Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial
The Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial pays tribute to the victims and survivors of the Great Irish Famine that occurred in Ireland between 1845 to 1851. During that time, over a million Irish men, women, and children died of starvation, while another million emigrated to the United States, including the Providence area. In fact, before the dawn of the 20th century, the Irish became the largest ethnic group in Rhode Island (as such, Rhode Ireland was the first state in the nation with a Catholic majority). By 1997, two years after the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine, Rhode Island’s Irish-American community established the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial Committee. After 10 years of fundraising and hard work, the Irish Famine Memorial Committee dedicated the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial on November 17, 2007.
Backstory and Context
History Behind the Irish Famine Memorial
The Great Irish Famine is widely considered as one of the most important events in the 19th century in Ireland. Over the course of seven years between 1845 and 1852, the potato crop failed completely or partially every harvest season. A large majority of the Irish people depended on the potato, and due to a crop disease known as “The Blight,” at least one million men, women, and children died from outright starvation or the epidemic diseases that came with starvation. During this time, Ireland (about the size of Maine) was reduced by about 8.5 million people. Irish poet called the Atlantic Ocean “The Bowl of Tears,” due to the conditions in which the Irish left their homeland.
Some Irish had already been in Rhode Island for some time before the Great Famine; however, they didn’t enjoy many of the same rights as the property holding Americans. Beginning in the 1840s, the Irish came in large waves to Rhode Island and Providence. Likewise, their social status grew despite a supercharged dislike of the Irish refugees (“No Irish Need Apply” signs were rampant). Through time, the Irish built places of worship and established literary and temperance societies. They worked in textiles, stonemasonry, and politics. By the end of the 19th century, they became the largest ethnic group in Rhode Island, making the state the only one with an Irish Catholic majority.
Creation and Dedication
The idea for the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial first came about in 1995 during a Mass of remembrance at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, located in Providence. As such, the Irish-American community thought it should have its own Irish Famine Memorial. The Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial Committee was founded two years later. After a nationwide search, compounded with fundraising and other activities, the Committee selected the internationally acclaimed sculptor, Robert Shure, to create the memorial.
Located on the River Walk in Providence, the Irish Famine Memorial features three Irish figures sitting on a round stone base, bordered by a walkway that features donor bricks and flagstones. At the end of the walkway, visitors can find a commemorative wall narrating the history of the Famine amid Irish immigration. Moreover, the sidewalk beneath the wall showcases the map depicting the courageous journey of the Irish to the United States.1