HAMDEN, Conn. — While he grew up in New York, John Lahey recalls, the Irish famine was almost a taboo topic. But these days, the Quinnipiac University president and former grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick's Day parade is determined to show the world the horror and learn from the tragedy.
Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, which the Connecticut university is opening to the public on Oct. 11 in Hamden, has the world's largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials related to the famine, college officials say. It's known in Irish as Músaem an Ghorta Mhóir.
"To have this museum right here I think is going to be a huge draw for Irish-Americans and others," said Lahey, who is 66. "I think it's going to become a nationally known and indeed an internationally known place to come and to learn about that part of Ireland's history."
The collection focuses on the famine years from 1845 to 1852, when blight destroyed virtually all of Ireland's potato crops. More than 1 million died and about 2 million emigrated to the United States and other countries.
Lahey, citing the work of historians, blames the British government that ruled Ireland at the time for making the tragedy much worse. There was plenty of food to feed the starving masses, Lahey said, but exports of food and livestock were shipped under military guard to England.
"I would describe it as a callous disregard for human life," Lahey said. "The response was minimal at best. I think the message of the Great Hunger is that governments have a responsibility for their citizens and when there is a crisis of that nature, it's not business as usual."
Historians have argued for generations over the degree to which Britain contributed to the disaster. The British government had refused to send large-scale food aid after the first year of the famine because it would cost too much and hurt agricultural prices.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 offered a statement of regret for British policy during the famine.
"Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy," Blair said.
Among the 75 to 80 exhibits in the 4,750-square-foot museum is a painting of a couple burying their child in a bleak landscape and another of three peasant children representing the three faces of Ireland — the beautiful, the mischievous and the dangerous. One child has a bottle cocked like a gun, suggesting a rebellion to come, said Niamh O'Sullivan, inaugural curator for the museum.
Another exhibit commemorates hundreds of famine immigrants who died of disease in quarantine camps on New York's Staten Island and buried in a mass grave. Their names, ages and cause of death are etched into bronze tables.
Newspaper illustrations from the time show starving children, barefoot and dressed in rags, turning the soil trying to find a potato.
"Each day, each hour produces its own victims, holocausts offered at the shrine of political economy," one letter to a newspaper stated. "Famine and pestilence are sweeping away hundreds, but they have now no terrors for the poor people. Their only regret seems to be that they are not relieved from their suffering and misery by some process more speedy and less painful."
The paintings and other illustrations will help the public grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe, said Christine Kinealy, who has written books on the famine.
"That's quite a groundbreaking thing to do," Kinealy said. "Giving a visual dimension just adds something to the famine story. It's really hard to get our minds around 1 million people dying in this way."
Lahey traces the museum's history to when he was grand marshal and made the 150th anniversary of the height of the famine a theme of the parade. His talks on the topic led Murray Lender, a Quinnipiac trustee who died in March, and his brother Marvin to make a contribution to acquire an initial collection of art and other materials that grew over the years to the point that the university opened the museum.
"We began to identify with it just based on our experiences in the Jewish community," Marvin Lender said, while noting he was not equating the Holocaust to the famine. "Clearly the Irish people were paying a horrible penalty for something that they never did."
Museum programs, including tours of the collection, discussions, films, plays and concerts will educate the public, scholars, researchers, artists and students about the richness of Irish culture. Lahey said he hopes the museum will increase public appreciation for the quality of Irish visual art.