An Gorta Mór – Ireland’s Great Hunger.

Posted by admin | July 28, 2010 0

I was delighted to hear from the remarkable Ruth Riddick in New York about an equally remarkable exhibition at the Irish Consulate in New York which she is involved with – “An Gorta Mór – Ireland’s Great Hunger” which is based on the collection at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University.

Ireland’s Great Famine or The Great Hunger, as it is more commonly referred to today, ranks among the worst tragedies in the sweep of human history. Between 1845 and 1850, approximately 1.5 million Irish men, women and children died of starvation or related diseases. By 1855, more than two million more fled Ireland to avoid a similar fate. This decimation of her population makes Ireland’s Great Hunger both the worst chapter in the country’s history, and arguably, the single worst catastrophe in 19th century Europe.

The President of Ireland, Professor Mary McAleese
opening the exhibition in New York

As for New York based Ruth who is providing communications services to the project she is one of life’s polymaths who has forged a career in the States providing consultancy in communications, advocacy, management and training as well as continuing her writing. She is special friend from the old days and she is known in Ireland as a leading feminist (a label she would never use herself). Ruth was a leading advocate for women’s rights and a rational humane approach to social problems at a time when they were both sorely needed in Ireland and when it took real personal courage to campaign on these issues. But there is much more to the talented Ms. Riddick than that as a perusal of her web site reveals;

As for the exhibition your thinking about the Irish famine will be irrevocably changed. Even the word “famine” in no longer used; the period is now known, inter alia, as the “starvation.” When I read the background on the Quinnipiac site I certainly learnt more than I did at school and it changed my view about the nature of the Famine. It is great with the developments in the North that the Irish-American perspective has moved on from the freeze frame it was in for so many years – I remember the old joke about there are only two political issues in Boston – “Trieste is Italian and Ireland must be united!”

Eviction of an Irish family by landlords during the famine

The Great Hunger irrevocably changed Ireland – its population was virtually halved, the dominance of the Gaelic language as the spoken language of the people was destroyed and the effects of the Irish Diaspora on Ireland and on the countries where the pitiful emigrants from starvation went to are felt to this day. It also reinforced the conviction that Irish people must take control of their own destiny and not be beholden to a foreign power.

As for the thrust of the exhibition to correct historical misapprehensions the President of Quinnipiac University writes;

“An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger, is an attempt to set the record straight. For more than 150 years, the catastrophe that depopulated Ireland has been referred to as the Irish Potato Famine—as if a crop, and not a nation’s people, were the victims. Rather than an act of nature, The Great Hunger was the result of centuries of institutionalized oppression and callous disregard for human life. This unprecedented exhibition presents one of the world’s most extensive collections of art and literature portraying the tragedy and suffering in Ireland at that time. The authors, artists, writers and local voices whose work is collected in this exhibition stand together to bear witness to this crime against humanity.

It is critical that the Great Hunger be remembered accurately. In the 150-plus years since the Great Hunger, this tragedy has been downplayed and frequently distorted by Anglo historians and sympathizers. Too often it has been described as a disaster caused by the bad luck of a naturally occurring potato blight. British authorities, then responsible for ruling all of Ireland, were quick to agree, and thus took no responsibility for this epic disaster that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Irish people. Thanks to recent historians, such as Christine Kinealy, we now know that more than adequate food existed in Ireland; food exports from the country actually increased during the famine years. If only British authorities had possessed the will and compassion to deliver this food to the starving Irish. But British Government indifference resulted in the worst calamity ever to befall Ireland. It was not until 1997, 150 years after Black ‘47 that a British prime minister, Tony Blair, acknowledged that the British bore some responsibility for this terrible tragedy.

Irish-Americans must continue to publicly document this worst tragedy and human rights abuse in Ireland’s history—and to question those who even today seek to obscure the real causes of this human disaster.”

John L. Lahey, Ph.D. President, Quinnipiac University
Vice Chairman, New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee

Curated by producer Turlough McConnell, from the collection at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University, the exhibition features art work by such major Irish sculptors as John Behan and Eamonn O’Doherty, as well as paintings, lithographs, photographs and etchings by other contemporary artists, and a fascinating selection of rare books and maps dating from the famine years and earlier.

Eamonn O’Doherty’s marquette
for a Famine Memorial

Quinnipiac University is a private, coeducational, non-sectarian institution located 90 minutes north of New York City and two hours south of Boston. Quinnipiac comprises schools of business, communications, education, health sciences, and law, and a College of Arts and Sciences.


Commentary on wall panels comes from important historians from both sides of the Atlantic, and is decidedly revisionist. It is right that the revision of the incorrect history of the Great Hunger is led from America as even during it Americans looked upon it as an avoidable human tragedy and identified with the people of Ireland many who ended up seeking refuge there after harrowing voyages in “Coffin Ships” where the bodies of those who died were thrown overboard.

The disproprtionate effect of the famine
on the West of Ireland can be seen from this map

The Rev. John Hughes, D.D., Bishop of New York speaking from the Broadway Tabernacle on March 20th, 1847 gave a lecture on the Irish Famine and immigrations and in his speech said,

“The year 1847 will be rendered memorable in the future annals of civilization, by two events; the one immediately preceding and giving occasion to the other, namely, Irish famine, and American sympathy and succour.”

The exhibition is open to the public weekdays through September 3rd from 12 Noon to 2PM at the Consulate of Ireland, 345 Park Avenue (17th Floor), New York, between 51st and 52nd Street. (Entrance also at 345 Lexington Avenue, near 6, E  and M subway.)

The legacy – One of the many deserted “Famine Villages”
found in Ireland

Photo ID required for building access. Call ahead to confirm hours, (212) 319-2555 .


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