Ireland's Potato Famine Won't Be Forgotten

Article excerpt

HARTFORD, Conn. --

Since he was a child, John Lahey had heard about the tragic Irish potato famine.

But it wasn't until he served as grand marshal of New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1997 that Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, researched the subject and developed a passion so strong that the university will soon open its own museum on the famine.

"You know, I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, and I was told about this, but the story was more or less that it was the Irish's fault for being dependent on the potato. They were lazy or whatever," said Mr. Lahey, who grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. "That was the British story that they wanted us to believe so they were not held accountable."

What he learned in his research convinced Lahey that the 19th- century tragedy was avoidable -- that British policies left the Irish starving when there were alternative food supplies in the country.

Certain that this was a story that needed to be told, Mr. Lahey delivered speeches on the subject often during 1997 -- the year he was grand marshal and also the 150th anniversary of the famine. His outrage convinced bagel magnate Murray Lender, then vice chairman of Quinnipiac's trustees, of the need to inform people about the famine. So Mr. Lender, who saw parallels in the lives of the Jews and the Irish, offered to help.

A decade and a half later, Quinnipiac will open Ireland's Great Hunger Museum or, in Irish, Musaem an Ghorta Mhoir, in Hamden on Oct. 11.

Mr. Lahey said the 4,750-square-foot museum will be home to the largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials related to the Irish famine. While the private, 7,900-student university in southern Connecticut is covering the cost to buy and renovate the museum -- which Quinnipiac isn't disclosing -- the Lender family contributed to the purchase of the collection.

Niamh O'Sullivan, who is a professor emeritus of visual culture with the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, is the inaugural curator; Grace Brady, who worked as an administrator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will serve as executive director.

"This is the only museum anywhere in the world dedicated to Irish art on the Great Hunger," Mr. Lahey said. "There is nothing like this in Ireland. The educational piece is that this was an avoidable tragedy."

Christopher Cahill, executive director of the American Irish Historical Society, said it's a "great concept" that the university has focused on "a single, but extremely complicated historical event that is almost as central to the history of the United States as it is to the history of Ireland. …