He was a knighted politician.  But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.”  Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule.  And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.

At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward.  Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:

The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder.  Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.

I find this humourous.  See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language).  By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything.  But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.

I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland.  After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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