The Great Hunger Museum: A Destination, Not a Detour

In September, after one of my occasional trips to Boston, I decided to take a detour to investigate The Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University. Friends had told me about the collection hosted at the library on the Hamden Connecticut campus, until last September, when it moved into its own building, located about a mile from the main campus.

The two-story, 4,750-square-foot building is home to what is said to be the world largest collection of visual art, artifacts, and printed materials relating to the starvation and forced emigration that occured during An Gorta Mor. Works by noted contemporary Irish artists are featured, as well as a number of important 19th and 20th century paintings. In its first year, the museum has drawn more than 9,600 visitor.

The Real Story

In 1997, the 150th anniversary of the hunger, Dr. John Lahey, Quinnipiac’s President was chosen as Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. He determined that to prepare for the position that year, he would learn as much as he could about the “famine.”

What he learned shattered his boyhood perception of the Great Hunger – that “the Irish had been lazy and foolish to have allowed themselves to become so dependent on one crop, the potato.” The truth was that though the potato had failed, they were plenty of healthy crops and enough food in Ireland during those years to support the starving people.

Many visitors to the Quinnipiac museum share the same misconception as Lahey had, one museum official said. Hence the precision of the museum’s name. That misconception is shattered when the visitor enters the museum and views a 15-minute-long introduction to the calamitous event on the museum’s first floor. Outside the seating area for the firm are several pieces of 19th century art and sculpture that increase the interest in what lies upstairs. Besides offices, the first floor also contains printed materials relating to the starvation and forced emigration.

The majority of the artwork can be seen on the second floor. Highlights for me included “Famine Cart” by sculptor John Behan, which depicts a horse and cart delivering not peat from the fields but corpses to a mass grave and Lilian Davidson’s oil painting “Burying The Child,’ which depicts a gaunt man preparing a grave for an infant while two mourning women look on. Acquisitions continue, most recently “The Ragpickers” an oil rendering of old women eking out an existence by collecting rags for a paper mill. It was painted in 1900 by Henry Allan.

        

Much of the early funding for the museum’s collection came from Murray Lender, Chairman of Quinnipiac’s Board of Trustees and a principal in Lender’s Bagel’s. Lender gave the university a gift to fund a special room at the library dedicated to the Great Hunger. When the new museum was dedicated last September, Lahey saluted Lender in a special way, saying, “A lot of Irish American artists and supporters helped to make this day possible, but without the support of a son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who saw parallels in our experience we wouldn’t be [here] to dedicate this new facility. That’s a proof of how important this story is to immigrants.”

When President Lahey began to question the prevailing assumptions about the Great Hunger in the late 1990s, he found one book particularly helpful in his education. “My awakening with respect to Ireland’s Great Hunger came in 1996 when I read Christine Kinealy’s ‘This Great Calamity,’” Lahey told the Irish Voice. No surprise then that this fall Quinnipiac University announced that Kinealy had been appointed Professor of History and Irish Studies at the university. Formerly at Drew University, Kinealy will also serve as Director of the newly created Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac.

In announcing the appointment, Lahey said, ‘As Director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac, Christine will perform scholarly research and organize academic conferences that, along with Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac, will enhance Quinnipiac’s growing reputation as the preeminent authority on the Great Hunger.

The Great Hunger Museum is located at 3011 Whitney Ave. in Hamden, Connecticut. Entrance to the museum is free, though donations are accepted. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, log on to ighm.nfshost.com, call (203) 582-6500 or e-mail ighm@quinnipiac.edu.

Upcoming programs include a lecture by Sinead McCoole, Curator of the Jackie Clark Collection in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland on Tuesday, October 29 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and readings on the poetry of Seamus Heaney on Thursday, November 7 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

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Tags: Boston, Connecticut, Famine

Comment by Jim Goulding on September 29, 2013 at 12:45pm

Thanks Jim for your piece on the Great Hunger Museum. I think that the true history of this Irish tragedy needs to be disseminated much more. For me it will be a "must see" place the next time I am in the area. 

Comment by Jim Curley on September 29, 2013 at 1:39pm

I trust you will find the visit well worth it, Jim. The NY Times had a great review of the museum when it opened, but I disagreed with one statement made in the review - that the Great Hunger happened so long ago that a visitor wouldn't react as strongly as he might to a more recent event - the Holocaust or recent genocides in Africa. I found visiting the Hunger Museum  a very emotional event.

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on September 30, 2013 at 8:07am

Strong work Mr. Curley. Very touching and thoughtful. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together for us. I wasn't aware of this museum until now. I'll be in New York City over Thanksgiving and I'll make sure to take a trip up to support this. Give a donation... Eamon 

Comment by Jim Curley on September 30, 2013 at 8:28am

Please, Eamon, call me Jim.  And thanks for the kind words.

Just check and make sure of their holiday hours. Best route by car is the Merritt to the Wilbur Cross at New Haven.  It's a nice drive.

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on September 30, 2013 at 5:02pm

I think it is such a challenge for a museum focused on tragedy to present information in an way that honours rather than exploits the victims.  It sounds like this collection has got it right.  Thanks for the review!

Comment by Rose Maurer on October 2, 2013 at 1:47pm

I can but endorse your eloquent comment Kelly!

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