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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


 


Comments

Linda Wilkinson
09/22/2015 11:03am

I shamefully do not remember reading anything about the famine in school but after seeing your pictures and reading your thought provoking words (always so heartfelt and moving) I decided to read up on this awful tragedy. You are an amazing writer who inspires us all. Thank you for this reminder - so we may never forget.....

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02/29/2016 7:14pm

Literature has drawn different characters and writers are more often just as characters as their characters themselves. For majority of our time, we inform our friends and loved ones of upcoming journals and published works to stimulate our intellect. Writing encourages to become more expressive with our feelings. The feelings that you feel for Dublin are touching. You have inspired me to create my own stories and subjects to share.

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I still cry each time I hear tragic stories like this. I heard that people suffer like that to learn very important lessons which they will remember in their next life. This will make them very careful not to try to participate in any act that will cause this same pain towards others. If this does not happen, history will keep repeating itself. Karma will keep bouncing like a ping pong ball because people never learn. Today some big corporations still manufacture products that cause a very slow genocide for third world countries. God never sleeps. I don't mean to threaten but if history don't scare you, you will suffer in your next life because it seems you did not learn your lesson.

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S
09/22/2015 12:31pm

Very sad.

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09/22/2015 12:50pm

Susan, I should have known you would bring back something truly special from Ireland. Your poem is poignant and heart-shaking, and it reminds me of the refugees fleeing to Europe right now. Let's hope they find homes.

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09/22/2015 1:20pm

Such a treat to see the mixture of your art with Dublin's art....thoughtful, heart-wrenching, soul-searching

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Laura
09/22/2015 2:55pm

How funny that you would write this particular blog. Watching some of the refugees leaving Syria reminded me of Andy's childhood. I was so glad yesterday to see that the group A21 which was founded by Christine Caine, Has honored her birthday by sending money to build clean facilities so that people would have clean water and safe and sanitary restroom facilities. Makes me sad that people have to go through this kind of trauma.

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Chris
09/23/2015 4:28am

Let us keep the history of events like this to remind us often that every life is important and the worth of every person is equal in the eyes of God.

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Carol Lintner
09/23/2015 9:02am

Susan, you brought those statues to life sharing their pain and heartbreak! It's so very sad to hear their stories. I've always wanted to visit Ireland...now more than ever. Thanks, once again, for sharing so colorfully your experience.

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09/23/2015 1:42pm

Beautiful and heart-wrenching, Susan. Thanks for posting this. I thought of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" more than once as I read. The poem and photo are a one-two punch.

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Pamela Fichtner
09/23/2015 6:18pm

Susan, as usual, I am amazed and moved by your words. What I find interesting is that I always feel you and I think in similar ways both intellectually and spiritually but your talent and craft for expressing those thoughts and emotions actually almost stuns me. I have found this over and over in reading what you write. Your writing actually makes me question myself and why it is I can't go where you go..Anyway, as usual, moved and stimulated by your ability to touch something in yourself and obviously in others...

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Bob Olds
09/26/2015 10:07am

This is an incredible, beautiful poem, written in a style that let's you see the tragedy and formulate your own feelings. I hope you get it published.

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Alison
09/30/2015 10:06pm

Susan, another beautiful, insightful
poem. I would love to hear you read it.

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Margie W.
10/21/2015 7:19pm

Susan--I had a similar experience coming unexpectedly upon statues of Holocaust victims at a San Francisco museum years ago...but I couldn't turn it into such powerful poetry and prose.

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Anne Stabile
10/21/2015 11:39pm

Such an incredible piece, Susan. I've thought so often of my Nonnie who came to this country in 1907 and had to leave her youngest son behind because he was ill. What a decision: leave your son behind or never see your husband again. For a poor Italian woman, it wasn't much of a choice. Thanks for taking the time to compose such a heartfelt, thought provoking piece. Every immigrant makes an incredible choice when they leave everything behind.

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Barry
11/02/2015 1:54pm

A majestic poem from a writer whose zen like awareness for "the connectedness of all" shines through in this poignant work. Who among us has never been a refugee or a pilgrim of some sort at some point in our lives. Thanks for sharing your ongoing creations.

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12/21/2015 1:56am

Susan, you really brought Ireland in front of us describing the Museum, and about the immigrants and the future lives. Your poetry is inspiring and could feel how emotionally you were connected with Ireland. I will definitely visit the Museum in my next visit and please keep writing essays about Ireland for more information.

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02/09/2016 12:09pm

Great post, just what i was looking for and i am looking forward to reading your other posts soon!

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02/17/2016 12:22am

thanks for sharing,

such a valuable feeling to see the pic in the post

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04/24/2016 6:29am

For absence from work, the word szabadság (freedom/liberty) can be used, possibly as betegszabadság (sickness freedom/sickness liberty) when the reason of absence is medical in nature.

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06/27/2016 11:27pm

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