GLASGOW City Council has unveiled plans for a memorial to Scottish and Irish victims of the 19th century potato blight.
The crop failure led to a huge wave of migration to the city, along with other parts of Scotland, as Irish people fled desperate hunger and poverty. More than one million Irish people died, and a million more were forced to leave their homes as they were flung to the four corners of the earth.
Unusually for memorials to the Great Hunger across the world, Glasgow’s memorial will also remember the victims of the potato blight from the Scottish Highlands. At the same time as the widespread hunger and disease was allowed to devastate the Irish nation, the potato blight was also affecting the Highlanders of Scotland. However, with relief organisations swinging into action the disaster that afflicted Ireland was averted in Scotland.
Nevertheless, hunger caused great depopulation across the affected areas of Scotland and those who had to leave their homes and travel to Glasgow in hope of a better life will be remembered alongside the million Irish people who lost their lives in the Great Hunger.
The memorial, which will be located at the People’s Palace in the east end of the city, will feature a path lined with buildings and boats (above), aimed at encouraging contemplation of the journeys undertaken by those who fled hunger and poverty. The path will be lined with plants and stones native to the affected areas, with text in English, Irish and Gaelic laid into the stone.
The material used in the construction of the path will represent the journeys which were often started in rural locations, and concluded with the arrival in a strange urban environment.
The path will start as a wide road made from fine gravel, before narrowing to a path lined by rocks and boulders and giving way to rough gravel and ultimately uneven cobbles lined by rough plants and bigger boulders, which are intended to form obstacles and represent the struggles face by those who sought safety and shelter in Glasgow. The gradual change in surface reflects the change in environments, from rural to urban, experienced by those making the journey.
Along the path there will also be the low walls of a croft and part of a wooden boat, elements which are designed to encapsulate the decisions of many to leave their homes and families behind for a new land, often reached by boat. The boat will also offer a place for visitors to sit and reflect upon the horrors experienced by the victims of hunger, while the broken walls will capture the destitution faced by whole communities.
“We live in a city full of statues. Sadly, many people do not know who most of them are,” Councillor Matthew Kerr, who has led the efforts by the council to turn the plans into reality, said. “This one is highly significant because of the impact the famines had on the population of this city.”
The plans drew many different groups together to add different perspectives to the memorial, and Mr Kerr spoke of the way in which the various voices were heard by the committee.
“In many ways they were not natural bedfellows,” he explained. “We always sought consensus and we achieved it. We never had to go to a vote. We discussed things, hammered issues out, but there was never a falling out. Everyone wanted to see it happen, wanted to see it work.”
Mr Kerr, Labour councillor for Craigton, also thanked his colleagues in other parties—the Greens and SNP—and outlined the educational benefit which can be felt by their joint work.
“For me, a real memorial has to have an educational side to it. It has to have something to engage people, particularly the young,” he said. “I like to think that over the years we have learned something about how to welcome people. We discussed this in the group. We can’t kid ourselves on. People arrived here with nothing and life was very difficult for them.
“It has taken generations to move through that. I like to think that experience shaped Glasgow in terms of how it is now. I think Glasgow leads the way in the UK as to how we welcome refugees. It was not all rosy at the beginning, but we learned our lessons.”
While the Glasgow City Council memorial will begin work in the coming weeks—with an investment of £50,000 from the council—the community-backed memorial, led by Coiste Cuimhneachain An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger Memorial Committee), continues to make progress, having reached an advanced stage both with the design of the memorial and plans for its final location.
The efforts towards an alternative memorial, which is being funded and managed by members of the Irish community, was launched after dis-satisfaction among many organisations and individuals among the Glasgow Irish at the approach taken by the council.