When Eastonite John Foley heard Quinnipiac University was shuttering its Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, he knew the artwork inside had to remain intact for public display.
The collection of paintings, artifacts and literature of the Irish famine housed inside the university’s museum not only spoke to Foley’s Irish identity, but also convinced him that it could inspire immigrants and refugees around the globe.
“The lessons learned from that time can be relevant today,” said Foley. “Refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine can reinvent themselves in America and still hold on to their heritage. After the famine we [the Irish] recovered and flourished in this country.”
Foley, who sits on the Easton Democratic Town Committee, has been one of the driving forces behind the Fairfield-based Gaelic-American Club’s successful effort to preserve the collection. He serves as vice president of the club that has a robust membership.
After Quinnipiac University announced it was closing the museum last year for financial reasons, the club organized to save the art collection fearing it would be sold off or broken apart. The university has agreed to transfer the art collection to the club in a no money transaction. The club will be raising money to renovate a space to house the art.
“The club has identified a building they are interested in using for the museum. They are in negotiations with a landlord who is looking to rent out the property and already are working on a designing process,” said Foley.
In a statement, the university announced in March that “after reviewing multiple proposals, the university’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to partner with the GAC after the club submitted a sustainable plan based on its established infrastructure and cultural and financial resources to support the display of the full collection, and given the club’s location.”
More than a million people in Ireland died from starvation between 1845 and 1851 when a blight infested potato crops. The tragic event is referred to as the Irish Great Hunger, also known as the Potato Famine, or the Irish Famine. The British government, whose rule Ireland was under at the time, has been greatly criticized for not doing more to stave off the famine.
The pain and horror experienced by the emigrants who crossed the Atlantic to escape starvation are all part of the museum collection. One contemporary piece in the collection, a bronze sculpture by John Behan titled “Famine Ship,” “serves a reminder that famines continue around the world.” The ship is a powerful reminder of the millions who emigrated during and after the Famine, especially those who did not survive the “coffin ships.”
Another piece, the abstract oil painting “Rainbow’s End” by Willian Crozier, invites the viewer to consider the paradox that millions starved in “a country that produced abundant food.”
Foley came to America in the 1990s from Ireland. While growing up in Ireland, the horrors of the famine were glossed over in school. Ireland’s relationship with Britain was tenuous. School children were taught about the Catholic Emancipation of 1829, but the famine was never fully addressed, he said.
Foley said the hope is that the collection will continue to thrive and grow for “our children to understand who we were, who we are, and even who we could be.”
The club also hopes the museum will become an integral part of the greater community, including collaborations with universities that are interested in connecting it to their own Irish studies programs.
“History [taught] through incredible art hits differently from anything else,” said Foley.
Top photo: “Gorta” by Lilian Lucy Davidson. Courtesy of Quinnipiac University’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum