Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Tale of Two Memorials

Queen Elizabeth II visited New York City this week. Tea Party Patriot though, I am, I would have loved to have gone over to the City to catch a glimpse of her. I just love her hats and she and I share a common birthday.

However, as we were in the midst of grueling heat wave, hat or no hat (which turned out to be “recycled” anyway), even though I had the day off as part of the July 4th weekend, I decided I wasn’t brave enough to forge through Lower Manhattan traffic on the hottest day of the year just to see an old hat.

She briefly visited Ground Zero, where she laid a wreath in tribute to the British citizens who were murdered there on September 11th. Then she and her entourage went down to Hanover Square, which is on Water Street, where the original boundary of Manhattan resided. There, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened a British garden in tribute to the September 11th victims.

Not surprisingly, she did not visit the Irish Hunger Memorial, mere steps from Ground Zero. Anyone who doubts Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, should visit this memorial (as well as the British Garden at Hanover Square).

Potatoes were originally only meant to be a delicacy for aristocratic tables in England, a supplementary food. Only for the poor was the potato a main staple, as rice is in China.

In 1801, Parliament accepted representatives from Ireland, all landowners or sons of landowners. They were all Protestant. Once united with Great Britain, Catholics, who made up 80 percent of Ireland’s population, were disenfranchised. They were not allowed to own land.

The absentee landowners found that it was more profitable to raise cattle and sheep than to grow crops, and they found that by subdivided the land, they could gain more tenants and more land. The tenant farmers would driven off the best lands, now reserved as pastureland and reduced to small parcels of land which were not sufficient to grow large crops. About the only thing that could be grown by the tenant farmers in this poor, rocky soil were potatoes.

But the potato was subject to a number of “blights” and diseases. Between 1728 and 1851, there were no less than 24 general potato crop failures. It’s estimated that the blight phytophthora ifestans arrived sometime between 1842 and 1844. One theory holds that the infection may have originated in the northern Andes region of Peru. European ships introduced the infection to Europe and the British Isles in the form of guano, which was in great demand as a fertilizer. Even in North America, a potato blight was recorded for those years.

Two and a half million Irish people perished. The British attempted various remedies and relief projects for the disaster, even importing corn from America. Lord John Russell Whig, believing hat the market would provide the food needed but at the same time ignoring the food exports to England (the food that could have fed the Irish sat rotting at the docks), then halted government food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.

The government then abandoned its relief projects and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former administered in work-houses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens. The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants. This was then facilitated through the "Cheap Ejectment Acts.

The "Gregory Clause" of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least a quarter of an acre from receiving relief. This in practice meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he would not get it until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord.

Between 1849 and 1850, nearly 200,000 tenants were driven off their lands. European farmers fared no better, but Ireland suffered the greatest losses. As a result, they were compelled to find new opportunities in the New World. It was that, or die by the roadside, as thousands did.

Ironically, Great Britain became a socialist state, with its citizens dependent on the state for their health and well-being. The Irish, and other European immigrants, came to America to help build a great, free nation.

My Irish relatives arrived during the early years of the Irish potato famine. They settled in the Pittsburgh, where they became steel workers, and paired up with the German immigrant side of our family. The result was big, burly men with a hearty appetite for potatoes. At holiday dinners, we can’t make enough potatoes to satisfy them.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Lazarus. She forgot about the hungry.

The British Garden at Hanover Square is supposed to represent an English country garden, the seeds provided by the Prince of Wales from his Highgrove Estate including yew and boxwood hedges, topiaries, and formal flowerbeds, with garden walkways paved in a dark, reflective stone from Caithness, Scotland. A lighter-toned limestone from Morayshire, Scotland, will be carved into a "ribbon of counties" representing the entire United Kingdom. A water rill built from Welsh slate will run through the triangular garden, between benches carved from Portland, Ireland, stone and iron bollards fashioned in London.

The Irish Hunger Memorial features an authentic Irish cottage and is made to resemble Ireland’s West country, wild and moorish. You can almost imagine yourself in the Emerald Isle. The cottage at the memorial is from Carradoogan in the parish of Attymass in County Mayo. The cottage belonged to the Slack family but was deserted in the 1960s. The Slack family donated the cottage to the memorial in “memory of all the Slack family members of previous generations who emigrated to America and fared well there.”

You can see the Statue of Liberty from the Irish memorial (though she always looks small from the New York side). The British Garden is built along New York’s old waterfront, where 19th century schooners docked from all over the world before it was filled in.

The World Trade Center was meant to serve, symbolically at least, as the new “customs house” for New York City. President Chester A. Arthur had once served as collector for the Port of New York. That never really became its function, and in any case, those dreams were dashed to the ground a mere 30 years after they were constructed.

So on one side of Lower Manhattan, you can find a tribute to the victims of poor government and economic planning. On the other side, where trade once thrived, you can find a tribute to the victims of an assault on free trade. In between, you can find the ruins of that terrible day, freedom still struggling to rise up through a morass of bureaucracy, politics, stubbornness and stupidity.

Meanwhile, a lady waits out in the harbor, built to commemorate the centennial signing of the Declaration of Independence and conceived as a tribute to a slain president dedicated to freedom, still holding up her torch as a symbol to the entire world, not as an example of her charity or largesse, but of the enduring hope of freedom.

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