Museum eye : Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 21

Rowan Gillespie’s The Victim—shame became transmuted into anger and finally compassion.

Rowan Gillespie’s The Victim—shame became transmuted into anger and finally compassion.

In his painting Departure, Pádraic Reany depicts an apocalyptic human procession trudging across a blighted and bloodied potato field, the emaciated dead lying beneath the feet of the mourners, the living marching towards perpetual exile on a famine ship. The anger of the piece encapsulates the mood of the inaugural exhibition of the newly opened Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Like many of the works by contemporary artists on display, the characters in Reany’s painting appear suspended between what has been lost and what lies ahead, neither memorial nor chronicle, transcending tired historical debates, unapologetic in their rage.

Much of the artwork on display engages with the many silences that shroud the collective memory of the catastrophe. Director Grace Brady believes that the opening of the museum provides an impetus for artists to explore themes that have traditionally been problematic, such as the ambiguous role of the state, the ambivalence of elements of wider civic society and the realisation that with famine came economic opportunity for those socially positioned to take economic advantage. After a career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brady believes that the difficult subject-matter prompts a myriad of responses from visitors, not least of all discomfort, as each piece creates its own individual dialogue with calamity. Rowan Gillespie’s work, of which several pieces are on display, epitomises the evolution of collective memory in post-Famine society, as shame became transmuted into anger and finally compassion. He points out that, rather than being solely about loss, his sculpture The Victim (1996–8) ‘is about the miracle of human life in a galaxy of indifference’.

Pádraic Reany’s Departure—the anger of the piece encapsulates the mood of the exhibition.

Pádraic Reany’s Departure—the anger of the piece encapsulates the mood of the exhibition.

The exhibition consistently treads the sensitive historical terrain between eviction and inclusion, failure and opportunity, remembering and forgetting.

It represents Quinnipiac’s central achievement in their ongoing series of initiatives pertaining to the legacy of the Great Famine. The university boasts an expanding repository of historical artefacts, archival papers, printed material and contemporary art, as well as educational programmes. This reflects Quinnipiac’s commitment to dialogue between the historical record, artistic interpretation and widespread engagement. Public interest has been very strong and the museum welcomed over 1,000 visitors in its first two weeks of operation in September 2012.

Upon entry each visitor receives a handsome catalogue, which includes essays by a range of historians, artists and curators. Viewers are then invited to watch an introductory documentary providing a historical overview of the Great Famine and subsequent emigration from Ireland. Pointedly, the film ends with footage of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade rolling through a cheering throng, emblematic of the resilience and pride of the Irish-American diaspora following a century of hard-fought social and economic gains. The paintings, sculpture and other visual material on display subsequently offer provocative interpretations of the relationship between Famine and Diaspora, encouraging viewers to reflect on the many distances—physical, temporal and imaginary—we encounter as we reflect on the great carnage and social upheaval of the 1840s.

On the ground floor of the exhibition we encounter nineteenth-century works and historical documents exploring the period, including copies of James Mahoney’s sketches for the Illustrated London News. Mahoney’s stark portrayals of human suffering contrast with other contemporary representations of the period on display, which fundamentally failed to engage in the human realities of the catastrophe. They offer in its place a sanitised, almost romantic version of human calamity. In this respect, paintings by Daniel MacDonald (Irish Peasant Children, 1847) and Erksine Nichol (A Knotty Point, 1853) obstruct the true horror of the period with robust, idyllic impressions of darkened cottages and shadowy landscapes.

The conversation shifts profoundly, however, as one moves onto the first floor of the exhibition, which houses a remarkable collection of contemporary pieces by modern artists. Bold sculptures and vivid murals dominate, along with impressive photographic material making use of contemporary accounts of loss and suffering. Alanna O’Kelly’s A Kind of Quietism (1990) combines photography and text to produce landscapes that act as both ‘a garden and a grave’, reflecting motifs contained in many of her other works. The artist’s choice of text, taken from historical sources, recalls the loss of language and memory that came with the destruction of an entire social system.

Highlights of the contemporary collection include a series of provocative works by Michael Farrell, whose anguished paintings and lithographs are unapologetic in their contempt for the social and political establishment. In Black ’47 (Large) (1997–8), Trevelyan stands trial for non-intervention before a solemn jury of the dead. Robert Ballagh’s stained glass window, An Gorta Mór (2012), was commissioned for the exhibition. Ballagh focuses on a potato plant, half-blighted, half-flowering, as a farm scene blends into a march towards the sea. As a centrepiece of the museum’s collection, Ballagh’s work compels us to weigh the association between the dual histories of the Famine and the Diaspora, forcing us to think about the ever-present tension between destruction and opportunity.The palatable sense of unease amongst visitors to the gallery is testament to the cohesion of the artistic vision of the Great Hunger Museum’s contributors. Ultimately, what is most striking of all is the location of the museum itself—faraway from Ireland’s shores, embedded in the heart of the North American Irish diaspora. The gallery’s very location represents a visceral commentary on distance and belonging. It provokes profound and disturbing questions concerning the relationship between catastrophe, migration and commemoration. It speaks to wider historical debates surrounding the compliance and manipulation of historical memory that all too frequently sanitise the Famine catastrophe. This persuasive artistic narrative challenges assumptions about community and connectivity with regard to the Irish diaspora, and evokes the anger and sorrow that accompany exile, escape or opportunity. Brady herself has noted that ‘some have said to me they feel this place could not exist in Ireland’. This is an interesting thought. This exhibition represents an outstanding and unique achievement.  HI

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Daniel MacDonald’s Irish Peasant Children (1847) offers a sanitised, almost romantic, version of human calamity that obscures the true horror of the period with robust, idyllic impressions of darkened cottages and shadowy landscapes.
Meredith Meagher is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Notre Dame.
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