When you step into the new Great Hunger Museum near the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, you are almost entering hallowed ground.
This is as close as you will come to the pain and experience of those who were forced to endure the tragedy of the Irish famine.
And yet as Gerry Adams stated in a lecture at the museum last week, the fact that the Irish culture survived showed we were “no mean people,” that despite the attempt at genocide of the Irish by the British between 1845 and 1848 the people eventually endured and thrived.
The museum was officially opened by Irish Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar on Friday, accompanied by many Irish and Irish American dignitaries, capping an extraordinary achievement by one driven man.
Quinnipiac University President Dr. John Lahey created the concept of the museum and took it from the drawing board to the spectacular building it is today.
The Los Angeles Times report on the museum stated aptly, “Here Ireland’s potato famine will not be forgotten.”
Indeed it will not.
On two floors replete with both modern and Famine era art and artifacts, we see the oncoming peril, we experience the devastation, the flight to America and the changed landscape for ever more of Ireland.
It is all there in a beautiful stained glass window by Robert Ballagh depicting the onset of the famine, in the extraordinary work of sculptor John Behan and artist Rowan Gillespie depicting the emigrants on the crowded and diseased ridden ships.
The onset of famine is shown in the letter of an Anglo Irish woman informing a friend that the potatoes have failed in their parish and they hope the same has not happened to them.
Then during the full fury of the famine we read the minutes of the Board of Guardians of the town of Killarney in Black ’47. The guardians have been asked three questions -- Has potato disease reappeared in you union? The answer given is simply “yes.”
The next question is in how many electoral divisions? The answer is “all.”
The third question is “Is any area exempt?” the answer is simply “none.”
The museum is the dream and reality of Lahey, a former New York parade grand marshal who dedicated his term as parade leader in 1997 to the Great Hunger and has now created this permanent memorial to Ireland’s epochal event.
What greater gift for Irish America to see our forefathers and what befell them remembered for generations to come?
Long ago and far away one million Irish died and one million fled in the greatest catastrophe of 19th century Europe.
Probably no country has ever undergone such a massive transformation within such a short time, its future shorn off like a thatch roof in a big wind.
Yet the great silence followed.
The years came and went and even independence did not resurrect the events. The 100th anniversary in 1947 passed almost unnoticed.
But not any more. Great famine scholarship by historians such as Christine Kinealy, who inspired Lahey, new books on the topics such as The Graves Are Walking by John Kelly, The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press and The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan, which bows in November, means that the silence is ended.
And the Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut, midway between New York and Boston, secures for generation of Irish in America a place to go and see the catastrophic event where it all began for most Irish Americans.
It is truly a defining moment and a magnificent museum for all of us.
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