Irish American of the Year: Dr. John L. Lahey


“[She] really blew the lid off all of the inaccuracies and the dramatically downplayed scale of the tragedy,” he said. “She documented all kinds of food exports and found that the shipment of food out of Ireland actually increased during the years of the Famine. She also argued that much of the guilt and self-blame felt by the Irish was misplaced. For the greater part of 150 years, the world and the Irish believed that the Irish themselves had played some role in bringing about the famine. But the conditions of poverty and the disproportionate dependence on a single potato crop were imposed, over time, by the British. We now know that this was the greatest tragedy in 19th century Europe, and probably the greatest catastrophe in Ireland’s history, and it is all the more tragic because it was largely preventable.”

As an educator and an Irish-American, Dr. Lahey became determined to help correct the record. He used all of his speaking engagements as Grand Marshal to talk about the Great Hunger, and jumped at the opportunity when the brothers Murray and Marvin Lender (of the Lender’s Bagels family), who had been deeply moved by Lahey’s account, proposed forming a collection at Quinnipiac dedicated to An Gorta Mór.

With the Lender Family Collection and his advocacy of introducing a Great Hunger curriculum into public school systems, Lahey’s aim is to correct and accurately communicate the history of the Famine. “This is not just about commemorating what happened,” he emphasized, “we have to rewrite the history books and we have to rewrite the story that has been passed down from generation to generation of the Irish.” 

One of the most notable components of the collection is its artwork. Within the Lender room, sculptures inspired by The Great Hunger are prominently displayed, and more are dispersed throughout the Bernhard Library. While Lahey is involved with all aspects of the collection, he takes a particular interest in the art, and reminisced about carrying the first piece he acquired for the collection, Roan Gillespie’s “The Victim,” with him on the flight back from Ireland. “It’s such a powerful work,” he said. “I didn’t want to let it out of my sight.”

For Lahey, art is a vital tool in re-shaping our understanding of the Famine because of its ability to impart essential information across many barriers. “In the long run history and education are extremely important, but there’s nothing more powerful for me than art. Art, like music, is a kind of universal language. You can bring anyone of any nationality or language into the Lender room. If they don’t speak or read English then they might not understand the words, but they can look at those images and the sculptures, and understand everything instantly.”

The Great Hunger collection continues to grow, and will soon be moved to its own space on Whitney Avenue, the main road that runs right from Hartford to New Haven. Lahey looks forward to this: “In its current location, the collection is in the middle of campus, a bit out of the way for anyone who wants to stop by and see it. It’s going to be so important for the whole collection to be on display in its own building. After all, its purpose is to educate, so the more accessible it is, the better.”

As vice chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, he keeps a very busy schedule in March. But his love of the parade runs deep – back to the years in high school when he marched behind Fordham’s banner. He has been volunteering with the parade for 30 years, and has held his current position on the committee for the past ten.

Dr. Lahey’s favorite thing about the parade is that its history mirrors that of the Irish in America. “It reflects how long the Irish have been a presence here and how far we have come.”

Though its history is of great significance, Lahey also feels that the parade itself has never been more important than it is today. “When I was a kid I thought everyone was Irish,” he said with a laugh. “This was because I grew up in a very Irish neighborhood. All my teachers were Irish, the police on the beat were all Irish, the firefighters were Irish, the other kids we played sports with were Irish, and so on. In that environment there were a lot of ways in which the Irish were able to pass on their history, culture, values and traditions to their kids, to the next generation in these Irish neighborhoods. But today, neighborhoods like that don’t really exist in New York in the way that they did then. Because they don’t, the parade is, at least for me, the single most concentrated event every year that brings the Irish together. It allows us to remember, celebrate, and pass on to the next generation what it means to be Irish, and what our struggles and accomplishments have been over the past 250 years in this country.”