Since it opened its doors to the public in October 2012, Quinnipiac University's Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT has displayed the world's largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed material related to the starvation and forced emigration of the Irish people in the 19th century.
Part of the museum’s mission is to explore how the crisis of Great Hunger was reported to the wider world, and in recent months it has invited celebrated Irish authors, artists and academics to address the disaster as part of their Famine Folios series. The resultant essays are remarkable.
In "The Tombs of a Departed Race – Illustrations of Ireland's Great Hunger," Professor Niamh O'Sullivan writes one of the most lucid accounts of the background, scale and impact of the Great Hunger that I have ever encountered.
In her 61-page essay O'Sullivan - an award winning scholar who writes on 19th century Irish and Irish American art and popular culture - examines how the periodicals and pictorial newspapers of that century first shaped our understanding of the unfolding calamity.
But the depictions that O'Sullivan has collected do much more than simply present a pictorial account, they also comment on the prevailing social and political attitudes – and often the prejudices – of the English artists and periodicals that were reporting the conditions on the ground.
O'Sullivan reminds us that the Famine was not simply a year or a crop failure in the making. Instead, she writes, “It is better understood as a hundred-year event rather than a seven year one – an outcome of systematic neglect by government...”
For decades poverty, work for low wages and biting rents kept the Irish peasants in a perpetual state of dependency and always on the verge of famine. Dispossessed by settlers who had “expropriated" their lands during the Conquest, O'Sullivan writes, “Irish Catholic landowners and peasants had been driven to the bogs and mountainsides, most especially in the west,” where they were left to cultivate the subsistence crop that kept them alive – the potato – because even on stony soil it grew abundantly.
Driven away to the worst land and cheated of their ability to prosper, the Irish were then blamed for their own grinding poverty, which many colonial settlers claimed was God's judgment on their race. Bogus scientific theories abounded to rationalize their suffering as a symptom and sign of their religious and biological inferiority.
By 1845, 85 percent of the 8.7 million population lived on tiny plots of land in extreme poverty. So there was an inevitability about what happened that was all the more shocking because every portent had been ignored.
O'Sullivan's selection of supporting materials conveys the sheer scale of the horror and supplies unforgettable on-the-ground accounts like this one from an 1847 edition of the Southern Reporter: “We are overwhelmed with distress; we are crushed with taxation; we are scourged by famine and visited by pestilence. Our jails are full; our poor houses choked; our public edifices turned into lazar houses (places rife with infectious diseases like leper colonies); our cities mendacities: our streets morgues; our churchyards fields of carnage.
“Our ordinary trade is gone; our people are partially demoralized. Society itself is breaking up; selfishness seizes upon all; class repudiates class; the very ties of closest kindred are snapped asunder. Sire and son, landlord and occupier, town and country repudiate each other, ceasing to cooperate. Terror and hunger, disease and death afflict us....horrible suffering, utter penury.”
O'Sullivan’s carefully chosen pictorial selections illustrate the near total collapse of every social and familial bond as the crisis – the largest demographic catastrophe of the 19th century in Europe – took hold.
But she also reminds us that visual representation is not an objective pursuit. Every historical image of the Famine, she writes, “contains components that implicitly or explicitly disclose the often contesting ideologies of the protagonists.”
In her essay O'Sullivan contextualizes the perilous condition of the Irish poor in the lead up to the Great Hunger and she examines the prevailing attitudes of the landowners and the government, showing us how each pictorial account of the Famine contained not just a portrait but a point of view, often a distancing one, or one that attempts to apportion blame for the lamentable conditions on the shoulders of those who had their lives and futures upended by it.
Quinnipiac University Press, $15.
* Originally published April 2015.