Choosing a Famine Narrative: The Philadelphia Irish Memorial

Saturday, January 4, 2014
Exhibit Hall B South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michelle C. Iden, Drew University
Holocaust survivor and Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Elie Wiesel once said, “For the dead and the living we must bear witness.  For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.”[1]  Although speaking about another tragedy from a different century, his words could also aptly be applied to the Irish Famine of 1845-1852.  While some commemorations and memorials did exist in the years after the Famine, for the most part there was a long silence until the 150thanniversary sparked an outpouring of commemorative activity throughout the world.  While the Famine memorials that were built as a result of this commemorative activity varied in size, shape and location they all bore a responsibility for the memories of the dead that Wiesel spoke of. 

Within the United States memorials took that responsibility and focused on the themes of the journey abroad from Ireland, and never again should a famine like this occur.  Yet Irish Famine memorials in America were also a part of a larger, contentious debate about how the Famine should be commemorated.  Everything from its title to the number who died, the years it in which it occurred, and who, if anyone, is to blame, have been a part of that debate.  These debates helped shape the types of memorials that were created and the messages they contained.  Because memorials function as a cultural means through which personal, ethnic and/or national identity is represented and/or defined these debates also shape how Irish-American ethnic identity is portrayed through the memorials.  This is exemplified by the Philadelphia Irish Memorial. 

This poster, using photographs of the memorial for a close examination of its components, will show that specific decisions were made regarding how the Famine should be commemorated and, thereby, incorporated into representations of Irish-American ethnicity today.  Specific narratives were chosen to be highlighted in the presentation of the Famine.  In addition to those already mentioned, the Philadelphia Irish Memorial features the narratives of the close connection between the United States and Ireland and the use of the Famine as an origin story, leading to success in America today so that the Irish are an exemplar group from which other ethnicities can learn.  Situated in Penn’s Landing, just a few blocks from Philadelphia’s numerous historical attractions, the memorial also showcases how important location is to the memorialization process as it can greatly influence how a memorial is interpreted.  The images and other primary sources for the poster will show that the story that is presented at the Philadelphia Irish Memorial is directed in a certain way so that a particular contribution is made to the larger debates surrounding histories of the Famine.

[1] United States Holocuast Memorial Museum, 2011, (5 May 2011).

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