In the mid-1990s, John L. Lahey, president of Quinnipiac College, read a book about the 19th century potato famine in Ireland and decided that its causes and consequences, its death toll and the diaspora resulting in a wider exposure.
At least one million Irish are estimated to have died and a further 2 million or more left the country in the years following the devastation of the potato harvest, caused by the disease, which led to a widespread famine.
The college run by Lahey began collecting artwork and famine related materials and in 2012 opened the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland in a former public library building in Hamden, Connecticut, near the campus of the ‘school.
Although the institution focused on specific events, Lahey viewed the story of the famine as more than the agricultural failure that began in 1845, he told people. It was also about the indifference of the British government to the famine and hostility often encountered by those who escaped from it when they emigrated from Ireland.
But Lahey retired in 2018 and the institution, now known as Quinnipiac University, decided to close the museum, citing financial pressures that made it a burden to maintain. The museum hosted on average less than 20 visitors per day in the year leading up to the pandemic, according to the university, which said the museum had generated only enough “support and income” to cover a quarter of its operating budget.
The university said efforts to increase fundraising for the museum had failed and said in August it was shutting down permanently.
In a statement, the university said that “the lack of support for its current location has created an unsustainable operation requiring millions of university funds to be spent to keep the museum open; funds that might otherwise have been spent on academics and student programs over the years.
The move upset Lahey and many museum donors who say they are worried about what will happen to his many works of art and artefacts and who hoped that Quinnipiac, which has become a great university, could have done more to subsidize the ‘institution. .
“The announcement was sad, disappointing and puzzling for me,” said Lahey, who served as president of Quinnipiac for 31 years. “Close a museum dedicated to educating people about the harms of discrimination and bigotry – in this case anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry – at a time when the world is so concerned about these issues did not a lot of sense. “
The museum’s collection is described by the institution as “the world’s largest collection of art related to Great Hunger”. It contains works by contemporary artists like sculptors Rowan Gillespie and John Behan and older works by artists such as William Henry Powell and Daniel Macdonald, one of the few people to paint pictures of famine as it is was happening.
A group called the Committee to Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum sent an open letter to Quinnipiac president Judy Olian in September. “Our greatest concern,” the letter says in part, “is what will happen to the collection and its power to communicate this global tragedy.”
The university responded by pointing out that it has no plans to sell the collection and hopes to find another institution interested in exhibiting it.
“We are committed to finding a solution for the continued exhibition of the collection that will ensure that it remains accessible to the public, advances the museum’s original mission and preserves the history of Great Hunger,” the statement said, adding: “The university is active in conversations with potential partners interested in showcasing the museum’s collection; Quinnipiac does not sell the museum’s collection.
Museum supporter Michael McCabe, a lawyer in Milford, Connecticut, has asked the state attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofits, to review the decision to close the museum.
Another supporter, Cormac KH O’Malley, also contacted the Attorney General’s office to express concern about the future of a painting he had sold to the museum, “Derrynane” by Jack B. Yeats, the brother of William Butler Yeats. The painting, he writes, was sold to the museum at a bargain price “knowing that this well-known and exhibited painting would be kept in a permanent Connecticut collection of such distinction and importance.”
A spokeswoman for state attorney general William Tong said the office had “an open investigation” but declined to comment further.
The museum’s story begins with Lahey, who, as Grand Marshal of the 1997 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan, used this position to talk about famine. Although the British government did not cause the Irish potato harvest to fail, it did criticize it for exporting food from Ireland that could have alleviated hunger there.
Soon after, said Lahey, one of the school’s benefactors, Murray Lender, encouraged him to collect famine-related artwork and documents. Some of them have been exhibited in the Lender family’s special collections room inside a library in Quinnipiac.
In 2013, a year after the opening of the Hamden Museum, Christine Kinealy, the author of the book on the famine that marked Lahey, was hired as a professor of history and Irish studies at Quinnipiac. She was also appointed director of the university’s new Irish Great Hunger Institute.
For Lahey, cultivating a connection to Irish history made sense in part because the university was located between New York and Boston, with their large American Irish populations. The university established study abroad programs in Cork, began participating in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan, and established an undergraduate minor in Irish Studies.
He said expanding ties to Irish history was part of a plan – including launching the political polls the university is known for and elevating its athletic programs – to turn a regional college into an institution of national reputation.
“With Irish America and Ireland, we have visibility and respect,” Lahey said. “And that’s why Quinnipiac was able to go from 1,900 students to 10,000 and why we are as successful as we have been. “
Beyond the museum’s importance to the university, some of its supporters said its presence was important because the story of the Irish diaspora – the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic to escape famine only for dealing with prejudices and hardships, while leaving your mark in a new country – can resonate with current immigrants who may feel disoriented and unwelcome.
“Irish America can see itself as a resilient people who have gone through this nightmare that is hitting the whole world, with humanitarian issues, refugees, hunger, rotten government policies,” said Turlough McConnell, a writer and producer who founded the committee to save the museum. “If the only thing we can do is inspire others to overcome this, then this is a gift we can give them. “