Famine Memorial“I’ve been working on this project for about the last 15 years.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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Regular listeners to the Ryan Tubridy Show will be familiar with the host’s interest in history and, especially the Famine. Ryan returned to the subject on Friday morning, when he spoke to artist Paula Stokes about her remarkable art project for the National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, Co Roscommon. Meath-born Paula has lived in Seattle since the 90s and she’s been working on her famine-related piece for quite a while. That artwork – 1845: Memento Mori, a Famine memorial – can now be seen in Strokestown. But what is it? Paula explains: 

Memento Mori is a famine memorial made from thousands of hand-blown glass potatoes. And this is the kick-off event in Ireland – it’s a touring exhibition – and I’ve been working on this project for about the last 15 years.” 

The memorial has one thousand, eight hundred and forty-five glass potatoes, to mark the year 1845, when the potato blight arrived in Ireland. That’s the significance of the numbers, but where did the idea come from? It had to do with the fact of Paula having lived abroad almost as long as she’d lived in Ireland, which lead her to reflect on where she’s come from and where she’s going: 

I was at this threshold and I wanted to create something – it was a very personal act, actually, just to create something that connected me with Ireland and my heritage and culture as an emigrant living abroad. And for me that was the simple, humble potato.” 

Paula mainly works in glass, so she initially made a couple of hand-blown glass potatoes, but she wasn’t sure where to go from there. Fast forward three years and Paula was ready to dive in and make the fully-realised memorial: 

“It was a huge undertaking and it is a huge undertaking, in terms of the physicality of making the work and producing it, shipping it and finding venues to show it. And also, of course, the topic, being the Famine, is a very deeply serious one and I needed to make sure I got it right.” 

The finished work – which Ryan has seen in Strokestown – has got it right, he tells Paula. He was struck by the memorial’s glorious starkness. Paula explained that she made the potatoes from clear glass, then sandblasted them, giving them what Paula calls a wraith-like appearance, chillingly appropriate for a Famine memorial. What is it about the Famine, Ryan wondered, that gets under his skin, Paula’s skin, so many people’s skins? It’s inherited, Paula believes: 

“It’s so much part of our shared history as Irish people and then, when you think about the emigration experience, of the millions of people well, a) who died, but also, who emigrated all over the world and this massive diaspora… My circumstances of emigration obviously are very, very different from those who went during the Famine, but there is that sense of, you know, being far away from home, but also deeply connected to it.” 

For Paula, it’s all about presenting the work and remembering where we came from. She also wants to inspire compassion for others in the world today who are hungry and displaced, as we were back then. 

You can hear Ryan’s full chat with Paula Stokes by going here

Details of Paula’s 1845: Memento Mori Famine memorial at Strokestown can be found here. And Paula has a website devoted to the memorial, which you can find here

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2021

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