First ever Great Hunger museum opens next month in the US
Quinnipiac President Dr John Lahey reveals how history was made
The crisis moment in our collective history, the year zero through which our past and our present must always travel, is 1847.
Now Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut is set to unveil the first Great Hunger museum which shows the history of that terrible erathrough art and artifacts.
The legacy of Black 47, as it came to be called, is still being felt in myriad of ways inIrish society and culture and its shadow has played out in our history in ways that we are still only beginning to apprehend.
Growing up in the Bronx, Quinnipiac University President Dr. John Lahey, 65, first heard about the Irish Faminethe way most people still do in the United States – by word of mouth. As a boy in the Irish section of Riverdale, he was told that the Irish had been lazy and foolish to have allowed themselves to become so dependent on one crop, the potato.
What he didn’t know at the time was that this version of events was nonsense. The truth was that there were plenty of crops and alternative food supplies in Ireland during the famine, and that it was the economic policies of the ruling British government of the period that led to the mass starvations.
When he was invited to become grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City in 1997, Lahey took the opportunity to research the famine in detail. What he discovered changed his life and his whole outlook on Irish history.
“My awakening with respect to Ireland’s Great Hunger came in 1996 when I read Christine Kinealy’s This Great Calamity,” he tells the Irish Voice.
“I grew up in Riverdale. My father’s father was born in Ireland and left as a kid. Growing up I heard references to the potato famine as it was called back then. But my family didn’t talk about it other than in vague ways as a dark period in Ireland’s history.”
The famine was the reason why there were so many Irish in America, he discovered. But in his home it wasn’t spoken of at all.
“I had the sense that Irish Americans were embarrassed by it. They had possibly internalized some guilt associated with it. It was not until I read Kinealy’s book that I began to engage,” Laheyrecalls.
“Coincidentally around the same time, I was approached by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee to be grand marshal in 1997. That was also the 150th anniversary of the famine. By that time the Irish government andIrish Americanshere were finally starting to acknowledge the tragedy, it’s causes and consequences, and memorials were being commissioned and new historical studies were being released.”
The time was finally right, so Lahey set about researching the calamity. What he discovered was that Anglo Irish historians had written the story of the Great Hunger in its immediate aftermath and they had decided where to pin the blame. In the process they played down their own responsibility and vowed they’d done all they could to alleviate the suffering.
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