John Lahey and Great Irish Hunger collection


“Another powerful piece we have is a miniature version of John Behan’s The Famine Ship, the original of which sits at the foot of Croagh Patrick. I can remember when I first saw it. I was with my son and we parked the car in the parking lot. It’s a bit of a walk to get to it. It’s very big, and it looks from a distance like a sailing ship, but it wasn’t until I got pretty close to it that I could see the skeletons stretched across it.”

The collection has since outgrown the space that was originally set aside for it, and Lahey plans an expansion for the near future that will bring it to the attention of a larger public. “We own a good sized building on Whitney Avenue and we have some people in there right now, some different offices, but our plan is to move them out over the next few years and to turn that into a Great Hunger Art Museum. It’s not going to be the size of Yale’s British Museum but it will allow us to display much more of the collection than we’re currently able to display . The other thing is that it will be more accessible to the public. Now they have to literally come on the center of campus so we don’t get quite the visitation we’d really like to get. Whitney Avenue is a very public place, the main street which runs all the way from Hartford to New Haven. We can get very public signage and there’s plenty of parking there and that will allow the collection to be much more accessible and we can have public events there and so on.”

Lahey sees the Great Hunger collection as a way to depict the importance of human intervention in crises that stem from natural causes. “We need to educate people that many of these things were just, unfortunately, human beings not reacting in ways that they could have, not having the right amount of compassion or political will. If you think of the recent experience in this country with Hurricane Katrina, you can’t blame anyone for the hurricane itself, that’s the natural cause of it, but the ineptitude and callousness of the response of the federal government and local authorities and others just turned a crisis into a true disaster. …When you’re dealing with life and death and people displaced and homeless and starving and health issues, you need to throw the rules out the window and as a society come together – that’s why even during the Great Hunger, the English argue, ‘well, that was the approach back in those days, laissez faire policy, and sure they could’ve closed the ports but that was private food’ – well, no, that’s what we should’ve done. And there were actually incidents prior to that in Ireland where it was handled much better. The subsistence crisis back in the 18th century is not remembered at all because of that, as opposed to how the Great Hunger almost fifty years later was mishandled.”

In his years overseeing the Great Hunger collection and giving tours of its contents, Lahey recalls one visitor’s reaction that stands out for him. “We had Gerry Adams speak at Quinnipiac. I brought him down to the library and I started to do my normal presentation, you know, this is John Behan’s piece of art, this is one that we commissioned from Margaret Chamberlain and so on, and then I walked him over and said this is Rowan Gillespie’s piece, The Victim. Then I went on and I was on to the next one before I looked back and Gerry Adams was standing there, he couldn’t move. He was just overwhelmed by, I think, the fact that a university that he didn’t know particularly anything about in Connecticut would have a collection dedicated to the Great Hunger. And the power of that piece. I think people seeing the collection for the first time, they’re very clearly moved by it.”