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One of the two main museums dedicated to memory of Great Famine has disappeared. That’s astonishing

That the world’s largest collection of visual art and printed materials relating to the Great Famine is in storage in America reflects a grim story of what happens when a nation fails to take ownership of a central part of its own history

It’s now possible that by 2041, the island of Ireland will have a population of more than eight million. If so, it will again be inhabited by as many people as were recorded in the census of 1841. I don’t think there’s any other country in the world with a similar demographic story. Irish exceptionalism is to be avoided, but this condition really is exceptional. And so is the astonishing fact that one of the two main museums dedicated to memory of the Great Famine has disappeared.

On Sunday, the State will hold the annual National Famine Commemoration in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford. It’s striking that this ritual was instituted only in 2008 – is there another country that was so deeply reluctant to commemorate the central event in its modern history? “For a long time”, wrote the president, Michael D Higgins, “it was something to which we could not give a name ... It was something that generated a great silence.”

It was left to inspired individuals to attempt to fill this memory hole. The excellent National Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co Roscommon was created by the truck dealer Jim Callery. Its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, on the outskirts of New Haven, Connecticut, was driven by the university’s visionary president John Lahey. Movingly, much of the funding came from Murray and Marvin Lender, sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland, who were taken aback that Ireland and Irish America did not remember the Famine in the way Jews worldwide remember the Holocaust.

Opened in 2012, the museum was “home to the world’s largest collection of visual art, artefacts and printed materials relating to the Great Famine”. But it has now disappeared back down the memory hole. This is a grim story of what can happen when a nation fails to take ownership of a central part of its own history: the threat of renewed oblivion always awaits.

Remembering the Famine is tough because words can fail us. In the Netherlands, the potato blight of the mid-1840s was devastating: an estimated 60,000 people died. In Ireland, the death toll was 1.1 million. If the Dutch tragedy is horrific, appalling and terrible, what words are adequate for the second? The insufficiency of verbal language means that we need a visual one and, until recently, there was a place where such a visual language was most fully explored.

The Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac, halfway between those two great magnets for Irish refugees, New York and Boston, was a highly intelligent answer to the problem of representing such a trauma. Over a period of 20 years before its opening, it assembled a unique collection of visual records and artistic responses to the Famine, from the 19th through to the 21st centuries, latterly curated by the art historian Niamh O’Sullivan. The museum was connected to the scholarship of the university’s Great Hunger Institute, run by the distinguished famine historian Christine Kenneally.

Alongside its archival collections of contemporary manuscripts, prints, letters and news reports, it brought together important paintings and installations by, among others, Jack B Yeats, Rowan Gillespie, Margaret Allen, Erskine Nicol, Alanna O’Kelly, William Crozier, Brian Maguire, John Behan, Hughie O’Donoghue, Michael Farrell, Geraldine O’Reilly, Dorothy Cross, Robert Ballagh, Grace Henry, Pádraic Reaney, Meg Chamberlain and James Arthur O’Connor.

All of this cost somewhere between $5 million and $6 million. It was worth it: visiting the museum was a profound experience. The space was designed to be sombre without being oppressive. The vividness of the displays, paintings and sculptures was in poignant tension with a mourning of the dead.

In 2018, Lahey retired as president of Quinnipiac. In 2020, the museum closed because of the Covid pandemic. In August 2021, the new president of the university, Judy Olian, announced that it would not reopen. Quinnipiac claimed that “efforts to boost fundraising for the museum had fallen short” and that it had become unviable. An offer by a group of Irish-American scholars and activists, Bord an Gorta Mór, to work with Quinnipiac to raise the necessary funds and develop a five-year strategic plan was rejected.

Subsequently, the university claimed that it was transferring the collection to the Gaelic American Club (GAC) in Fairfield, Connecticut – a social and sporting organisation that is a hive of Irish-related activities but that does not and never has run a museum or art collection of any kind. In September 2022, GAC announced that while it endorsed the idea of moving the collection to Fairfield, “we cannot be a party to the transaction”.

What’s actually happening is that a well-meaning group of people informally associated with the GAC is trying to raise $5 million (€4.6 million) to create a museum in a building that is currently occupied by a food bank and will not be available for several years. It does not have this money. Its website pleads with visitors to “donate the price of a pint”. It also claims that it intends “to serve as the new caretakers and curators of the Irish Great Hunger Museum collection”. This task should not be left to a group of well-meaning amateurs who have neither the expertise nor the funds.

In reality, the “world’s largest collection of visual art, artefacts and printed materials relating to the Great Famine” is currently in storage without professional curation or preservation. It has effectively disappeared into a limbo of oblivion from which it is to be rescued at some unknown point in the future only if enough wellwishers donate the price of a pint.

Again, the word that comes to mind is exceptional. Would any other country allow this to happen to such an important repository of the collective memory of its most formative trauma? Indeed, would this happen to an equivalent collection that dealt with the parts of modern Irish history we do like to talk about such as, say, the 1916 Rising? Perhaps, even if the Famine no longer generates a great silence, it remains incapable of generating a coherent sense of collective ownership.

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