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I’ve often said I don’t know how I feel about something until I explore the experience in writing. This was never truer than when I visited the Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland. Like most of us, I learned of the Great Irish Potato Famine in a high school history class. But I had no idea how moved I would be to see those seven bronze statues rise out of the cobblestones beside the Liffey River. 

I also toured the nearby Jeanie Jackson (one of the coffin ships used to transport the starving immigrants to Canada and America) and learned so much more about the famine and the plight of those immigrants. They were called "coffin ships" because nearly half of the immigrants died before arriving at their destination. Ireland lost one-third of its population in the mid eighteen hundreds due to starvation and immigration. After touring the ship, I returned to the nearby Memorial.

Both moved and ashamed, it was all I could do to keep my composure. This time, the futures of the individuals those statues represented spread out and came to life in front of me. I wanted to believe everything they ever were was still here in the immeasurable mystery of time and space. I wanted to believe I could grasp the details of their lives, feel what they felt. But I knew it was impossible. Still, I needed a way to understand more fully—to tell their stories. Those feelings didn’t release their hold on me until I wrote the following poem.  

This I Can Only Imagine

At the Famine Memorial in Dublin

Together six bronze statues rise, alone,
like pawns on a chessboard of cobblestones.
Tattered and barefoot, they clutch bulging bags
to their chests: a crocheted blanket that once
wrapped an infant daughter, 

love poems from a dead wife, 
work boots for a new life in America.

A dazed father struggles to keep pace,
mouth frozen in a silent scream.
An unconscious child flops over
this father’s shoulders like a sack of potatoes.
The emaciated family dog

trails his master toward the harbor,
only to be left behind.

For two seasons, men and women,
like these, harvested blighted potatoes,
too black and mushy for consumption,
carried wicker peat baskets from the bogs for heat.
They sold their last pigs and chickens to pay rent
and planted again, praying for a good harvest.

Winter came—colder than any before.
While their spouses and children died of famine fever,
they collected broth from Quaker soup kitchens 

until demands couldn't be met and they closed.
Landlords, silos filled with grain for export to England,
evicted the potato farmers--

leveled their thatched-roof cottages.

Burdened with dreams, they boarded “coffin ships”
by the thousands, in search of refuge in America.
For forty-seven days, each time an Atlantic wave hit,
their ships creaked and leaned.
On deck, they breathed fresh air, but when storms came
and sea water sloshed onto the deck,
they were forced into the hold, ate stale biscuits,
drank tainted water and slept, ten to a bunk--
the smell of vomit and diarrhea. 

More than half died and were thrown overboard.

No Statue of Liberty lifted her torch in this new country
that did nothing but exploit and mock,
house them in tenements and post
“No Irish Need Apply” 

in shop windows and factory gates. 
Would it have mattered,
comforted them to have known,
the great-grandson of a potato famine immigrant
would one day be elected President?

In the Memorial’s forefront, the statue of a woman, 

hands over her heart, gazes 
into the cloud-streaked sky as if beseeching
a God in whom she can no longer believe. 
Beside her, the River Liffey splits
Dublin into north and south.
As their voices rise up from the harbor,
the sky gives way to a gentle rain that falls,
like a blessing, on their bronze feet.

Susan Clayton-Goldner