Battery Park City's Irish Hunger Memorial: In the Beginning

The discovery of this 1965 snapshot, showing the grandmother of artist Brian Tolle’s partner, Brian Clyne, in a cart in front of a family cottage, became the inspiration for the design of the Irish Hunger Memorial, a recreation of a portion of the house, with stones from the abandoned cottage. Photo: Courtesy of Brian Tolle and Brian Clyne

Jun. 01, 2015

Last month, the artist Brian Tolle, designer of the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, gave a talk about this half-acre site that commemorates the Great Famine, a tragic episode in Irish history that began in 1845 and took the lives of an estimated one million people. Below, in an edited version, Tolle tells how he became involved in the project and his efforts to make the memorial, with its rural Irish landscape and reconstructed cottage ruins, as au­thentic as possible.


So much was serendipity.

I was serving on jury duty and I sat next to a man whose mother was Joyce Schwartz, the art consultant who was vetting all the artists for this memorial. A little later, Joyce called me and said, “I’m a big fan of your work, Brian, but I hadn’t thought of you for this project. Would you submit your qualifications?” 

This was on a Monday and the competition was closing in a few days. Back then, we used slides to show our work and $25 to make a duplicate overnight was a lot of money for me, so I delivered the portfolio myself to the Battery Park City Authority offices. It was the day of their first meeting about the memorial. When I told the receptionist I was there for the Irish Hunger Memorial, I was mistakenly swept into the board room and seated across the table from Tim Carey, who was then the CEO of Battery Park City and was responsible for nearly all of the construction down here. He looked at me and said, “Who are you?” I introduced myself and this lovely lady next to me said, “Oh, it’s so great to meet you. I’m Joyce Schwartz!”

So it was jury duty that gave me the chance to be considered for this project.

Five artists were chosen for the final round and each of us was given $10,000. I packed up my bags and I went to Ireland, where I had never been. We had a wonderful historian on the project, and I asked her, “Where can I go to experience the consequence of these terrible events?” She sent me to a small, deserted village in western Ireland where there were dozens and dozens of houses dug into the hillside made out of stone rubble without any roofs. I stood on that hillside and looked over this village and tried to imagine the people who had once occupied this place and were lost, not only physically lost—lost their lives—but lost in time, lost in history. That experience left me feeling a profound sadness, a profound sense of loss. 

I submitted, with my architect and landscape architect, a model made of clay with some presentation boards. It was just a schematic. After we won, we had one year to design and build it. 

I knew pretty early on that in some way a house would factor into this equation, although I didn’t know exactly how. 

Having been an artist who made historical-looking objects out of things like Styrofoam and fiberglass, it struck me that it was not an appropriate gesture to simulate one of these deserted houses in Ireland that had a resonance so deep. But nor did I want to participate in the colonial tradition of going someplace and taking stuff. So I put my name on the Irish Landmark Trust list, figuring that would be the responsible way to acquire a house. However, it soon became obvious that that would take a very long time, so we started looking for houses in the U.S. that were made from similar materials. 

Let’s get back to serendipity. My partner in life, Brian Clyne, is Irish. One weekend we were home with his mom looking through photo albums and there was a photograph from the 1960s of his grandmother in a haycart in front of their old stone house in Attymass, Ireland. My heart dropped. 

My mother-in-law called her cousin in Ireland and said, “You know that house that grandma was born in? What happened to it?” 

He said, “We still have it. The roof fell in and we kept the cow in it.”

“Can we have it?” my mother-in-law asked.

Again, with serendipity. It turned out that Attymass was the parish where there was the first official report of death by starvation due to the famine.

 * * *

The infrastructure of the memorial is ex­traordinary. There are 110 90-foot piles to support it and a forest of 6x6 timbers were in­stalled be­fore the concrete was to be poured. The day before we were to pour one million pounds of concrete, the World Trade Center was at­tacked.

This site was a military zone, and at some point the military started pulling out  timbers for a platform. For­tu­nately, I had been giving tours to Irish po­lice­men and firemen who had been reading about the memorial in the Irish Echo. So when they saw what was happening, they stopped its destruction—and saved the memorial. 

Our site became covered with World Trade Center debris, and despite all the efforts to remove it, after we poured the concrete, it was still on the surface. I was shocked. It represented something appalling to me. I insisted on having it removed. I don’t know if that was the right decision, but it was important to me at the time, So they chipped and sandblasted it, but even now you can see bits and piece of debris embedded in the cantilever.

* * *

Every detail was considered for this project. We had an architectural historian study how the house was built, identify significant stones, like a lintel, and those that affect the aesthetic of the houses. If we had used conventional cement it would fall apart in time. So we used a special lime mix formulated in France. 

We planted 90,000 plugs of native grasses and 52 different types of plants. None of them are hybridized, so that when you see a geranium here is not a big showy red thing, it’s a delicate pink thing. Many Irish people come here and say, “Where I come from, these are all weeds!” But we wanted to create a rural place, a fallow place. Though over the years we have had many offers to “spruce things up”! Someone once offered us a thousand tulips. 

The rocks come from all over Ireland, though we did not want them to be marked. When they arrived, I opened the crate and saw that they had all been engraved with names of the counties. I was mad! So I put them all upside down so you couldn’t see the names.

But after the memorial opened in 2002, and we cut the ribbon at the dedication, thousands of eager Irish people went looking for their county’s stone—and could not find them. They were climbing over walls and stepping on young plants. 

I learned a very big lesson that day: You do not mess with Irish people’s stones.