HAMDEN — When Ireland’s flowering potato plants suddenly withered in the fall of 1845, its people wilted with them. As a deadly pestilence scorched the island’s staple crop — the average Irish man consumed 14 pounds of potatoes a day — the Great Hunger gnawed the nation.
Through seven terrible years of famine, Ireland’s poetic landscape authored tales of the macabre. In one village, a child was found suckling at the dried breasts of its dead mother. Wild dogs searching for food fed on human corpses. The country’s legendary 40 shades of green stained the lips of the starving who fed on tufts of grass in a desperate attempt to survive. As typhus, dysentery, and cholera raged, gravediggers could not keep up, and the emaciated bodies were thrown into mass graves.
Ireland’s population of 8 million in 1845 was nearly halved by the time the potato blight abated in 1852. More than 1 million perished, and 2 million abandoned the land that had abandoned them. Many refugees who fled Ireland for America sailed aboard vessels so rancid they were called “coffin ships.” Passengers huddled like livestock in cramped quarters and choked on the fetid air. Nearly a quarter of the 85,000 who sailed to North America in 1847 never reached their destination. Their bodies were tossed overboard to rest forever on the bed of the Atlantic.
Millions of New Englanders with Irish roots can trace their family trees to coffin ship passengers. The arrival of these Great Hunger refugees forever altered the history of the region, which makes New England a natural location for the country’s first museum dedicated to the famine. It opened last October.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, owned by Quinnipiac University, houses the world’s largest collection of paintings, sculptures, and visual arts related to the famine. Quinnipiac began to acquire famine-related art and research materials in 1997 at the behest of its president, second-generation Irish-American John Lahey, and with the financial support of the late bagel magnate Murray Lender, a university alumnus, and his brother Marvin. The art collection quickly outgrew its space, which led Quinnipiac to open the new two-story museum near its campus just north of New Haven.
A visit starts with a short history lesson from a 14-minute film that explores the complex causes and consequences of the Great Hunger. As the video explains, more than just an agricultural plague was to blame. A political system ruled by London and an economic system dominated by British absentee landlords were co-conspirators. Charles E. Trevelyan, the British government official responsible for the wholly inadequate relief efforts, even viewed the famine, not as a problem, but as a divine solution, a “mechanism for reducing surplus population” in Ireland.
First-floor display cases include selections from Quinnipiac’s extensive collection of printed materials including parliamentary records, British government documents, and a letter from Queen Victoria, still remembered in parts of Ireland as the “Famine Queen.” More moving, though, are the handwritten accounts of those unknowns suffering across the Irish Sea. Upstairs, a large video wall that silently projects famine images, statistics, and quotations dominates the museum’s main exhibition space and prompts quiet contemplation.
The museum’s inaugural exhibition features more than 100 original sculptures, paintings, and other works from Irish and American artists. Most of the pieces are modern — more date from the 21st century than the 19th — which reflects that only in recent decades have Ireland and its diaspora begun to plumb the depths of the emotional trauma. The physical scars still mar the Irish countryside, as seen in the exhibition’s black-and-white photographs of a deserted village on Achill Island, and more than 150 years later the country still hasn’t rebounded to its pre-famine population.
No known photographs of the Great Hunger exist, but the museum’s collection of illustrated newspapers, which had debuted in the early 1840s, show how the visual medium conveyed the horror to contemporary audiences. The hollow figures, with eyes as vacant as their stomachs, in the latter-day artwork on exhibit continue to evoke the dark side of Ireland’s terrible beauty. Clothes drip off the barefoot and wasted subjects in John Behan’s bronze sculpture “Famine Mother and Children,” and the slender, life-size figures that Kieran Tuohy carved from primordial Irish bog oak drown in grief. The grotesque subjects that Lilian Davidson has painted in her blue-tinged “Burying the Dead” resemble zombies with their gaunt countenances and sunken eyes.
The exhibition features a handful of famine memorial studies, including one for Behan’s eerie National Famine Memorial that depicts skeletal bodies entwined around a coffin ship rigging. The spate of famine memorials that have been erected in the United States and Ireland over the past two decades shows the important role that art has played in giving voice to the victims and healing the still-raw wounds, a purpose that will only be amplified with the unveiling of Quinnipiac’s museum.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum 3011 Whitney Ave., Hamden, Conn. 203-582-6500, www.ighm.org
Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.