Lynn Bushnell has been vice president for public affairs at Quinnipiac University since 1996. Among her many duties, she oversees Quinnipiac's public relations, media relations and, crucially, Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, a resource that has put the university on the international map. Bushnell speaks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about her career and love of all things Irish.
The main focus of Quinnipiac University's vice president for public affairs Lynn Bushnell's job is putting the college on the map, and make no mistake: she’s done her job exceptionally well.
Having first come to the university in Hamden, Connecticut in 1994, she's been part of its remarkable rise as a center of academic excellence, particularly when it comes to Irish studies.
It helps that she has Irish ancestry herself. Born in Maine, Bushnell grew up hearing tales of her ancestors’ history.
“We know on my mother's side they were Haffords and Tobins, although they Anglicized it by the time they got here. We are certain we are partly of Irish descent but have run up against a brick wall in terms of the research,” Bushnell tells the Irish Voice.
“They originally came to Beverly, which is north of Boston in 1713. To be honest, getting to grips with our Irish ancestry is probably going to be a retirement project for me.”
Bushnell takes pride in the development of the Great Hunger Museum and the new Irish studies minor at Quinnipiac, but attributes its appearance entirely to Dr. John Lahey, president of the university.
“It really rests with John, who the Irish Voice has recognized in the past for his efforts. I think it really started when he was grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day parade in 1997 for the 150th anniversary of Black 47 (the most ruinous year of the Great Hunger),” Bushnell says.
“As grand marshal you have to give about 200 speeches to every AOH and every Irish organization within the tri-state radius so he decided – because he's an educator – to use that bully pulpit to educate people about the true causes of the Great Hunger.”
What had been a personal meditation, fueled by private discovery, soon had wider echoes.
“John was trying to raise money at the time for our head library, so one day he told the story of Black 47 to key university supporter Murray Lender. Murray told him, ‘I'm going to give money to the library, not for what you want it for, but to tell the story of what really happened, the true causes of the Famine.’”
A Jewish man, the son of Polish immigrants and a wildly successful businessman, the story of the Great Hunger and its disastrous impact on the Irish deeply resonated with Lender.
“Although we never liken it to the Holocaust there are some resemblances in terms of the decimation of a population at the hands of their oppressors. And that's how it all got started,” recalls Bushnell.
Lahey and Quinnipiac then began to collect art related to the Famine, a collection which quickly outgrew itself to the point where creating a museum became the logical progression. That project became central to the university's mission, a signature initiative that led to the creation of the Great Hunger Institute and the university's increasingly popular minor in Irish studies.
Ireland's Great Hunger Institute has since become the most renowned scholarly resource for the study of the Great Hunger in the U.S. On the faculty is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Irish Famine, Professor of History
Christine Kinealy, who is also the director of the Great Hunger Institute.Through a program of lectures, conferences, course offerings and publications, the institute seeks to foster a deeper understanding of the Great Hunger and its causes and consequences.
“John was the driving force behind these programs and in terms of my own involvement, I guess I'm the fixer,” explains Bushnell. “My role has been more to make sure that his vision is executed properly.”
With a master’s degree in New England studies and a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Bushnell is well placed to grasp the ambitious mission statement of Quinnipiac's Irish studies initiative and help convey the importance of the Great Hunger Museum to the nation and the world.
Irish history is often hidden, she discovered. Growing up in the small town of Rome, Maine, population 9,598, Bushnell was surprised to discover the hidden Irish heritage of her home place.
“I was in Maine a couple of summers ago and I saw flyers for an Irish American weekend festival. That connection just resonates everywhere you go,” she says.
One thing that Quinnipiac has done is not try to be all things to all people, Bushnell says.
“We can't cover the broad spectrum of Irish history that Notre Dame or Boston College can. But what we can do is choose our niche, and that is the period 1847 to 1852, which we can cover very well,” she maintains.
“There is more development ahead and our director Grace Brady is doing a fine job of that and expanding the collections. My job is to ensure she has the tools to do that.”
Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute has been another successful way to get the Quinnipiac name out into the wider world, particularly among the academic community Bushnell says.
“The focus is our students. We want the very best for them. A large percentage of them have an Irish descent, which means they have an interest in our Irish studies programs,” Bushnell adds.
“We are the largest exporter of students to University College Cork (UCC) in the country. We send more students over there each year than any other university in the U.S.”
Those are the kinds of initiatives that raise a university's international profile, and that's all a part of Bushnell's mission.
“We are a highly capable and well regarded university that will provide any student at undergraduate or graduate level with a high quality education that will prepare them for a profession, whether it's education or nursing or health sciences or doctors or lawyers,” she says.
“We will prepare them to hit the ground running and be successful in their careers.”
The most satisfying part of Quinnipiac's Irish studies focus is that it helps develop something that is so meaningful to so many people, Bushnell says.
“I'm from Maine, so I know that from Portland, which was built on the backs of the Irish, all the way to Philadelphia the Irish American community is key to the development of this country and I don't think people have always appreciated that,” she offers.
“It's almost as if we had to tell the story of the Great Hunger here in this country in order to help people that are in Ireland to be able to hear the story and start to deal with it. Our Christine Kinealy is one of the world's foremost experts on the subject, and the work that she has done has been critical.”
Crucially, Quinnipiac University has helped fight attempts to wrest the Great Hunger narrative from the Irish themselves. Even in 2015, there is still a lot of latent victim blaming going on.
In recent years in The Wall Street Journal a columnist wrote that Ireland needed to “get over it” and “stop being a victim.” It was quite clear the writer had no real understanding of the scale of the event.
Stigmatizing the Irish for their own oppression,Monday Morning post-colonializing if you will, is still a popular practice in some journalistic quarters, but the Great Hunger Museum and Quinnipiac's Irish studies program will make that goal harder now, for which we should all be thankful.
“It all goes back to Murray Lender hearing the story of the Great Hunger Irish. He said to John, ‘You know, I grew up in New Haven. In that town there were three primary groups, the Italians, the Irish and the Jews. I know the story of the Italians and I know the story of the Jews but I have never heard the story of the Irish.’ That was what compelled him to make the gift to get this museum started.”