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Echoes of Irish Martyrdom on Hartford's Maple Avenue


March 13, 2013

Travelers in medieval Ireland would often come upon stone High Crosses dotting the beautifully rugged landscape. The crosses, some of which survive today as one of the country's enduring symbol, are perhaps best known by the distinctive ring that joins the shaft and crossbar. Many are delicately carved, but they served a greater purpose than a show of aesthetic beauty or status.

By the ninth and 10th centuries, their elaborate imagery was often used to commemorate an important person or event. They also served as visual aids in the sermons of local monks, who would point to the scriptural images as a means to help relay Bible lessons to the mostly illiterate population of the time.

A cross must be at least 800 years old to be considered a High Cross, but there are many newer Celtic crosses crafted in the same general design. The Hunger Strike Memorial on Maple Avenue in Hartford is a modern piece loosely constructed in the style of the familiar High Cross.

Brendan Downes, a County Clare native and owner of the Maple Cafe, (Hartford's longest-operating Irish pub) lightheartedly remarked about the memorial, "I think a lot of residents nowadays see the memorial and wonder if someone is buried out there." In modern times, the crosses have become associated with burial markers, a purpose for which they were never initially intended. Like the High Crosses of medieval Ireland, this Hunger Strike Memorial serves as a sort of beacon to educate those uninformed passersby about a particular time in Irish and American history.

On March 1, 1981, Irish Republican Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in order to gain special status as political prisoners for himself and his comrades. Beginning with Sands, 10 would ultimately meet their untimely deaths before the hunger strike was called off. How is the death of these men significant to this quiet corner in the capital of the Nutmeg State?

Like the High Crosses of medieval Ireland, one needn't look too far beyond its chiseled inscriptions for an answer. Inscribed on the cross are the names of the 10 hunger strikers of 1981, and those of two other Irish Republican activists, Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan, who died on hunger strike in England in the 1970s. Perhaps the most eye-catching inscriptions are those in Irish, "Saoirse" and "Tiocfaidh ar lá", translating to "Freedom" and "Our day will come," respectively. The latter phrase, which is often associated with the Irish Republican movement, is attributed to the prison writings of Sands.

Far from the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland or the infamous prison blocks that housed the prisoners, many Irish emigrants, their American counterparts, and other human rights activists took to the streets, raised relief funds, and wrote to their politicians to voice their disdain for the way in which the British government was handling the situation in the North of Ireland.

In a neighborhood once teeming with immigrants from the Emerald Isle, many of whom were active in their support for Ireland's fight for independence, the Hunger Strike Memorial on the corner of Maple Avenue and Freeman Street in Hartford's South End holds significance far beyond the names and phrases. Just as the High Crosses were important in preserving and projecting stories for the early Irish population, so too does the modern likeness on Maple Avenue serve an equal purpose.

Not only do the granite memorial's inscriptions commemorate and relay the stories of 12 young men who gave their lives, it also helps to preserve the memory of a time and place in which human rights activists across the world, but mainly those in America, rallied together in an attempt to expose the intransigence of British rule in Northern Ireland, an effort that brought change.

The memorial on Maple Avenue is a glimpse into the melting-pot history of our state. Similar historical landmarks, each with their own story to tell, dot the beautiful New England landscape like our own High Crosses. How many times do we pass them by without giving a second thought?

Patrick J. Mahoney of Wethersfield is a 2011 graduate of Sacred Heart University now pursuing graduate studies in cultural history at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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