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.
Principled truth tellers aren’t always welcomed with open arms anywhere, especially if they have come to tell hard truths which the famine museum necessitates. The Irish have always known this, and the British have always monitored our statements for centuries.
“When I was announced as grand marshal in December 1996 the ambassador from London took a few shots at me, saying that I was trying to rewrite history,” Laheyreveals.
“Parade officials also had some discussions with me to ask if we really wanted the Great Hunger to be the theme of the parade, since it was controversial. But they got on board quickly.”
Lahey had terrific support along the way, he adds. “The real vision and drive behind this museum, I’m delighted to say, comes from the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland,” Lahey reveals.
Murray Lender, chairman of Quinnipiac’s Board of Trustees (who sadly passed away in March) heard Lahey give talks on the Great Hunger while he was grand marshal, and told Laheyhe wanted to give the university a gift to provide a special room in the library at Quinnipiac dedicated to the Great Hunger.
“He told me, ‘I grew up in New Haven and I had a lot of Irish friends and I never heard a word about the famine.’ He was very forceful about saying it needed to be told and he underwrote it.”
The famine was an avoidable tragedy, Lahey concludes. The potato crop failure was not the fault of the British government and there would have been some deaths from it. But it didn’t have to become a great calamity.
The new museum will record that underline and commemorate it.
“A lot of Irish and Irish Americanartists 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 there on Friday to dedicate this new facility. That’s a proof of how important this story is to all immigrants,” Laheysays.