A skeletal, exhausted-looking man dressed in rags leans over a spade, preparing a hole in the ground. To the left, his wife hunches over a small bundle in her arms, about to relinquish it to the earth; on the right, another family member stares bleakly into the distance. All are bathed in a deep wash of blue as storm clouds gather overhead.
This is the way artist Lilian Lucy Davidson captures the culture-shattering impact of An Gorta Mór, more widely known as Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-52, in her painting Burying the Child (pictured third above). It’s one of the most compelling of nearly 100 artworks currently displayed in Quinnipiac University’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, the world’s largest collection of painting and sculpture focused on this devastating catastrophe.
The Great Famine was a meeting of two primary causes: a potato blight triggering widespread loss of a crop that had long been the staple diet of two-thirds of the country’s population; and the policies of the British Crown, the governing force of that era’s United Kingdom. At the time, Ireland produced more than enough grain crops—75 percent of its soil was dedicated to the cultivation of wheat, barley and oats—to feed its own population, but much of that was being exported to serve the interests of the Crown. Rather than imposing a temporary embargo on the export of Ireland’s food, which had been employed as a remedy for previous, more limited potato shortages, the United Kingdom persisted in draining the country’s resources.
In a 1997 article published in History Ireland, Christine Kinealy—now a professor of history at Quinnipiac and the director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, the museum’s scholarship-focused sister entity—wrote that during the Great Famine’s peak year of 1847 (immortalized as “Black ’47”), 400,000 died while nearly 4,000 boats carried Irish-grown food to ports in England and Scotland. Ultimately, more than a million Irish died of starvation and disease during the famine itself, while roughly two million more emigrated to other parts of Europe, Australia and the United States in pursuit of a better life. This took a lasting toll on Ireland’s population: in 1841, Ireland was home to 8.1 million; by 1879, that number had fallen to 4.7 million.
The famine intensified centuries’ worth of alienation and hostility between England and Ireland, and yet, for well over a century, the Great Famine was followed by a phenomenon that Hunger Museum Executive Director Grace Brady (pictured second above) calls the “Great Silence.” The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish immigrants—such as Brady herself—found that their ancestors never talked about it. The topic was rarely taught in schools. Then, in 1997, Quinnipiac University President John Lahey, invited to serve as that year’s Grand Marshal of New York City’s St. Patrick Day’s Parade, decided to use the occasion to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Black ’47. In preparation, he made many public speeches on the Great Famine.
One of his most avid listeners was Murray Lender of Lender’s Bagels, a Quinnipiac alumnus and vice chair of the university’s board of trustees. Greatly moved by Lahey’s talks, he (along with brother Marvin) gave Quinnipiac seed money to establish a collection that would educate students and the public about the Great Famine’s causes and consequences. Initially housed at the school’s Arnold Bernhard Library, over the next 15 years the assortment of artworks, books and historical documents—including parliamentary papers and firsthand accounts from the weekly Illustrated London News—outgrew its lodgings, and in September 2012 the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was born.
Intended to evoke aspects of the Great Famine, the exterior of the museum building, designed by Wyeth Architects of Chester, is modeled after a 19th-century Irish workhouse. Its first floor is distinguished by low ribbed ceilings and a lack of direct light, subtly suggesting the experience of traveling, as fleeing emigrants did, in the cramped hull of a ship. The high ceilings and bright and airy ambience of the second-floor gallery reflect the promise of life after emigration. Both floors feature digital media installations: the lower has a screening room, while the upper has a large nine-panel digital display cycling through images and themes from the Famine.
Beyond education, the museum’s objective is to spotlight first-rate Irish art. “Ireland gets accolades for its music, theater and literature; but we wanted to show that there’s a group of visual artists who are just as talented,” Brady says. High among them, she adds, is Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), younger brother of literary lion William Butler Yeats. Two of his paintings are on display, including the celebrated Derrynane (1927), a melancholy landscape depicting the harbor near the home of Daniel O’Connell, a renowned advocate for Irish independence. Another significant work is Daniel MacDonald’s 1847 painting Irish Peasant Children, the only work here that was created during the famine itself.
For the most part, classic pieces such as these are displayed on the museum’s first floor, while contemporary works—more abstract, emotional and even activistic—dominate the second. Micheal Farrell’s 1998 painting Black ’47 (pictured sixth above) depicts the “trial” of Charles Trevelyan, a British functionary charged with administrating relief efforts at the height of the Great Famine who, it’s believed, deliberately dragged his feet while pronouncing the crisis “an effective mechanism for reducing the surplus Irish population.” The Quinnipiac-commissioned The Leave-Taking (2000—pictured first and seventh above), a bronze sculpture by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain, depicts weak, emaciated refugees ascending a gangplank to board a ship to somewhere, perhaps anywhere, else. Contrasting notes of hope and gratitude are struck by Kieran Tuohy’s totemic 2005 wood carving Thank you to the Choctaw, commemorating the private donation the Choctaw Indians raised for Irish famine relief in 1847, just 16 years after the U.S. government put the notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830 into effect.
Since opening its doors 18 months ago, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has welcomed more than 13,000 visitors; on average, that’s 40 people a day. “That’s a big number for a museum like this,” says Brady. She and Assistant Executive Director Claire Tynan are continually testing ways to expand the range of the museum’s programming, incorporating lectures, book signings, music and drama performances and children’s art activities into the mix. Brady says that her greatest reward is seeing the emotional impact the museum has on visitors, no matter what their ancestry. “People ask me, ‘Do you have to be Irish to come to the museum?’ and I’ll say, ‘Of course not. We’re telling an Irish story, but it’s also the story of all mankind.’”
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum
3011 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Wed & Fri 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm
Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.