Donors Worry About Fate of Artifacts as Museum on Irish Famine Closes

In the mid-1990s John L. Lahey, the president of Quinnipiac College, read a book about the 19th-century potato famine in Ireland and decided that its causes and consequences, its death toll and resulting diaspora, warranted broader exposure.

It is estimated that at least a million Irish died and that another 2 million or more left the country in the years after the devastation of the potato crop, caused by disease, led to widespread hunger.

The college Lahey led began collecting artworks and documents related to the famine and in 2012 opened Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum inside a former public library building in Hamden, Conn., near the school’s campus.

Although the institution focused on the specific events, Lahey saw the famine story as being about more than the agricultural failure that began in 1845, he told people. It was also about the indifference of the British government to the starvation and the hostility that those escaping it often encountered when they emigrated from Ireland.

But Lahey retired in 2018 and the institution, now known as Quinnipiac University, has decided to close the museum, citing financial pressures that made it a burden to sustain. The museum averaged fewer than 20 visitors a day in the year before the pandemic, according to the university, which said that the museum had only generated enough “support and revenue” to cover a quarter of its operating budget.

The university said efforts to boost fund-raising for the museum had fallen short, and stated in August that it was closing permanently.

John L. Lahey, the former president of Quinnipiac University, and a central figure in the creation of the museum.Credit…Richard Messina/Hartford Courant, via Getty Images

In a statement, the university said, “the lack of support at its current location has created an unsustainable operation requiring millions in university funds to be spent on keeping the museum open; funds that could have otherwise been spent on academics and student programs over the years.”

The decision upset Lahey and many donors to the museum who say they worry about what will happen to its many artworks and artifacts and who had hoped that Quinnipiac, which has grown into a major university, would have been able to do more to subsidize the institution.

“The announcement was sad and disappointing and perplexing to me,” said Lahey, who was president of Quinnipiac for 31 years. “To close a museum dedicated to educating people about the evils of discrimination and bigotry — in this case anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry — at a time when the world is so concerned with these issues doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

The museum’s collection is described by the institution as “the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art.” It has works by contemporary artists like the sculptors Rowan Gillespie and John Behan and older works by artists including William Henry Powell and Daniel Macdonald, one of the few people to paint images of the famine as it was happening.

A group called the Committee to Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum sent an open letter to Quinnipiac’s president, Judy Olian, in September. “Our deepest concern,” the letter said in part, “is what will happen to the collection and its power to communicate this global tragedy.”

The university has responded by stressing that it has no plans to sell the collection and hopes to find another institution with an interest in displaying it.

“We are committed to finding a solution for continued display of the collection that will ensure it remains publicly accessible, advances the museum’s original mission, and preserves the story of the Great Hunger,” the statement said, adding: “The university is in active conversations with potential partners who are interested in displaying the museum’s collection; Quinnipiac is not selling the museum’s collection.”

One museum supporter, Michael McCabe, a lawyer in Milford, Conn., has asked the state attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofits, to review the decision to close the museum.

“Derrynane,” by Jack B. Yeats.Credit…Estate of Jack B Yeats; DACS, London/ARS, New York

Another supporter, Cormac K. H. O’Malley, contacted the attorney general’s office as well to express his concern about the future of a painting that he had sold the museum, “Derrynane,” by Jack B. Yeats, the brother of William Butler Yeats. The painting, he wrote, was sold to the museum at a favorable price “knowing that this well recognized and exhibited painting would be housed in a permanent Connecticut collection of such distinction and importance.”

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general, William Tong, said the office had “an open inquiry” but declined to comment further.

The museum’s history begins with Lahey, who as the grand marshal of the 1997 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan, used that position to speak out about the famine. While the British government did not cause the failure of the Irish potato crop, he faulted it for exporting food from Ireland that could have alleviated the hunger there.

Soon afterward, Lahey said, one of the school’s benefactors, Murray Lender, encouraged him to collect artworks and documents related to the famine. Some of those were displayed in the Lender Family Special Collection Room inside a Quinnipiac library.

In 2013, a year after the museum in Hamden opened, Christine Kinealy, the author of the book on the famine that had made an impact on Lahey, was hired as a professor of history and Irish studies at Quinnipiac. She was also appointed director of the university’s newly formed Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute.

To Lahey, cultivating a connection to Irish history made sense in part because the university was located between New York City and Boston, with their large Irish American populations. The university created study abroad programs in Cork, began participating in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan and established an undergraduate minor in Irish studies.

He said expanding the ties to Irish history was part of a plan — including starting the political polls for which the university is known and elevating its sports programs — to turn a regional college into an institution with a national reputation.

“With Irish America and within Ireland we have a visibility and a respect,” Lahey said. “And it’s a reason Quinnipiac was able to grow from 1,900 students to 10,000 and why we’re as successful as we have been.”

Beyond the museum’s importance to the university, some of its supporters said its presence was significant because the story of the Irish diaspora — the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic to escape starvation only to face prejudice and hardship, and still make a mark in a new country — can resonate for current immigrants who may be feeling disoriented and unwelcome.

“Irish America can see itself as a resilient people who came though this nightmare that is striking the world all over, with humanitarian issues, refugees, hunger, rotten government policies,” said Turlough McConnell, a writer and producer who founded the committee to save the museum. “If the only thing we can do is to inspire others that they can come through this, then that’s a gift we can give them.”

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