Great art can stimulate, inspire, and provoke. It can also portray history’s human miseries in stark and haunting ways. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, Connecticut, does all of this. It awakens the senses by illustrating how millions of Irish peasants suffered unbearable indignities and anguish during what is commonly known as the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.
The images describe conditions that are relevant today, with millions of refugees, boat people and oppressed ethnic groups all over the world seeking safe haven from persecution.
While Irish writers, actors and musicians are familiar to American audiences, Irish artists and sculptors may not be. Nor is starvation a popular subject for art, as the agony it causes presents huge creative obstacles. Nearly every piece in the IGHM shows a striking ability to overcome this thematic challenge. Paintings such as The Ragpickers, by Henry Allan, movingly depict the futile effort to maintain clothing and sustenance. Burying the Child, by Lilian Lucy Davidson, exposes the intense anguish of enfeebled parents laying their little one to rest.
Both pieces emote the consequences of unbearable conditions.
The museum’s many sculptures are equally potent. The Victim, by Rowan Gillespie, is a spectral expression of the empty stare of a starving person wrapped in a blanket. The Leave-Taking, by Margaret Lyster-Chamberlain, captures the yearning of a crowd of refugees, desperate to escape intolerable conditions. These are just two examples of the powerful images sculpted in rough bronze.
The very existence of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum can be attributed to its compelling story, told through heartbreaking images. When it was only in the conceptual stages, Murray Lender, founder of Lenders Bagels, viewed pieces of the fledgling collection and saw the common threads of suffering and discrimination between the Irish Famine and historical Jewish oppression. Together with his brother Marvin, Lender moved to finance the renovation of a Hamden building that previously served as a library and bank. It is now this beautiful museum.
While this exhibit may sound morbid, it fulfills a noble mission: to recognize and honor the calamity endured by the Irish peasantry. Few Americans today could imagine the despair brought on by institutionalized famine. A visit to the IGHM not only instills empathy for the less fortunate, but also inspires gratitude for the bounty that is easily taken for granted.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum is located at 3011 Whitney Avenue, Hamden, CT. Visit http://ighm.nfshost.com.