The president of Quinnipiac University made it his mission to tell the true story of the Irish famine, that it didn't have to happen. And with the support of a Jewish family, Ireland's Great Hunger Museum will open on the Connecticut campus on Thursday.
HARTFORD, Conn. — Since he was a child, John Lahey had heard about the tragic Irish potato famine.
But it wasn’t until he served as grand marshal of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1997 that Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, researched the subject and developed a passion so strong that the university will soon open its own museum on the famine.
“You know, I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, and I was told about this, but the story was more or less that it was the Irish’s fault for being dependent on the potato. They were lazy or whatever,” said Lahey, who grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “That was the British story that they wanted us to believe so they were not held accountable.”
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What he learned in his research convinced Lahey that the 19th-century tragedy was avoidable — that British policies left the Irish starving when there were alternative food supplies in the country.
Certain that this was a story that needed to be told, Lahey delivered speeches on the subject often during 1997 — the year he was grand marshal and also the 150th anniversary of the famine. His outrage convinced bagel magnate Murray Lender, then vice chairman of Quinnipiac’s trustees, of the need to inform people about the famine. So Lender, who saw parallels in the lives of the Jews and the Irish, offered to help.
A decade and a half later, Quinnipiac will open Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum or, in Irish, Musaem an Ghorta Mhoir, in Hamden on Thursday.
Lahey said the 4,750-square-foot museum will be home to the largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials related to the Irish famine. While the private, 7,900-student university in southern Connecticut is covering the cost to buy and renovate the museum — which Quinnipiac isn’t disclosing — the Lender family contributed to the purchase of the collection.
Niamh O’Sullivan, who is a professor emeritus of visual culture with the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, is the inaugural curator; Grace Brady, who worked as an administrator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will serve as executive director.
“This is the only museum anywhere in the world dedicated to Irish art on the Great Hunger,” Lahey said. “There is nothing like this in Ireland. The educational piece is that this was an avoidable tragedy.”
Christopher Cahill, executive director of the American Irish Historical Society, said it’s a “great concept” that the university has focused on “a single, but extremely complicated historical event that is almost as central to the history of the United States as it is to the history of Ireland.
“If you look at the impact of the Great Hunger on the U.S., it’s incredibly transformative,” he said. “There certainly are specialized collections in various libraries, but this is kind of a different way of organizing a collection around a single historical event.”
The collection focuses on the famine years from 1845-52, when blight destroyed almost all of Ireland’s potato crops. That crop loss, paired with the British government’s “callous disregard for human rights,” as Lahey said — others have called it indifference — led to the deaths of more than a million Irish men, women and children.
More than 2 million left Ireland, with a massive influx into the U.S., reducing Ireland’s population from 8 million to just over 4 million.
Scholars and historians disagree on the British government’s intent during the famine years, though it’s clear that British policies proved devastating. “Was it a crime?” Lahey asked. “I would say it was a human-rights abuse. … It was certainly a human-rights violation.”
In 1997, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair issued an apology for the famine, calling it “a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars.” He added, “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”
On a visit last month to the soft-gray stucco museum that was built in 1890 as a library, Lahey paces and talks effusively, describing his travels, visiting galleries and looking for works of art that focus on the famine years.
Not much famine-related artwork was produced during the years of the blight, Lahey said, because there were not many who could pay for it and the few who could “didn’t want the starving Irish hanging on the wall in some Irish manor.”
It was a significant donation from the Lender family, Lahey said, that launched Quinnipiac’s collection of famine-related art, artifacts, original documents and other resources, which is housed in the Lender Family Special Collection room in the university’s library on the campus, and now needs more space.
Murray Lender died earlier this year, but his brother Marvin said that when the brothers heard about the details of the famine from Lahey, “We couldn’t help but compare the history, particularly the potato famine, to some of the experiences of the Jewish people over the years.”