As Irish Famine Museum Closes, Donors Worry About Fate of Artifacts

In the mid-1990s, John L. Hague, president of Quinnipiac College, read a book about the 19th century potato famine in Ireland and decided that its causes and consequences, mortality rates, and the resulting diaspora warrant wider exposure.

It is estimated that at least one million Irish died and 2 million or more left the country in the years after disease-induced destruction of the potato crop led to widespread famine.

Led by The Hague, the college began collecting art and documents related to the famine and opened in 2012. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum Hamden, Conn., inside a former public library building near the school campus.

Despite the institution’s focus on specific events, The Hague said he saw the famine story as more than just agricultural failure that began in 1845. It also had to do with the British government’s indifference to famine and the hostility often faced by those who fled from Ireland when they emigrated from Ireland.

But The Hague retired in 2018, and the institution now known as Quinnipiac University has decided to close the museum, citing financial pressures that make it a burden to maintain. The museum received an average of fewer than 20 visitors per day in the year prior to the pandemic, according to the university, which says the museum receives enough “support and revenue” to cover only a quarter of its operating budget.

The university said fundraising efforts for the museum fell short and it closed permanently in August.

In a statement from the university, “the lack of support in its current location created an unsustainable operation that required millions of university funds to keep the museum open; Funds that could otherwise be spent on academics and student programs over the years.”

The decision upset The Hague and many donors who said they were worried about what would happen to the many artworks and artifacts in the museum and hoped Quinnipiac, who had turned into a major university, could do more to subsidize the institution. .

“The announcement was sad, disappointing and confusing for me,” said The Hague, who has been president of Quinnipiac for 31 years. “At a time when the world is so concerned about these issues, closing a museum dedicated to educating people about the evils of discrimination and bigotry – in this case anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry – doesn’t make much sense. ”

The museum’s collection is described by the institution as “the world’s largest collection of art related to the Great Hunger”. There are works by contemporary artists such as the sculptors Rowan Gillespie and John Behan, and older works by artists such as William Henry Powell. Daniel Macdonald, one of the few who made pictures of the famine as it was.

A group called Ireland’s Committee to Save the Great Hunger Museum sent an open letter to Quinnipiac’s president, Judy Olian, in September. “Our deepest concern is what will happen to the collection and its power to communicate this global tragedy,” the letter said in part.

The university responded by emphasizing that it has no plans to sell the collection and hopes to find another institution interested in displaying it.

“We are committed to finding a solution for permanent display of the collection that will keep the collection open to the public, further the museum’s original mission, and preserve the story of the Great Hunger,” the statement said. interviews with potential partners interested in exhibiting the museum collection; Quinnipiac is not selling the museum’s collection.”

Michael McCabe, a museum supporter in Milford, Conn., has asked the state’s attorney general, which oversees nonprofits, to review its decision to close the museum.

Cormac KH O’Malley, another supporter, also contacted the attorney general’s office to express his concerns about the future of “Derrynane”, which William Butler Yeats’ brother Jack B. Yeats sold to the museum. The painting was sold to the museum at an affordable price, he wrote, “knowing that this well-known and exhibited painting would be in such a distinctive and important permanent collection in Connecticut.”

State Attorney General’s Spokesperson William Tong said the office was conducting an “open investigation” but declined to comment further.

The history of the museum begins with The Hague. as grand marshal Manhattan’s 1997 St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he used this position to talk about famine. The British government accused it of exporting food from Ireland that could alleviate hunger there, although it did not cause the Irish potato crop to fail.

Soon after, one of the school’s benefactors, The Hague, Murray Lenderencouraged him to collect art and documents related to the famine. Some of these are displayed in the Lender Family Special Collections Room in the Quinnipiac library.

In 2013, a year after the museum in Hamden opened, Christine KinealyThe author of The famine affecting The Hague was hired as professor of history and Irish studies at Quinnipiac. He was also appointed director of the university’s newly formed Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute.

For The Hague, developing a link to Irish history made sense, in part, because the university is located between New York City and Boston, with its large Irish American population. The University established study abroad programs in Cork, the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and established his undergraduate minor in Irish studies.

He said broadening ties to Irish history – including launching the political polls for which the university is known and raising its sports programs – was part of a plan to transform a regional college into an institution of national reputation.

“We have visibility and respect within Irish America and Ireland,” said The Hague. “And that’s one reason Quinnipiac was able to grow from 1,900 students to 10,000, and that’s why we’re so successful.”

Beyond the museum’s importance to the university, some of its supporters said its presence is important because the story of the Irish diaspora – the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic to survive starvation – only has to face prejudice and hardship and still leave its mark in a new country. – May resonate with existing immigrants who feel disoriented and undesirable.

“Irish America can see itself as a resilient people surviving this nightmare that has gripped the world with humanitarian issues, refugees, starvation, rotten government policies,” said Turlough McConnell, writer and producer who founded the rescue committee. museum. “If all we can do is inspire others that they can do it, then that’s a gift we can give them.”

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