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!



So… Guilford…

Bryson is a master of the tangential rant. At one point in Little Dribbling he goes on about a lengthy article in the U.K. Times which caused him to stop reading newspapers altogether. In the offending series a young journalist travels to America to see how many outdated and ridiculous laws he can break. His goal is to get arrested in as many U.S. states as possible only it turns out that none of the laws he’s trying to break are real and he never once gets the attention of law enforcement. It is essentially a loss on all levels and seems to annoy its reader mainly due to a complete lack of research.

The state of the media is disastrous to say the least and I kind of felt like that when I got to Guilford. Upon my arrival in town I had a Homer Simpson Doh! moment thinking: Why in the world did I let a Facebook advertisement tell me where to go?

If Bill Bryson can’t rely on the Times how could I be so stupid as to trust a list that had been generated by a website called the Crazy Tourist and was written by someone who believes Yale University is in East Haven? I’ve already admitted to not knowing enough about my state but I do at least know that the home of one of our nation’s most prestigious college campuses is New Haven, not it’s lame duck cousin to the east!

Upon further inspection of this list I realized I didn’t even have anyone to blame for its multitude of mistakes because no one actually claims authorship of the article.

Granted Guilford is a cute wealthy seaside village with a nice little beach park and a town center with a row of overpriced restaurants, but that’s kind of it. Much of the coastline is blocked by gargantuan summer homes whose owners have way too much money and sense to occupy them during the winter so this time of year it was mostly empty.


If I hadn’t been in a rush to get home by afternoon I may have been able to experience the Henry Whitfield State Museum and the other houses that have been turned into historic sites but none of them opened until noon. Furthermore nothing I saw on the outsides made me feel like I was missing anything by not exploring the insides.

Guilford is the kind of town that still has a fairgrounds and is dotted with cedar sided houses that start off tan and fade over time to grey from the sun and the salty air. I noticed many homes that had been painted a slimy green color which can only be described as asparagus or pickle. Now I’m all for a green house but these had the budding distinction of looking like they were about to vomit, an oddly human characteristic for a house to exhibit.

Really all I did in Guilford was drag my pups around a tiny windy beach on a day that promised to be much warmer than it actually was. Then I got back in my car and drove around in circles for an hour thinking there must be more but there wasn’t. Guilford is probably much better in the summer and if you’re really rich.

One saving grace was Bishop’s Orchards, a farm market and winery with a wide selection of homemade goods from applesauce to ice cream. One thing I learned on my fall bike ride around New England is that every orchard makes cider donuts and in that department Bishop’s was on point.

Cider donuts make up for a lost adventure any day of the year. I ate so many during the month of October I was inflating the spare tire around my middle more than the tires on my bicycle. (Why must it be so hard to stay in shape once we’re pushing forty?) A break became necessary but everything eventually must come to an end. That donut break came to an abrupt halt at Bishop’s as I bought myself a three-pack and scarfed them down in one sitting before making my way back home.

Filled with sugar, carbs and fat I was gastronomically satisfied though a tad disappointed that my at-home-adventure started on such a mild note.

If I Could Write Like Him

61a6s4+LrDL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A few weeks ago my dad bought me Bill Bryson’s latest book The Road to Little Dribbling. I’ve been laughing out loud at inappropriate intervals in public ever since. I have about a third left and I’m already in mourning for the inevitable end to the escape this nonsensical journey around the U.K. has provided.

Bill Bryson is my favorite. I’ve always wished I could write like him – quick witted, barbed with good reason, generous when warranted, oftentimes self deprecating and always hilarious. Reading his books makes me want to be not just a more well-traveled human being, but a much better writer.

My own writing has completely stalled. For months I’ve been working on a full-length memoir and lately it has mostly felt like slow dull torture. Rather than continue to slave over something I no longer know how to improve, I’ve made the decision to stop and send it out into the universe for feedback. I made an agent inquiry, entered a pitch contest through NaNoWriMo and handed over my first 30 pages to a dear friend who was also one of my first writing teachers.

While she takes a look and puts together a proposal for how quickly I should burn it all and pretend I never tried (I jest), I will be left with ample opportunity to experiment with something new.

As if part of a happy accident set in motion by something bigger, I came upon a Facebook post today about the nineteen most beautiful places in Connecticut, my home for the first seventeen years of my life, a place I have revisited regularly for the last twenty, a place I find myself surprisingly (read : somewhat reluctantly) living in again, a place, it turns out, that I know almost nothing about.

Of those nineteen beautiful un-miss-able places I’ve been to two.

So I got to thinking. I don’t have Mr. Bryson’s wit or perfected style. Far be it from me to dream of a day when I could pen such delicious perfection as:

Call me fussy, but if I ever decide to turn my colon over to someone for sluicing, it won’t be at a beautician’s in Skegness…

or to the waiter upon leaving an Indian restaurant after drinking one giant bottle of beer too many:

“You should make this into an Elvis-themed restaurant,” I said. “You could call it Love Me Tandoor.”

Furthermore I will likely never be paid money for my writing. BUT! That doesn’t mean I can’t continue to practice and get better. And it doesn’t mean I have to sit around wishing I could travel when I have so much to explore nearby.

Gas is cheap and so begins my new blog, Vacationing At Home, An Ode to Connecticut. This may not be as awe inspiring as my Thirty Days on Oahu but I hope it will be at least as interesting and, dare I hope, maybe even a little funny. It’s a writing experiment for me and something to keep me engaged and moving towards whatever it is I’m currently moving towards.

As always I hope you’ll join me for the journey. First up will be the coastal town of Guilford, CT for no other reason than a Facebook ad told me I should go there.