Museum offers new perspectives on Irish heritage

Museum offers new perspectives on Irish heritage

Located at 3011 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University tells the harrowing story of the Irish Potato Famine/Great Hunger Tragedy that occurred during the period from 1845-1852.

According to its website, the museum contains literature, artifacts and the largest collection of art made by established contemporary Irish and Irish American artists about this chapter in Ireland’s history.

Admission to the museum is free. The museum will be closed until April 12 as it prepares for a new exhibition.

Ryan Mahoney is the new executive director of the museum. He recently spoke with The Citizen about the facility, its mission and his work there.

When did you first become interested in the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century?

The opportunity to work at this museum was actually a great chance for me to combine my professional background with my cultural background. With my family being able to trace its roots back to Ireland on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family, I have always had an interest in Irish history. But like most people, I never had more than a basic knowledge of the Great Hunger. It was not until about 5 years ago when I started working at the Irish American Heritage Museum that I was really able to start looking at the subject in depth and gain a better understanding of what actually happened in Ireland.

At Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum we tell this story visually, through our collection of artwork ranging from 19th century artwork to contemporary pieces. The university has truly shown its dedication to the subject by not only having the museum, but by also being the home of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute headed by Dr. Christine Kinealy, as well as a wealth of resources in the Arnold Bernhard Library.

Presently, we see situations in countries like Venezuela, Iraq, Sudan and Syria where people are starving and leaving in massive migrations. How does this compare to the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century?

I would hate to compare the sizes of different famines throughout history, especially as numbers can be so skewed. What I can say is that from the years 1845-1852, over 1 million people in Ireland died, while over one and a half million more emigrated from the county. This trend of leaving would continue throughout the 19th century to the point where Ireland’s population was just half of what it was pre-Great Hunger. Even to this day, the number of inhabitants in Ireland is smaller than it was pre-1845.

What are some of the most interesting pieces of artwork at the museum?  

The museum features a great array of 19th century artwork to modern day pieces. The collection includes work by luminaries such as Jack Butler Yeats, Paul Henry, William Crozier, and many more. There are so many pieces in our collection that provoke thoughts and questions.

One such piece, is Statistic I & Statistic II by Rowan Gillespie. According to the artist: “Under one small municipal parking lot on Staten Island, some 650 human bodies have been discovered. Most are the remains of Irish immigrants who, having fled the devastation of Famine, survived the horrors of the ‘coffin ships,’ had on arrival in the New World, died in quarantine from the diseases they carried with them. Amazingly it has been possible to identify the name, age, date, and cause of death of most of those who were so unceremoniously disposed of in this grave. Having spent some time at the site and with those involved, I felt the need to offer some small dignity to those forgotten dead by cutting their names into bronze. It was my way of taking time to contemplate the horror behind these statistics. I would need to make 5,000 tables like these to record the known deaths resulting from the Famine in Ireland.”

What are some of the long lasting effects of the Great Potato Famine, in terms of the impact of malnutrition on genetics and the health of subsequent generations?  

There have been numerous studies done recently in the field of epigenetics stating that going through an event like famine can affect the physical and mental makeup for generations. I would leave any answer regarding this question in the hands of the experts studying it.

How often is the museum’s artwork loaned out to other galleries, exhibits and museums?

This is a timely question. The museum is actually sending 50 pieces of its collection travel throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland over the next year for the first time ever. “Coming Home: Art & The Great Hunger” will be on display first in Dublin, at Dublin Castle, where the exhibition opens to the public on March 8. It is then off to the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, and will finally be on display at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry City. Visitors will be able to experience this outstanding collection in its home, reflect on the Great Hunger through visual arts, and celebrate the unique connection between Ireland and its diaspora in America.

What should visitors take away in experience when they visit the museum?  

I think the most important thing to know about our museum is that, yes, we tell the story of Ireland’s Great Hunger, but this is a story that has so many parallels to modern issues of hunger, immigration, and even xenophobia. We can use this collection to inspire thought, provoke questions and develop a sense of empathy.

Ireland’s Great Hunger is a story that needs to be shared and should not be pushed aside. This is a story of an environmental crises coupled with a humanitarian crises and is one that we need to learn from.

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