Famine

Their backs are turned to you as you walk up river towards Custom House Quay, seven people, their clothes the same lime-brown colour as the trees to their left and right. The quay is always busy – traffic, pedestrians, river gazers, employees of the financial services centre opposite, people on the pavement doing yoga. Yet this group, four men – one with a child draped over his shoulders – two women, never leave.

On the walkway to the left of the Talbot Memorial Bridge, there’s a perfect paved space between two copses. There, the seven stand. People stop and photo them, dozens if not hundreds a day. Curiosity draws you, to get a glimpse of their faces and forms. They’re gaunt, emaciated, their clothes haggard and creased. Their faces spell misery, pain, hunger, the danger of death. The facial contortions suggest crying or wailing. The child, draped over the man, doesn’t show its face. A dog stands behind the seven, more energy in the emaciated creature’s movements than the six adults combined. A stranger has gifted them flowers in a gesture of kindness.

It’s hard to know their next direction. Perhaps to a poor house, where work and a basic meal might have kept them alive. Perhaps merely up the road, one without hope, only drudgery and inexorability. Perhaps towards the sea, like many others who boarded ships to avoid starvation.

The route to a ship would be appropriate for these statues. One of the first Famine voyages to America, Perseverance, sailed from the Custom House Quay on St Patrick’s Day 1846. A year earlier, Ireland’s Great Famine had began. Over four years, one million died from starvation and disease after a potato dependent nation experienced the crop’s blight. Another million emigrated. In the aftermath of the population’s decline by somewhere between a fifth and a quarter, the native language went from dominance to near terminal decline.

One hundred and fifty years after the Famine, these bronze statues, made by Rowan Gillespie, were unveiled. To locals and tourists alike, they remain iconic, striking and haunting. Your guide book may provide a brief account of the Famine. If it doesn’t, find some information elsewhere. Then approach these people. Observe their expressions along the walk to where the rushing river meets the open sea, the point where so many were transported away forever. Many survived. Many died. They all departed with loved ones, alive and dead, left behind. Art meets history here. Take a few minutes to remember.

 

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