Reflections on the Irish Hunger Memorial

This piece was written in response to an extra credit assignment assigned by history teacher Mr. Hanna. The assignment asked students to visit the Irish Hunger Memorial in the Battery Park City neighborhood of Manhattan and to write a reflection on how it made them feel.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reflective. Solemn. Privileged. Insignificant. These words describe how I felt this afternoon as I wandered through the Irish Hunger Memorial a few blocks down from Stuy. It was extremely cold, as I had left my jacket at home, and I had opted to go alone rather than with friends, unlike what I likely would have chosen to do on other occasions, because I wanted to see how the memorial would make me feel authentically, without being influenced by the opinions and presence of others. Cold and alone, with a harsh wind blowing against me: the perfect conditions to make one contemplate.

I spent a few minutes walking around the memorial reading the quotes on the walls. I felt so small, gazing up at the wall, with the roof casting a shadow on the ground. Millions of people have stood where I stood at that moment. Millions of people have walked exactly where I was walking. People of the past, long gone, now decaying under the ground. People from centuries before this memorial was even built. All of them are gone. All of the obsessions we hyperfocus on today—what will it matter tomorrow when we are in our graves? These people had worries too. They had assignments to finish, jobs to go to, children to take care of. What does it matter now? Such trivial matters keep us so occupied, so worried today. Will the grade I receive on a test matter twenty years from now? Will the college I go to matter when I’m on my deathbed?

I continued walking around the wall. There were so many quotes. I only had time to look at one wall to the entrance, which was one of the smaller walls, and I still barely had time to read all the quotes. And what powerful words! A few phrases stuck with me:

“We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist, one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.” 

“Well-fed people have many problems. Hungry people have only one.” —Chinese proverb

“Hunger will break through a stone wall.” —Irish proverb

“What greater human right is there than the right to eat.”

“Every day 25% of our food supply is wasted.” —Bill Clinton

What struck me most was the fact that the quotes around the wall were universal. Hunger is not Irish. It is universal. Chinese proverbs. Irish proverbs. There was a quote mentioning Afghanistan that caught my attention. Muslim countries are so seldom mentioned in my experience, and when they are, they are often misrepresented. Though I don’t remember precisely what it said, it made me think about the current conditions in the world.

This memorial was created to raise awareness of the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s. But I’m almost certain that it was also created to encourage efforts to address current world hunger. Yet, we still have world hunger today, and it is getting worse. According to Action Against Hunger, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone on the planet, but as many as 783 million people, almost 10% of the world’s population, still go hungry every night. That means that nearly one in ten people go to bed hungry every night.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to bed hungry in my life.

What makes me more deserving of food than millions of others in the world? What makes me deserving of being so much more fortunate and privileged? I don’t know the answer to this question, or at least I’m afraid of what I think the real answer is: nothing. I feel guilty about my privilege.

These questions have popped up in my mind several times throughout my life, but they especially have been plaguing me ever since the war began on October 7th. I don’t know if I can call it a war. At least not anymore. This is oppression. Is it still considered a war? I’m not sure. Genocide? Am I allowed to call it genocide? Terminology is important and I’m still hesitating to freely say what comes to my mind about the situation. This is unlike me. I am someone who generally doesn’t care about what others think, someone who says what I believe in and is unafraid of consequences. But, I feel restricted in my freedom of speech. What if I am unaware of what words I am supposed to use? 

It is scary to be in the midst of this, knowing that in a hundred years or so students will be reading about this in textbooks. This is what my children and grandchildren will be interviewing me about when they have history projects for school. And what will I say that I did during this time? Did I sit back and watch and allow these atrocities to take place?

I go back to the wall. I am so small. How can I, someone so insignificant, do something that will make a difference?

But then I remember the millions of others. I am one of a collective. Maybe I, myself, cannot make a change. But as a collective? We can make a change. I believe in the power of We, even if I do not believe in the power of myself.

The children of Gaza are starving. Just today, someone showed me a tweet of the UN giving starving Gazan children toy food instead of real food. What a mockery. Imagine having not eaten for days, and instead of getting real food, you get toy food.

“Well-fed people have many problems. Hungry people have only one.” —Chinese proverb

These children don’t need toys. They need food. They need to be given basic human rights. They need to be allowed to live without fearing death at every second.

Gaza is not the only place where people are starving. People are starving all around the world. We can’t hyperfocus so much on one part of the world that we forget everyone else. But what if there are so many problems and we don’t know where to start?

This is the second time I’ve been to the memorial. My first time was with my brother on the day of Camp Stuy, the first day I’ve ever been to Stuy. We were looking for a quiet corner to pray in. I didn’t know the context behind the memorial and was utterly confused by what I saw. How ironic that this was a place that we went to find a place to worship. When people are hungry, they often turn to God as the only option they have left.

Going through the entrance, seeing what seemed like an almost abandoned, yet quaint cottage, overgrown with foreign plants, for a brief moment, I felt like I had stepped out of NYC into the past. What would it have been like to live during those times?

The memorial made me very reflective. It made me depressed about the current state of the world. But it also made me realize that I cannot, with good conscience, sit back and give up. As someone so privileged, it is the least I can do to give my full effort to help those less privileged than me. These people have been struggling by themselves for so long. We have to get up and keep trying and give the largest effort that we can. God has blessed me and given me the resources to be able to struggle for the rest of the world. The question is: will I? The memorial made me realize that I have no choice but to do so.