Monday, October 1, 2012
Remembering An Gorta Mor
‘We perish houseless, naked, starved, with branded brow,
Dying, dying wearily, with a torture sure and slow –
Dying as a dog would die, by the wayside as we go.’
These are the words of the Irish poet Speranza – Lady Jane Wilde, the mother of Oscar – who was a regular contributor to the Young Irelanders publication The Nation and who recorded her testimony in verse in early Black 47 of the human cost and impact of An Gorta Mór – the Great Hunger.
Last week I was invited by John Lahey, the President of Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut, to give a talk on the issue of the great hunger. I was at the university in 2003 and at that time under John’s stewardship they had already compiled a unique collection of art and research and resource materials on that period of Irish history.
John Lahey and I in front of Robert Ballagh's powerful piece
The collection has grown significantly since then and last week saw the official opening of Múseam an Ghorta Mór – Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum.
It is a measure of the determination of President Lahey and his colleagues to create the world’s leading educational and research resource and art collection on this subject.
It is also a hugely significant and invaluable new addition to the efforts of academics and historians and others to tell and understand the history of Ireland and in particular the tragedy of An Gorta Mór.
I was given a private tour of the Museum two days before its official opening. It contains art work and sculptures from the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries from some of Ireland foremost artists – Daniel McDonald, John Behan, Rowan Gillespie, Lillian Lucy Davidson, Robert Ballagh, Brian Maguire, Michael Farrell, Paul Henry, Margaret Allen and others.
The imagery and colours and stories they tell evoke a great sense of sadness at the grief and pain and trauma and loss so many suffered during the so-called famine years and subsequently.
'Burying the Child'
As you walk up the stairs to the first floor you are confronted by Lillian Lucy Davidson’s ‘Burying the Child’. Hopelessness and emptiness are etched on their faces. It is a striking emotive piece.
Another Connecticut connection reminds us of the horror of the hunger. Elihu Burritt described a soup kitchen which was surrounded by ‘famine spectres, half naked and standing or sitting in the mud … struggling forward with their rusty tin and iron vessels for soup, some of them upon all fours, like famished beasts’.
In a graveyard he found a tiny shed that ‘served as a grave where the dying could bury themselves … [where] living men, women and children went down to die; to pillow upon the rotten straw, the grace clothes vacated by preceding victims and festering with their fever. Here they lay as closely to each other as if crowded side by side on the bottom of one grave.’
A large canvas - ‘Black 47’ by Michael Farrell – imagines Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the British treasury and the man responsible for the British government’s relief policy, on trial for his actions. Trevelyan described the tens of thousands dying as a ‘mechanism for reducing surplus population’ and ‘the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence’.
Trevelyan’s cruelty is immortalised the ‘The Fields of Athenry’:
By a lonely prison wall,
I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they are taking you away,
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn,
So the young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.
In a glass case on the first floor of the museum there are books recording the events of 1845-51 – including reports from the British Parliament and from the Mansion House Committee established by Daniel O Connell and others to record the impact across the island. Among these are letters to the Cork Examiner which had been established only four years before the blight struck.
In a letter to the editor written by Jeremiah O Callaghan from Bantry Abbey wrote:
Sir, on entering the graveyard this day, my attention was arrested by two paupers who were engaged in digging a pit for the purpose of burying their fellow paupers; they were employed in an old ditch. I asked why they were so circumscribed; the answer was ‘that green one you see on the other side the property of Lord Berehaven. His stewards have given us positive directions not to encroach on his property, and we have no alternative but this old ditch; here is where we bury our paupers’.
I measured the proud – it was exactly 40 feet square and contained according to their calculation 900 bodies. They then invited me to come and see a grave close by. I could scarcely endure the scene. The fragments of a corpse were exposed, in a manner revolting to humanity; the impression of a dog’s teeth was visible. The old clothes were all that remained to show where the corpse was laid’. June 1847
The first piece bought by John Lahey and which he carried from Ireland 14 years ago is a bronze entitled ‘The Victim’. It’s by Rowan Gillespie and is intended to represent each of the millions who died or fled.
A Coffin Ship
With Niall O Dowd and John Lahey