An Gorta Mór
We were looking for a playground in New York’s Financial District. Which–in retrospect–strikes me as a hope so wild as to be laughable. Really? A swing set? On Wall Street?
But the explorer-mama, alone with her three-year-old in an unfamiliar place, will sometimes indulge wild hopes. Furthermore, wild hopes are sometimes rewarded. There is, in fact, a playground very nearby in Battery Park City. (It’s an amazing one, too: climbing nets, spinners, stone hippos spouting water.)
And then, a few hundred feet away, is something very sobering and strange.
Out of the concrete swells a hillside of wild grass, blown over with rushes and blackthorn. Stone walls climb it. A limestone wall supports the crest of the hill. Get closer and you’ll see stripes of glass in the limestone, inscribed with words:
Burying them in their own clothes, without a coffin…
Neglected children were crouched in groups, around the bits of lighted turf…
They need our action, not our tears…
Follow these streams of words through a dark tunnel and you’ll find yourself in a stone cottage, roofless, empty. It’s a famine cottage, brought from County Mayo, Ireland, to be part of this place, The Irish Hunger Memorial.
I don’t know if it was the Great Famine–or as it’s called in Irish, an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger–that brought my Irish ancestors to New York. I don’t even know if they came in the 19th century or the 20th; I never met the dead grandfather who could have supplied the answer, and he had such a common name that I doubt genealogical records will do me much good.
But what’s striking about the place is that the Irish Hunger Memorial doesn’t feel narrowly focused on this one tragedy alone. It is specific in its treatment of the Great Hunger, yes, with its name and the cottage and the Irish flora. But alongside the quotes about Irish families evicted by landlords are words about other famines, other suffering peoples around the world. One quote in particular stayed with me (I wish I could remember it verbatim). It seems to be the words of an Irish immigrant, speaking about African-American spirituals, and it was something along the lines of:
“Never since I was in Northern Ireland have I heard songs filled with such anguish and longing.”
* * *
Despite having loved 19th-century Irish music since my teenage years–even performing and singing it publicly–I’ve never researched much about the Great Hunger. But a week or two later I was home again on Long Island and brought my son to the Maritime Explorium in Port Jefferson, a little children’s museum about all things maritime. As he played in a rowboat filled with rice, I rifled through the museum bookshelf and a picture book caught my eye:
It’s called Life on a Famine Ship: A Journal of the Irish Famine 1845-1850. It’s a picture book from the point of view of a young boy whose family suffers the loss of their home in the Great Famine. Eventually they leave Ireland on one of the “floating coffins” that brought desperate Irish to the United States in search of work.
* * *
Many of my short stories grapple with coincidences–whether they have meaning, and if so, what that meaning might be. Most of my stories would not exist without some real-life coincidence that sparked or nurtured them. I know that most people probably grow out of seeing meaning in coincidences when they’re, I don’t know, sixteen or something. I get it; I’m half-skeptic. And maybe, indeed, coincidences are not a glimpse of some grand design. Maybe they’re just a quirk of the observant brain–or, at best, a note from the unconscious, some deep self calling out and saying “I have a word for you. This image speaks of it. Go on, puzzle it out.”
But I’ve never gone wrong when I’ve followed the trail of breadcrumbs. I’m thinking there might be a story in this: something hungry coming down the pipe.