September 15, 2005
It is an image forged by a stark yet determined history.
It is a massive bronze sculpture depicting the mourning of the dead in Ireland — victims of the devastating potato blight of the late 1840s. The mourners give way to the emigrants making the treacherous journey to America, and the arrival in Philadelphia with hopes of a new life.
The Irish Memorial at Chestnut and Front Streets near Penn’s Landing pays tribute to each aspect of An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger — focusing equally on the starvation of the Irish people, the passage by sea on boats often referred to as “coffin ships” and their entrance to a new land.
On Saturday, October 15, Pauline Hurley-Kurtz , Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at Temple University Ambler, will take visitors to the Memorial on a journey through the Memorial’s design and the evocative landscape that surrounds it.
The program, entitled “The Irish Memorial: Art in a Public Landscape,” will begin at 10:30 a.m. and include walking tours of the Memorial presented by students in Temple’s Landscape Architecture and Horticulture degree programs. The event, which is free and open to the public, is presented by Temple University Ambler, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), and Irish Memorial, Inc. Refreshments will be provided by The Plough and the Stars.
“I’m going to talk a bit about the landscape design and how it responds to the themes that (memorial sculptor) Glenna Goodacre evolved in the sculpture,” said Hurley-Kurtz, who was the design landscape architect for the Memorial and was involved in the project to create it for more than a decade. “The passage from Ireland and arrival in Philadelphia are evoked in the public landscape — hedgerows, hawthorns, and crabapples and the Irish walls, which were part of the relief effort in Ireland in the 1850s and on the Philadelphia side indigenous plants such as juneberry, river birch, and red maples. There is a strong connection between the sculpture and the landscape design.”
According to John Donovan, President of Irish Memorial, Inc., which developed the monument concept, since its inception the emphasis that flows throughout the artwork and landscape of the Memorial “has been on education.”
“We want to educate people in the hope that such devastating events will never be repeated,” he said. “It is also a commemoration and recognition of the accomplishments of Irish immigrants to the city, the state, and the country. They came to this country as peasants, the lowest in the pecking order of society, and through the railroads, roadways, mining and construction, they helped build this nation.”
Donovan said today, other organizations are using the Irish Memorial as a location to spur on and promote important humanitarian efforts.
“There is an organization that will be using the Memorial as a backdrop for an event for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, essentially using the symbolism of the Memorial to help others. We are all in the same boat — literally and figuratively. “Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney said the Memorial was artwork that any immigrant could relate to.”
The centerpiece of the Irish Memorial, marking the 150th anniversary of The Great Hunger, is a bronze sculpture created by Glenna Goodacre, the artist who sculpted the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. She created 35 spectacularly life-like figures for the 7-ton sculpture, which measures about 30 feet long and 14.5 feet wide.
The park includes a viewing area from Chestnut Street consisting of an “Ogham Circle,” which features an Ogham stone fashioned after standing stones in Ireland, Hurley-Kurtz said. The words “The Irish Memorial” have been etched into standing stones in Ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet.
Paths in the memorial circle are oriented specifically with the Goodacre sculpture in mind. Paths with interpretive stations explaining the events that took place in Ireland travel directly toward the Irish side of the monument, which depicts the starvation that claimed one million Irish lives between 1845 and 1850. Paths explaining events that took place after the emigration orient toward the side depicting the arrival in Philadelphia.
“The Irish Memorial is an opportunity for thoughtful reflection on a specific point in history. The setting of the sculpture is as important to the concept of the Memorial as the sculpture itself — the landscape sets the stage for the viewer’s experience,” said Julie Snell, Philadelphia Green Public Landscape Project Manager at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which manages landscape maintenance for Interstate Land Management Corporation (ILMC), the company that is responsible for all of the land associated with I-95 as it runs through Philadelphia. “In this case one’s experience is focused on the memorial. More broadly, I think the role of public landscapes goes beyond providing a respite to the urban environment to enhancing and enriching one’s experience of both.”
During the October 15 event, Nancy O’Donnell, the Associate Director of PHS’s Philadelphia Green program, will welcome visitors and provide information on PHS’s programs. Temple University Ambler senior Shannon Adams will also briefly discuss hunger relief efforts taking place at the Ambler campus, including support of the Philabundance Share the Harvest campaign by the Pi Phi social/service sorority, of which she is a member.
“What I hope is that visitors to the Memorial appreciate it as a piece of art but that, while visiting, they also absorb the message. While the Memorial commemorates a specific event, it presents a universal theme for immigration and it also focuses attention on hunger and hunger relief in today’s world,” said Hurley-Kurtz, who was presented the Liberty Bell Award by Philadelphia Mayor John Street for her dedication to the creation of the Memorial, which also received a landscape design award from the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “I hope visitors are moved to some sort of action themselves to support relief efforts such as those for the victims of the terrible tragedy in the Gulf Coast and hunger relief efforts throughout the world.”