Hunger museum puts focus on art about the Famine
A harrowing collection of 115 paintings and sculptures is on display in Connecticut, writes LARA MARLOWE
IRELAND’S GREAT Hunger Museum, which was inaugurated in Hamden, Connecticut, on Friday, is a unique visual record that puts the defining event in Irish history within reach of a public who might not otherwise learn of it.
The opening took place in the presence of Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar and Consul General Noel Kilkenny.
Quinnipiac University, which owns Músaem an Ghorta Mhóir, is believed to hold the world’s largest collection of Famine art, some 115 paintings and sculptures spanning the last 167 years.
William Faulkner’s maxim that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past” could be the museum’s motto. Its exhibition shows how representations of the Famine have followed the classic stages of grief: from awareness of what was transpiring to repression of memory due to guilt, shame and the impossibility of conveying its scale and horror. More recently, expressions of bereavement and recrimination have given way to a search for broader relevance.
There are no known photographs of the Famine, but the haunting drawings commissioned from the Irish artist James Mahony by the London Illustrated News were the equivalent of today’s newspaper photos: children scrounging for food; evicted peasants wandering country roads; a deserted village which Mahony described as “like the tombs of a departed race, rather than the recent abodes of a yet living people”.
Niamh O’Sullivan, professor emeritus of visual culture at the National College of Art and a specialist in 19th-century Irish art and social history, was commissioned by Quinnipiac to guide the final stages of its 15-year collection process.
With designer Brad Collins, she oversaw the rebuilding of the library where it is housed. The contemporaneous illustrations are exhibited on a wall of dynamic, high-definition video monitors.
Sketches and written accounts from 1845-1852 still carry a powerful impact. O’Sullivan tells of being “shocked to my core” by a text “about a family going into a graveyard to bury themselves while they were still alive, because they knew there would be nobody left to do it for them”.
Artistic representations of the Famine were rare at the time. Quinnipiac purchased Irish Peasant Children, which belonged to the Gore-Booth family and hung at Lissadell. O’Sullivan considers the painting the historic keystone of the museum.
Painted by Daniel MacDonald in 1847 – the worst year of the Famine – it shows how the upper classes, the sole patrons of art at the time, sanitised the calamity. “The rich bought art and the rich did not want dirty peasants hanging on the walls of their great houses,” O’Sullivan explains.