New York City may seem like a curious place to go looking to see gorse, the small shrub that thrives in rural fields and along hillsides, its yellow flowers rippling across the countryside in spring. But there’s at least one sure place I’ve enjoyed the sight of it in New York – the Irish Hunger Memorial in Lower Manhattan. Also known as furze, gorse is native to Western Europe. Fields of purple heather and bright yellow gorse flowers in Ireland and Scotland have thrilled and inspired many a painter and photographer.
Reading a verse about gorse inspired me to take a walk to the Irish Hunger Memorial, which is tucked just off the Battery Park City Esplanade at Vesey Street and North End Avenue, within view of the Hudson River. With April’s sunny, warm days beckoning, I was seeking a closer encounter with spring. Often even the smallest patch of green or courtyard offers a place of repose where one can go into the silence and enter another world, even in the midst of New York City.
The Irish famine memorial is such a place. Designed by artist Brian Tolle, it combines two starkly different elements, a small plot of Irish pastureland with stone fences, rocks, and native plants, cantilevered above a modernist base, that together commemorate the famine of the 1840s and early 1850s in which more than a million people died of hunger and disease in Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of Irish left their homeland and emigrated to the United States.
Dedicated in 2002, the memorial is, in a major sense, a place to learn about the famine, how a potato blight and political failure resulted in mass starvation and death, and about hunger in the world today. It’s also a setting to contemplate how much the land in Ireland must have represented both nature’s splendor and its forbidding qualities.
My partner has Irish roots, and the sight of gorse takes her back to the land of beauty and spiritual sustenance that inspired and nurtured her on a trip in the 1990s. It’s almost like she is seeing an old friend. If you can’t get to Ireland this spring, you can experience a touch of it at the Irish memorial, in both its compact tranquil setting and in a landscape of indigenous plants and flowers that increasingly will come alive as spring unfolds.
The Land’s Messages
All along the Battery Park City promenade on a brilliantly sunny April afternoon, the world seemed all awake after a winter slumber. Perhaps the intensity of the past winter has made the new spring even more delicious. Eager-for-warmth diners sat at an outdoor café, the sounds of boats plying the Hudson could be heard, and yellow-green weeping willows were spring beacons.
Arriving at the Irish memorial, I walked under its passageway, hearing the ethereal sounds of flutes as I read quotations, verse, and other text about the famine’s horrors. “I tried to count the roofless houses and after proceeding as far as seventy gave it up in despair…(the people had been)…scattered up and down the country, like sheep upon the mountain,” wrote a visitor involved in relief work, James Hack Tuke, of seeing Connaught in 1847.
Once I walked through the memorial’s roofless stone cottage and underneath an archway, rounded a bend, turned, and looked up, I felt the hilly Irish landscape, tiny as it is here, unfurl before me. A robin perched above on one wall, singing away. The walkway winds in a circular route up the hillock, which has grassy furrows meant to depict abandoned land. On each side of the walk are prominent stones, some edged, some smooth. Each one has the name of a county of Ireland on it.
Landscape architect Gail Wittwer-Laird, collaborating with the firm 1100 Architect, created a place that would allow walkers to experience the beautiful, spare Irish countryside, with native plants, flowers, and grasses. The land feels both soft and wild, while the cragginess of tree limbs, the thorns of vines, and the protruding edges of rocks say something of nature’s harsh side. It’s not an exact match of the Irish landscape, to be sure. Yet it captures a paradox: How must it have felt to see spring’s arrival, in flowers and blossoms, when the land itself was so unyielding in its main food crop?
Many memorial plantings have meanings in the history and folklore of Ireland. The gorse, Ulex Europaeus, symbolizes light, vibrancy, and protection. To the Celts, gorse was one of the sacred plants and trees. For the celebration of Beltane, they would include it in the sacred bonfires of purification and protection for their herds. It’s imbued with other meanings and uses in the traditions of England, Wales, and Scotland as well. In Irish folklore, the tall plant foxglove, digitalis purpurea, has been known for its healing powers. It was thought of as a remedy for weak hearts, lumps, fleas, and “fairy-struck children” (meaning children feeling the ill effects of a fairy’s spell), according to the memorial’s literature. Other plants include bearberry, blackthorn, burnet rose, cross-leaved heath, ling heather, soft rush, and yellow flag iris.
The memorial’s creators wanted a landscape that would exhibit constant change over the course of the year and represent a piece of Ireland in Manhattan. But the second goal isn’t easy. It means requiring plants that basically thrive in Western Ireland’s rainy, moist environment to endure New York’s winter freeze and hot, sometimes-dry summers, so annual replanting of some species and a state-of-the-art irrigation system are musts to support the flora.
On this April day, the purple heather was abundant in various beds, but the grassy furrows still had traces of winter’s brown. The gorse and the other plants hadn’t flowered yet, but I’ll come back to see them bursting and thriving through spring and summer. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the tragedy that this site memorializes that makes the gifts of life it yields feel all the more sacred.