The Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University is an incomparable source of information and artifacts from the 1845-1850 era in Ireland, referred to incorrectly by some as “The Famine”, or “The Potato Famine”, more accurately as “The Great Hunger”, agus as gaeilge “An Gorta Mór”, and most appropriately as “The Great Starvation.” Under the direction of new Quinnipiac President Judy Olian, The Great Hunger Museum was permanently closed, but the move is being challenged by local Irish-American groups.
For readers new to the subject of The Great Hunger, it must be understood that in 1840s Ireland, most of the population were peasant tenant farmers, whose main source of sustenance was the potato because the British landlords made Ireland the bread-basket of their Industrial Revolution. In a famine there is, by definition, no food, but Ireland was a country with lots of food – so pointed out by Sinead O’Connor in her song, “Famine”:
Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food – meat, fish, vegetables –
Was shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved.
Deprived of the right to own their own property, the Irish people’s rent and taxes were paid in the harvest they reaped. Children were imprisoned for stealing bread, while others were seen dying with green around their lips in a futile attempt to obtain nutrients from eating grass. Taxes were charged for every minor detail, such as the number of windows on a house, or the number of rooms in a house. Failure to pay these taxes resulted in eviction, which was done en masse by fellow Irishmen who took the King’s shilling and worked as police doing Britain’s dirty work in Ireland. Houses were demolished by the sheriffs, and if a family was caught living in the ruins, it was destroyed further, with any thatch remaining to be set alight to prevent any cover from the elements. It is a grim picture to paint but if a story is to be told, it must be told in full. The harsh realities that the Irish faced in the 1840’s forged a generation of rebels who suffered firsthand, and never forgave England.
An Irish rebel, O’Donovan Rossa embodied the spirit of a generation, having buried many family and friends without coffins in mass graves in his home county of Cork. Rossa later served many years in British prisons, and spent the remainder of his life agitating for Irish independence while in exile in New York. He wrote a poem “Jillen Andy” about burying his friend’s mother who died of starvation, a portion of it reads,
How oft in dreams that burial scene appears,
Through death, eviction, prison, exile, home,
Through all the suns and moons of twenty years,
And oh! How short these years compared with years to come.
Some things are strongly on the mind impressed
And other faintly imaged there, it seems;
And this is why, when reason sinks to rest.
Phases of life do show and shadow forth in dreams.
And this is why in dreams I see the face
Of Jillen Andy looking in my own,
The poet-hearted man, the pillow case,
The spotted handkerchief that softened the hard stone.
Welcome these memories of scenes of youth
That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,
That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,
And help me now to suffer and be strong.