by Cathy P. Ross
Apr 9, 2013
07:43 AMCulture Cat
Ireland's Great Hunger Museum
A model of “Famine Ship” (2000), John Behan’s National Famine Memorial, created as a tribute to the millions who emigrated from Ireland during the famine.
Quinnipiac University recently opened its new Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum (Músaem an Ghorta Mhóir), the first museum in North America dedicated to the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. One of the world’s greatest catastrophes, it left the Irish with indelible scars—feelings of grief, shame and guilt that were passed down to succeeeding generations. The facts about this tragedy have been hidden for too long, believes Quinnipiac President John Lahey. He’s made it his mission to present the truth about the Famine, and to attempt to ease, or at least explain, the suffering once and for all.
This is personal for Lahey, an Irish-American who grew up in the Bronx. He’d heard falsehoods about the Great Hunger that had been repeated for well over a century—that the Irish themselves were at fault, due to their foolish dependence on the potato crop, for the more than a million deaths, and two million people more who fled. In truth, the crisis could have been averted had the British government stepped up. After the blight, there were adequate resources within Ireland itself to feed the starving masses—but the British government refused to close ports there to stop the export of food and livestock. It took 150 years for the British to officially come forth and accept a portion of the blame.
Lahey’s outrage over the deception compelled him to find a way to set the record straight. In 1997, he began giving speeches on the subject, which caught the attention of bagel entrepreneur Murray Lender, a Quinnipiac alumnus. Lender was so struck with Lahey’s cause that he and his brother Marvin gave the university a sizeable donation to start an educational program on the Great Hunger. This led to the creation of An Ghorta Mhóir, an exclusive collection that has become the largest assemblage of Great Hunger-related art and educational resources in the world—enough to fill an entire museum.
The museum has taken up residence in the old Hamden library on Whitney Avenue, which has been beautifully redesigned by Wyeth Architects of Chester (with assistance from Clodagh Design of New York) to reflect 19th-century Irish life. The light grey stone walls of the building’s façade are based on materials and forms found in the Irish countryside. The small entry of dark wood and slate flooring suggests a humble Irish cottier’s living space. A dramatic central staircase constructed of solid timber and bronze floor-to-ceiling rods leads to the main gallery that’s filled with natural light.
Before visitors venture into the gallery, they view a 14-minute film that gives some background on the Great Hunger. The inaugural exhibit features more than 100 works by noted contemporary Irish and American artists. Social activist Robert Ballagh’s eye-catching stained-glass window illustrates farm life before and after the blight in a triptych titled “An Gorta Mór,” and Rowan Gillespie’s small-but-powerful bronze sculpture, “The Victim”—scaled down to convey the scope of the horror—uses a huddled figure to represent all the victims who perished or emigrated.
Another heart-wrenching bronze commissioned by Lahey is “The Leave-Taking,” by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain. Chamberlain surrounded herself with images from the Jewish holocaust “to reference what starvation and cruelty would do to the human figure.” She depicts a mother and child being forcibly separated as half-starved refugees board a ship to embark on a trip that some will not survive.
“Black 47,” a painting by Michael Farrell, dominates an entire wall. Five skeletons rise from a coffin into a courtroom where Sir Charles E. Trevelyan stands trial. Trevelyan was assistant secretary of the British treasury and responsible for the government’s disastrous relief efforts. Documents indicate he viewed the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population.”
A haunting display of “coffin ships” (the overcrowded, disease-ridden vessels that carried escaping Irish émigrés to America) includes a bronze model of John Behan’s “Famine Ship” (below). Behan’s much larger original is the National Famine Memorial, located at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, a place of annual pilgrimage. Three masts rise above the ship like the crosses on Calvary. Flattened bodies connect the masts like rigging.
This is the first time the story has been told visually, so when you go, give yourself time to take it all in, and be prepared to cry. There are always lessons that come out of a tragedy of this magnitude, and one powerful message—never forget.
The museum is open Wed. thru Sat. 10-5, Thurs. 10-7, Sun. 1-5. For more info, call 203-582-6500 or visit ighm.org.