Friday, May 22, 2015

From Hamden to Litchfield: A Trail of History

As its name suggests, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, dedicated on September 28, 2012, seeks to inform the public of the causes and consequences of Ireland’s Great Hunger. A potato fungus, bad weather and an inhumane British government policy combined from 1845 through 1852 to cause more than one million deaths from starvation and related diseases, and the emigration of more than two million Irish people from their native land.

A recent trip to the museum revealed it has chosen a compelling medium to render this history: art, executed by Irish artists.

The full power of the museum shows itself on the second floor. Formed in the shape of a ship, it holds 20th-century artworks, along with an exhibit of 19th-century news publications.

In John Behan’s bronze “Famine Cart,” an emaciated horse hauls skeletons. A small-scale replica of Behan’s “Famine Ship” shows three masts depicting the crosses of Calvary, with skeletons as ship’s sails. Robert Ballagh’s beautiful stained-glass triptych “An Gorta Mor” gives weight to the full cycle of events, from bucolic farm scene to blight to eviction.

Margaret Lyster Chamberlain’s “The Leave-Taking,” also in bronze, depicts 17 Irish people moving toward starvation or the perils of the Atlantic crossing. For her depiction, Chamberlain relied on photographs from Auschwitz.

With the technology of photography in its infancy in the mid-1800s, no known photos have surfaced of Irish famine victims. But illustrated newspapers depicted the horrors. The illustration of Brigid O’Donnel with her two starving children, rendered in bronze by Behan and on display at the museum, came to symbolize the national plight.

In Micheal Farrell’s “Black ’47,” skeletons serve as prosecution witnesses against Charles Trevelyan and British policy. Farrell’s work shows the legal nature of man’s inhumanity to man. Kieran Tuohy’s “The Lonely Widow,” carved from 5,000-year-old bog oak, hints at its antiquity.

The sultan of Turkey, depicted in Farrell’s large painting, offered Ireland £10,000 in famine relief. Britain persuaded him to reduce his offering to £1,000 in deference to Queen Victoria, who offered the Irish £2,000. The sultan complied with Britain’s request. He then secretly sent three ships loaded with food to the beleaguered country.

My sojourn to Quinnipiac was followed by a trip to Litchfield, Connecticut, where the Litchfield Historical Society hosted the daylong program “The New America: Discovering and Documenting the Immigrant Experience.” Grace Brady, executive director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, closed the program’s events. Brady’s presentation included slides of the museum’s collection.

The slides included Lilian Davidson’s “Burying the Child,” its blues reminiscent of Picasso. In Davidson’s painting, a father whose skill in digging potatoes helped his family to thrive now uses that skill to bury his child. The mother stands holding the baby, a study in despair. The adults in this painting who witnessed the burial will soon find their own graves.

Pádraic Reaney’s “Departure,” a haunting work in red and blue, shows skeletal figures aboveground stalking toward death from starvation or emigration. Figures buried below suggest Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.” Brady spoke of succeeding Irish generations telling children to take note of where they trod, and of what lay buried beneath them.

Brady spoke of the Choctaw Indians, a decade and a half after their forced march along the “Trail of Tears,” identifying with the oppression of the Irish by the British government. At the height of the Great Hunger in 1847 the Choctaw, in the midst of their own privations, sent $170 to Ireland for relief efforts.

Brady also spoke of “callous neglect” on the part of the British government. She described the use of battering rams by British soldiers to empty cottages of families, and the “unroofing” of cottages in the midst of winter. She spoke of the desire on the part of some in the British government to deal with “the surplus” of Irish people, with policies that proved an effective strategy.

Civilized societies honor their history. The girds of civilization help mitigate even the most unimaginable horrors. In Litchfield, the historical society that offered the venue to explore this dark history offered a boxed lunch. Curried chicken salad came alongside a small plate of brie, with sliced green apple and a few pansy blossoms.

The society’s tour included a visit to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on South Street. There, visitors viewed the church’s stone and wood carvings chiseled by Italian immigrants. In the warm light, the anonymous wooden faces glinted with humor and intelligence.

The transformative power of art remains one of the most enduring tools in our collective march toward civilization. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum owes its existence to the vision of John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, and to the generosity of Murray Lender. Without their efforts, this compelling body of work would not be securely housed under one roof.

Lahey helped secure Rowan Gillespie’s “The Victim” as the collection’s first work of art. In Gillespie’s bronze, a sitting boy wrapped only in a cloak lifts his face toward the future. The work captures both the horror and the endurance of humanity during that time. It serves as a touchstone for all who wish to honor, preserve and value our collective history.