‘Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger’

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Coach House, Dublin Castle, www.artandthegreathunger.org
Until the end of June 2018

By Tony Canavan

Above: Henry Mark Anthony’s Sunset(1847) contrasts the majestic ruins of the Rock of Cashel towering over the more recent ruins of a society on the verge of collapse.

‘Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger’ is the world’s largest collection of art relating to the Great Famine. Its permanent home is in Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. (Readers may remember that it featured in a previous Museum Eye by Meredith Meagher in March/April 2013.)

Above: Thank You to the Choctaw(2015), in bog oak, by Kieran Tuohy.

These paintings constitute one part of the museum’s collection and have come to Ireland for the first time. There are 50 artworks on display, from paintings that are contemporaneous with the Great Famine itself to more recent works from some renowned Irish artists, including Jack B. Yeats, Alanna O’Kelly, Robert Ballagh and William Crozier. It is a travelling exhibition and will move onafter Dublin Castle. Between July and October it will be at Uilinn: West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, and then at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry in 2019.In addition to this, there is a programme of activities in Dublin, including children’s workshops, panel discussions, and literary and musical events. Many of these will take place at Dublin Castle, in collaboration with the Office of Public Works.

The Great Famine saw the death and dispersal of around two million people, followed by the emigration of a further two million to the end of the century, most of them to America. The Irish diaspora largely defines Ireland’s place in the world today and the impact of the Famine is still with its descendants both at home and abroad. That alone would make this an important exhibition but, aside from the historical significance, it is also an important collection of art for its own sake.

It is often said that Ireland lacks a body of historic art but this exhibition shows that not to be the case, even if much of the art is by British artists. The exhibition opens with some idyllic landscapes from pre-Famine Ireland, but even these ‘tourist’ views cannot always hide the poverty that existed, as poorly dressed peasants and their hovels intrude on the scene. To the modern viewer, used to the explicit depiction of war, famine and natural disaster from around the world in photographs and on screen, it may seem strange that the paintings from the years of the Famine itself do not show starving people or fields of rotting potatoes. Given the sensibilities of the times, artists were not expected to paint such images and would have found no buyers. The Illustrated London News, however, provided such views in its pages. These illustrations are not in the exhibition per se but can be seen on one of the accompanying screens,which show a range of works of art, illustration and historical material that add context to the paintings.

Above: Paintings such as Erskine Nicol’s A Knotty Point (1853) obfuscate the true horror of the period with robust, idyllic impressions of darkened cottages and shadowy landscapes.

While most of the nineteenth-century paintings do not depict the Great Famine, they are nevertheless about it. The episode is usually addressed indirectly through allegory or symbolic images. Thus an apparently innocent painting of three children on closer inspection says something about their suffering and hardship. Other paintings depict departures and farewells, representing the millions forced to flee as a result of the Famine.

Even decades after the catastrophe, artists found it difficult to paint graphic representations of what happened. The occasional eviction scene or ruined cottage appears, but the Famine continues to be mainly addressed by metaphor and allegory, with emigration scenes being most common. It is startling to see paintings from the late nineteenth century that depict Ireland as a land of happy peasants or sturdy farmers,but even these sanitised images of well-fed people in neat cottages dancing to a piper or fiddler cannot disguise the level of poverty. Furniture might be clean and sparkling but there is very little of it; the people are brightly dressed but closer inspection reveals clothes that have been patched and mended over years.

Above: Robert Ballagh’s Roimh After (2017).

Not until the twentieth and 21st centuries do we get depictions of the horrors of the Famine in the form of emaciated bodies and famine ships. Artists such as Rowan Gillespie, John Coll, Robert Ballagh and others have given us dramatic representations of starving people thrown onto the roads or seeking refuge in emigration. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it takes time for any society to come to terms with great trauma, and in Ireland, even after independence, a certain view of the Great Famine was prevalent that did not encourage looking too closely at the details of the suffering. Nevertheless, the inclusion of contemporary artists not only sheds light on our understanding of that episode in Irish history but also acknowledges the work of these artists.

In broader terms, it must be remembered that this is an exhibition not just of Great Famine art but also of the collection in Ireland’s Great Hunger Museumat Quinnipiac University. There are other artworks related to the Famine not included here,but, given that most emigrants ended up in the United States, it is fitting that the greatest collection of such art is preserved in this museum.

Tony Canavan is editor of Books Ireland.

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