There is a profound moment in Tom Murphy’s play Famine where John Connor, the Irish tenant farmer, pulls up the potato stalk by the root to see if the blight is back.
It is 1846, after a bad blight the year before there is hope that the humble potato, the only staple food of his country, will be back to normal.
Instead he pulls up a rotting plant and the awful truth dawns. He spreads his hand wide in a crucifixion moment. He knows he and all his people in the little village of Glanconnor are doomed.
It was a recreation of a moment when Ireland changed forever, and so did America. By the early summer of 1846 the Irish had hung on to the bitter end after a bleak 1845 hoping against hope that the crop would come good.
It was not to be. What lay ahead was 1846 and then Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine which would send a million to their graves and a million to the coffin ships. Ireland and America would never be the same again.
Thanks to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut and its visionary president Dr. John Lahey, New York audiences recently enjoyed Druid Murphy, three plays created by Murphy and directed by the Tony Award winner Garry Hynes at Lincoln Center.
I saw Famine last Thursday night and it was an incredible theater experience.
Lahey, a former New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade grand marshal, is a college president who deeply treasures his own Irish heritage and understands the massive importance of entwined Irish and American history.
In September, Quinnipiac will open its new Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, making it the first museum in America dedicated to the Irish Famine.
That will be a magnificent accomplishment by Lahey, one that will create a permanent structure and monument to the most significant event in Irish history and, arguably, one of the most significant in the life of America as well.
Murphy’s play, written in 1968, takes the audience through the terrible famine times, the blight, the British indifference, the evictions, the forced migration and the starvation.
But there was a place called America where the descendants of such men and women, and their cousins who followed after, would remember those who died so horribly. Lahey is among those.
His ancestral town of Camp in Kerry was ravaged by the Famine.
He has spoken up for generations of Irish who never had a voice, and by creating a Great Hunger Museum has ensured that future generations will remember that too.
From a great tragedy generations later comes a wonderful reminder in the Great Hunger museum why we will never forget.