A University President's Passion To Tell The "Great Hunger" Story; A Bagel Magnate's Backing
By KATHLEEN MEGAN, firstname.lastname@example.org The Hartford Courant
8:40 p.m. EDT, September 17, 2012
— Since he was a child, Quinnipiac University President 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 he 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 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."
What he learned in his research convinced Lahey that the 19th century tragedy was avoidable – that policies of the British 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 persuaded bagel magnate Murray Lender, then vice chairman of Qunnipiac's trustees, who saw parallels in the lives of the Jews and the Irish, of the need to inform people about the famine and he offered to help.
A decade and a half later, Quinnipiac will open "Ireland's Great Hunger Museum" or, in Irish, "Museam An Ghorta Mór," in Hamden on Oct. 11. The museum will be dedicated in an invitation-only ceremony on Sept. 28, but in the previous week, there will be several public lectures at Quinnipiac, including a Sept. 25 talk by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, an Irish national political party.
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 university 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 start as executive director on Wednesday.
"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 a 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 to 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?" asked Lahey. "I would say it was a human rights abuse. … It was certainly a human rights violation."
In 1997, then newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair issued an apology for the famine, calling it "a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. ... Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.
Lender Family Support Launches Collection
On a visit last week 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 passed away 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."
On the tour, Lahey points to a space in the museum where a chilling painting called "Burying the Child," by Lilian Lucy Davidson, will hang. In its place last week was a copy of the painting — a placeholder until the museum is completed. But even a copy tells the story of the famine in dark, devastating tones.
Though he has a doctorate in philosophy, Lahey sounds like an art history major. A painting called the "Irish Peasant Children," Lahey said, symbolizes the "three faces of Ireland": the beauty of a young girl, the wildness of an unkempt youth, and a third youth, who iappears to be more sinister.
Also particularly moving are Statistic I and Statistic II, sculptures by Rowan Gillespie, that present the names of hundreds of Irish immigrants who died of disease in quarantine camps on Staten Island.
In his quarter century at Quinnipiac's helm, Lahey is known for sweeping change: during his tenure the university has more than quadrupled its enrollment to 8,500 students; and has had added two new campuses, a law school, and next year, a medical school.
But it's clear as Lahey walks through the museum, pointing out highlights, including space where schoolchildren will be able to watch videos on the famine, that he worries about the details.
Bradford P. Collins, the exhibit designer, corrals Lahey for a moment to get his input on the size of type for a gallery wall. The sizes differ by only a 32nd of an inch, but it's enough to discuss. "Let's go with the bigger," Lahey concludes. "I think I can read it better from a distance.''
It was Lahey's decision to put pavers in the parking lot, rather than blacktop. And he wanted the museum sign to sit squarely in front, rather than at 90 degrees to the road, to differentiate it from the retail outlets along Whitney Avenue.
"I see the big picture … but small things are important too," Lahey says. "When you think of the great universities, many of them have art collections and galleries: Boston College, Yale. ... We think this is part of our gift to the community in a way. .. In time, Quinnipiac will become the place to do Great Hunger-related research."
A weeklong program of cultural events and lectures will begin on Sept. 25. It will culminate with an invitation-only dedication on Sept 28. The museum, at 3011 Whitney Ave. in Hamden, will open to the public on Oct. 11. The museum is free.