First ever Great Hunger museum opens next month in the US
Quinnipiac President Dr John Lahey reveals how history was made
“Well, it turns out that the Anglo Irish quite consciously took advantage of the crisis to enact land reform and to tighten their grip on Ireland. The takeaway for me from Christine’s book was that I had a greater sense of the consequences and the magnitude of what had happened in Ireland,” Lahey says.
“This was an avoidable tragedy. More than one million people didn’t have to die; two million didn’t have to emigrate.”
What Lahey discovered was that there had been a potato crop failure. The Irish were certainly dependent on the crop, but the root causes of their dependency went further back to the Cromwellian period and their forcible removal from land in the northeast in particular.
By 1852 the Irish population was cut in half; by 1900 they were cut in three quarters. During the famine the British government never closed the ports or reduced the tariffs.
Instead they shipped out food that could have saved the starving. They used none of the resources of the then wealthiest nation on earth to come to Ireland’s aid.
“When I was asked to be grand marshal I discovered that most of the previous ones had been born in Ireland and had talked about their times there. I guess it was the combination of the educator in me and the fact that I was second generation Irish that I decided to make the theme of that year’s parade the Great Hunger,” Lahey recalls.
The easiest thing about being grand marshal,Lahey says, is leading the parade up Fifth Avenue. The more challenging task was that every Irish organization in New York from January 1 onward wanted him to come to their dinner dance all the way to March 17.
“I attended about 40 or so to talk about the Great Hunger. Then for the first time ever at noon we stopped the parade for a minute’s silence to commemorate those lives impacted,” Lahey says.
The famine held back Ireland for 150 years, Lahey says. The country made little progress from the Great Hunger and the agrarian undeveloped country it was. It missed almost the entire Industrial Revolution. It really didn’t begin to emerge as a growing country with a growing economy until the 1980s and ‘90s with the electronic age.
“The effect on Ireland was not just theGreat Hunger years from 1845 to 1852. Thereafter anyone with ambition and talent knew they had to leave to achieve their goals,” Lahey says.
“There was a psychological aspect to it too. I think the Irish internalized the experience. Many of them accepted the narrative the British government told them -- they were lazy, they reproduced too much, they drank, and they were irresponsible. I had no idea of the true magnitude of the famine, how it set back the country’s growth in all areas.”
With the new museum at Quinnipiac his ambition is clear.
“I hope to educate people about the high quality of Irish art. I strongly think the Irish haven’t been given their due in the field of the visual arts. They have in theater, literature, and music, but they also had some great artists in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Lahey feels.
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