The gay backstory of New York's Irish Hunger Memorial
by Fred A. Bernstein
If art has the power to heal, then an astonishing public sculpture by a gay artist could begin to heal the rift between New York's Irish-American and gay communities.
The Irish Hunger Memorial, which commemorates the famine of 1845 to 1852 and was dedicated in July by a who's who of prominent Irish-Americans, is the work of artist Brian Tolle, 38, who describes himself as "very, very out." What's more, the centerpiece of the $5 million memorial was a gift from the Irish family of Tolle's longtime partner, multimedia artist Brian Clyne.
Tolle's memorial in Battery Park City, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, is a quarter of an acre of Irish countryside, supported by a tilted concrete platform and planted as it would have been during the famine. To walk up the hillside is to feel the rigors of a land in which more than a million people starved to death, while upwards of another million emigrated, many to the United States. At the hilltop, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island seem to emerge from the fallow field, making the tie between the Old and New Worlds palpable. Art critics have been ecstatic. Roberta Smith of The New York Times called it "an unconventional work of public art that strikes a deep emotional chord ... and expands the understanding of what a public memorial can be."
At the center of the hillside, striking the deepest chord of all, is a tiny stone cottage brought over from Attymass, County Mayo, and reconstructed on the site. Tolle's original model included such a cottage, but as the construction deadline neared he hadn't found one that had been occupied in the 1840s. Then Clyne remembered the crude stone building in which his grandmother, Mary Slack, was born in 1905. Clyne's sister, who had recently visited Ireland, confirmed that the cottage, built in the 19th century and last occupied in the 1960s, still existed.Tolle and Clyne flew to Ireland in 2001 to see the building. They were accompanied by members of the Battery Park City Authority. "Everyone knew our relationship, and no one seemed uncomfortable," says Tolle. By then, the Irish-American community had begun to see the importance of the project. "Suddenly," says Tolle, "every family seemed to have a cottage to donate." But he chose the tiny building where Mary Slack was born.
Several dozen members of the Slack family attended the dedication, as did Irish president Mary McAleese, Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt, New York City's Cardinal Edward Egan, and hundreds of other Irish-American VIPs.
Tolle was selected to create the memorial from a list of 150 artists, and Clyne made computer renderings submitted with Tolle's original model. The couple met 15 years ago, when they were both undergraduates with part-time jobs at Macy's. Later they had a commitment ceremony in the chapel at Yale University, where Tolle attended graduate school. Now they live in Greenwich Village; Tolle works out of a studio in Brooklyn. Clyne, who works at home, is busy creating a Web site for the Irish Hunger Memorial, which he and Tolle still visit several times a week. "You'll probably find me weeding," says Tolle, who has several other important public art commissions under way.
Perhaps Tolle's contribution to Irish-American pride will help pave the way for rapprochement between New York's Irish and gay communities, riven for years by disputes over whether gay groups can march in the city's St. Patrick's Day parade. That the Irish community entrusted him, says Tolle, "is an incredibly positive thing. They came to respect me as an artist. And they all benefited from my relationship with Brian."
Bernstein writes regularly for The New York Times