On Friday, September 28 Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was dedicated at an invitation-only ceremony at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, before its official opening to the public on October 11.
The new museum, which has been a special project of the university’s president Dr. John L. Lahey for over a decade, now houses the world’s largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials related to the Irish famine.
But on Monday of last week not a single painting had been hung in the museum, prompting consultant Niamh O’Sullivan, professor emeritus of visual culture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, to fear that it would not be ready for the scheduled dedication five days later.
But the miracle was accomplished and the dedication commenced on schedule at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, after a concert given by the celebrated Irish traditional musician Mick Moloney.
Among those in attendance at the event were Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, Irish Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar and Brian Burns, who owns the greatest collection of contemporary Irish paintings and is founder patron of the Burns Library at Boston College.
Lahey, 65, a former grand marshal of the New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, told the gathering on Friday that he first grasped the scale of the Irish famine in 1996 when he read Christine Kinealy’s magisterial study of the crisis, This Great Calamity.
“The project began 15 years ago in 1997 when I was asked to be the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. In accepting the honor I decided to dedicate the parade that particular year to the 150 anniversary of the worst year of Ireland’s Great Hunger,” Lahey explains.
“Fortunately Murray Lender, a Quinnipiac graduate and a member of the university’s board of trustees, heard many of the speeches I gave at the time, which were inspired by Kinealy’s book. Six months after the parade was over he made a gift to our library. But he thought that the story was so important that he and his brother wanted to dedicate a special room to it.”
As the collection grew so did the idea of housing the materials in a special museum, and in process of studying the famine Lahey simultaneously become more interested in the range and quality of the contemporary Irish visual art that addressed it, which does not receive its due internationally yet, he believes.
Lahey’s ambition for the new museum is for it to become a nationally and internationally known resource and place of learning about that unforgettable part of Ireland's history, he tells the Irish Voice.
At first glance it’s obvious that the Great Hunger Museum is a visionary project, one that has been years in the making, focusing as it does on the famine (or more precisely, the hunger) years from 1845 to 1852 when potato blight destroyed almost all of the Irish subsistence crop.
Statistics given in the main entrance hall inform visitors that one million Irish people starved to death in unspeakable conditions, and two million became so destitute they were forced to flee to the United States and other nations in the hope of shelter.
Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny said, “If you look around these walls you see figures who are Irish, but tragically they reminded me of other figures we saw during the 20th century. We must give great credit to the Jewish community in New York for the money they gave to help in Irish famine relief and in the construction of this museum.”
Agreeing with his sentiments Blumenthal added, “I believe today we are all Irish. In particular in recognizing this museum as a milestone in recognizing human rights. The other day when Gerry Adams was here he said the Irish hunger was not a real famine, it was preventable. One of my mentors Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to say that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
“The Irish Great Hunger was avoidable and it offers a great lesson. We cannot stand by when there are similar violations of human rights. This museum will always provide us with that warning.”
Kinealy put the day and what it stood for in context to the Irish Voice.
“Before the famine the Irish people were the tallest people in Europe,” she said. “Most people nowadays don’t know that. When I ask my students how we as historians know that they say, ‘Is it through coffins or doorways?’ The answer is more mundane. We know they were the tallest because the Irish were such a presence in the constabulary, and in the British Army, and though convict records.”
After the famine one of the longer-term consequences of prolonged hunger and malnutrition was that they dropped in size, she added. After the famine the Irish were no longer the tallest people in Europe.
“Famine is never solely about food shortages,” Kinealy explained. “Famine is always about political division. The same is true today as it was in the 1840s.”
The wide screen monitors on one of the museum’s main walls ask visitors if they know how many people died in the Irish famine? The answer given is that we don’t know.
There is a consensus among Irish historians that it was over one million people. An even higher number emigrated. But those statistics do not do justice to the callousness of the British government which refused when challenged to keep records of the numbers who died.
Nor do the raft of statistics do enough honor to those who died slow, agonizing deaths, coffin-less, nameless and uncounted. Suffering cannot be reduced to a statistic, which the creators of the Great Hunger Museum are only too aware of.
They pull no punches about where to lay the blame either -- to the vast, resource rich British Empire, the lives and deaths of the famine era Irish did not matter.