Poorly clad and terribly housed, the Irish peasants in 19 century were entirely dependent on the potato --out of 8 million, some 3.5 million ate little else, consuming 12-14 pounds per day. This dependency was fatal.
A strain of Phytophthora caused the widespread devastation of potato crops in Ireland and northern Europe beginning in 1845.
The pathogen led to the death of nearly 1 million people and the mass emigration of another 2 million from Ireland by 1855. One of the single-most influential events in U.S. immigration history, Ireland’s great potato famine induced a massive wave of Irish emigration. Famine immigrants were the first big wave of poor refugees ever to arrive in the U.S. and Americans were simply overwhelmed. The first Irish to arrive were rejected and perceived as an alien culture that could not be assimilated.
By the end of 1850, the population of Ireland had shrunk from 8 million to approximately 5 million, and the majority headed for the U.S., arriving at Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands.
Throughout the Famine years, of the Irish about 650,000 Irish arrived in New York harbor and 75 percent of them landed in New York. In 1847, about 52,000 Irish arrived in the city which had a total population of 372,000. U.S. immigration records indicate that by 1850, the Irish made up 43 percent of the foreign-born population.
Between 1820 and 1975, 4.7 million Irish settled in America. In 2002, more than 34 million Americans considered themselves to be of Irish ancestry, making Irish Americans the country's second-largest ethnic group. The most extraordinary Famine descendant was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, great-grandson of Patrick Kennedy, a farmer from County Wexford who had left Ireland in 1849.
Memorial was created in 2002 by artist Brian Tolle to raise awareness of the Great Irish Famine and of the challenge to end hunger in our world. Tolle says, "It's a living alert, a center for hunger around the world."
Memorial site sits on a half-acre piece of land, significant as a clause added to the Irish Poor Law by Sir William Gregory during the famine meant that anyone who owned more than a half-acre of land was not eligible for any aid or relief. Many of the starving were poor but owned a half-acre, forcing them to abandon their homes in order to obtain food.
The exterior and interior walls of the memorial are covered by almost two miles of illuminated text of famine poems, statistics and quotes. The texts include old Irish proverbs, such as "Hunger will break through a stone wall" and "The well-fed does not understand the lean." Others are quotes from U.S. presidents: "Hunger does not breed reform, it breeds madness and all the angry distempers that make an ordered life impossible"--Woodrow Wilson, 1918; and "Every day 25 percent of our food supply is wasted"--Bill Clinton, 1998.
The memorial contains over 60 varieties of Irish Flora such as heather, bearberry, foxglove and gorse, that give the visitor a taste of the harsh but beautiful landscape found in the western portion of the country. The site also contains stones from all of the 32 counties of Ireland.