The Great Hunger

Last Thursday I decided I could do better picking a destination on my own so I ignored the list of nineteen beautiful places and opened the Google map app on my phone instead. I entered the word museum and pressed a pin at random. It opened to “Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum.” I had never heard of it and yes, you read that correctly. It’s an entire museum dedicated to the Irish famine of the 1840’s.

And so it was that I found myself blasting the Cranberries and early U2 winding down route 34 towards Hamden, hoping to make up for a slow start to my Connecticut adventures.

I figured if I put in the time to learn something about my Irish heritage a week in advance, then tonight I can just wear a green t-shirt and raise a pint of Guinness to St. Patrick like the rest of America without the usual guilt. Although truth be told you’ll never find me savoring a beer as dark as Guinness so perhaps I should say… chugging a pale and tasteless Harp or twelve.

When I got within a quarter mile of the museum I noticed a sign for Sleeping Giant State Park. I love me some time in the woods and it was still morning so I decided to take a quick hike before the impending rain kicked in. Sleeping Giant is directly across the street from Quinnipiac University which houses the museum I was headed to.

While I was thankful for a breath of woodsy air I have to say the Sleeping Giant trail system left much to be desired. The sheer volume of options made for a lot of time wasted deciphering between a greenish-blue marker and a bluish-green one. At any given moment you can be walking on red, orange and yellow trails at the same time only to have them veer off individually and meet up again in a few thousand feet. What is the point of having a trail running parallel six feet to the left of the one you’re on? All it accomplishes is the odd feeling that someone over there is following you in a not-so-incognito fashion. Furthermore at no point on the hike did I make it to an area where I could no longer hear the traffic below.

My personal disappointments aside, it’s very easily accessible and directly across from the university. I imagine it’s a great place for college students and personnel to take a brisk walk and let off some steam so they can get back to work with a clear head. For that I’m grateful it exists. It’s not a destination I would make a point to return to but I’m happy it’s there for everyone else.

After an hour or so of ambling the rain started so I headed back to my car. I grabbed a quick lunch at the health food store across the street then made my way to a small but beautiful new building that opened in 2012. The museum depicts Ireland’s Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor, also known as the potato famine.

Pre-famine Ireland was largely a place of hardworking simple people who lived off the land with very little to show for themselves. An acre fed a family and they were content to keep it at that. Unfortunately for the Irish, the British government had other plans once the blight hit which sent sick starving people out into the streets to die by the droves. Too sick to fight for their rights, their homes were burned. Meanwhile newspapers, parliamentary papers and workhouse minutes portrayed them as lazy but festive drunkards to the judgmental elite in England; even going so far as to insinuate that the rotting crops were a fitting punishment from God.

The museum houses a collection of permanent works and is currently hosting a temporary selection titled In the Lion’s Den from Daniel Macdonald, one of the only artists to depict the famine while it was happening. Turns out it was very uncouth to acknowledge those poor starving people in the higher society of Britain. According to Niamh O’Sullivan, the collection’s curator and Macdonald’s biographer:

Themes rarely visited by Irish artists – rural agitation, superstition and folkore, as well as aspects of the national character – were given spirited treatment by Macdonald who insinuated such subject matter in to the salons of metropolitan London, to venues distinctly hostile to Irish poverty, hunger and violence.

a8c38a17ef49b0d73ccc0be31b5f80a2Macdonald’s most noteworthy painting, titled An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store, was unveiled in London during the worst year of the Great Hunger, 1847. Because the fungus that was infecting the crops putrefied the potatoes and turned them black under the soil, that year became known at Black ’47.

When I think of Ireland I think of rolling green pastures and wool sweaters. I think of the backpacking trip my sister and I took to Dingle Bay in the early nineties when I was a fresh faced teenager eager to see the world. I think of Celtic fiddles in tiny village pubs, rustic sea worn cliffs and a never ending flow of charming and inviting characters. I never think of starving poor people being forced out of their homes by a government that thought them on par with rats and pigeons.

And while I’ve always known the arrival of the Irish in America was not exactly met with a warm hug (Gangs of New York anyone?), I never put the piece together that it was in fact a forced emigration because home had become unlivable and their government was intentionally culling their population. They had to leave in order to survive.

It’s always been fascinating to me how regularly we mis-remember the past. I was taught in history class that everyone came here to pursue the American Dream. And isn’t it so much nicer to believe that? Yah right, they came here on the off chance that it would keep their children from being murdered or starving to death, even though most of them died on the boat ride over. Sound familiar?

Depressing world politics aside, I had an absolutely lovely experience at the museum which included a ten-minute educational movie, sculptures, Celtic music, paintings, stained glass and a projection series of quotes and cartoons from the newspapers of that time. The staff were all engaged and knowledgeable and I left feeling proud to be descended from such a beautifully tenacious and sturdy stock. And to that I will certainly raise a glass!


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