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A Creative Feast Overcomes the Famine: Ireland's Great Hunger Museum

By David Boegaard

Nestled on a plane amidst the wooded hills of Hamden, CT sits Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University. It is, perhaps, an unusual museum - dedicated to the memory of an event of profound deprivation and suffering for a people across the Atlantic Ocean. And the Great Hunger Museum takes an unusual approach to its subject as well. Rather than using the plastic dioramas that one has come to expect, the Museum chooses to reflect upon the Great Hunger through the representations of the many great artists who lived in Ireland or descended from Irish Ancestors.

Photograph by Mark E. Stanczak. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

Ireland's Great Hunger Museum began as an interest in works by Irish artists and authors. But over time, those works began to take on a life of their own. The crucial moment for the formation of the Museum came in 1997 when Quinnipiac's President gave a series of speeches at the St. Patrick's Day Parade. "President John L. Lahey was the Grand Marshall of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1997, which was the 150th anniversary of Black '47, the worst year of the Irish Famine," says Claire T. Puzarne, the Museum's manager. "Murray Lender, a Quinnipiac University alumnus, was one of the people who heard those speeches, and was moved by the story." It was then that Lender saw the importance of educating citizens about the horror of the Great Hunger and the Irish Famine more generally. He and his family committed to providing the financial support that allowed Quinnipiac to create the An Gorta Mór (Irish for "the Great Hunger") collection. This would become Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

So what was this event that stirred the moved Lahey to speak and stirred the heart of Lender? "The Great Hunger, often called the Famine," says Puzarne, "was the worst demographic catastrophe of nineteenth-century Europe. One million people died - terrifyingly, painfully and avoidably - and one million emigrated." The Irish continued to leave Ireland until the end the of the 19th Century. Between the famine and emigration, Ireland's population was cut in half. "The Famine generated a political, economic, moral and cultural crisis," notes Puzarne. Even today, that crisis resonates through the minds and bodies of Irish artists and writers.

Daniel MacDonald, "Irish Peasant Children." Oil on canvas 1846. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

One of the positive results of the vast emigration out of Ireland, however, was the immigration of so many Irish into the United States and other nations. Though the first generation of Irish immigrants were frequently treated as second class citizens, their labor and success transformed the nation. "The Irish became a large and important part of American society," says Puzarne. "Just as Ireland would never be the same, neither would the United States, particularly New York and New England." As a central location between New York City and the Boston area, Connecticut is a perfect location for a museum devoted to remembering a profound period in Irish and Irish-American history.

Lilian Lucy Davidson, Gorta. Oil on canvas 1946. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

The Museum was created, says Puzarne, "to educate audiences of all ages about the underlying political, social, economic and historic causes to the Great Hunger." But the approach that Ireland's Great Hunger Museum takes is unusual. Rather than a traditional museum, Ireland's Great Hunger Museum represents and reflects on the Great Hunger through the works of Irish artists, past and present, of the experience of the famine and its consequences.

Among so many moving works, it is difficult to choose a favorite. But Puzarne finds special resonances in a 2005 piece by Kieran Tuohy called Thank you to the Choctaw. "Famine commemorations are rich in the symbolism of both giving and receiving," says Puzarne.

"The Choctaw tribe - with its own long history, rich culture and troubled past - took the sufferings of an unconnected people, the Irish, onto themselves. Things were so bad in 1847 that this tribe raised and sent more than $170 - a huge amount given their own needs - for the relief of famine in Ireland. Only 16 years before, President Andrew Jackson (whose parents were from Antrim) seized the fertile lands of the Choctaw in Mississippi, and forced them to undertake the 500-mile trek to Oklahoma. Of the 21,000 who embarked on the Trail of Tears, more than half died from exposure, hunger and disease. The Choctaw saw the Irish as victims of cultural suppression, dispossession and exile. Tuohy parallels a totem pole style storytelling with the intricacies of a Celtic way of narrative."

John Behan, Famine Ship. Bronze, 2000. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

These are the kinds of unique experiences that a visitor to the Irish Great Hunger Museum will encounter. It is not only a learning experience, but an experience of reconsideration and reflection. The cumulative effect is one of being brought into an opening, a space in which to encounter the other, a soft space outside the bounds of the everyday cruelty that we permit ourselves in the name of civilization.

Photograph by Mark E. Stanczak. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

And Ireland's Great Hunger Museum offers many other events, as well, Those activities encompass "a wide range of public programming including lectures, book signings, concerts, children's programs, etc." Of course, there are guided tours for groups. And the thrifty traveler can join a free public tour of the Museum every other Wednesday at 3pm. It is a complete experience, one worthy of the people whose suffering the Museum remembers, and whose resilient spirit it honors.

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