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.

 

The Great War and Monuments in Canada

November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities.  Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict.  The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’  While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.

These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape.  And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible.  Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant.  They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes.  I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.

The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me.  My grandparents served in the Second World War.  And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.

As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War.  I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly.  And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period.  Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique.  Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

And so the First World War maintained this mystique.  Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.

Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament.   The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada.  Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.

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It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War.   In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses.  These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War.  But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number.  And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument.  They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.

And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale.  And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced.  And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.

Remembering Zmievskaya Balka

August 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka, a ravine in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.  The literal meaning of Zmievskaya Balka is ‘ravine of snakes.’  It was here on 11-12 August 1942 that the Jewish men of Rostov were marched out to the ravine, just outside the city, and shot.  The women, children, and the aged of the Jewish population were gassed, and their bodies dumped at Zmievskaya Balka.  Communists and some Red Army soldiers met the same fate, along with their family.  All told, 27,000 people were massacred.  At least 20,000 of them were Jewish.

This massacre is one of the forgotten ones of World War II and the Nazis.  My guess is no one reading this post will have ever heard of it.  Soviet and Russian authorities have done their best to make sure the massacre, or at least the Jewish fact of it, is forgotten due to the on-going anti-Semitism of the state.

In 2004, activists managed to get a memorial plaque erected that identified one of the massacre sites and noted the Jewishness of the victims.  In 2011, approaching the 70th anniversary of the massacre, this plaque was removed. It was replaced with a more banal commemoration of the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-On-Don and Soviet Prisoners of War.”  This erases the primary act of the Nazis in Rostov 75 years ago: the eradication of the city’s Jewish population.  And, it obscures the Nazis murderous anti-Semitism.

This morning, organizers held a march to the sites of the massacre in Rostov, to remember this brutal massacre.  We owe it to them to hold the memory of these victims in our

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