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Irish Famine Remembered in New Museum, Shoreline Family Histories

The An Ghorta Mhóir, the Great Hunger, is the subject of a new museum being opened by Quinnipiac University — but for Irish families along the shoreline the famine was personal.

The Michaels, Bridgets, Timothys and Kathleens came by the thousands. They rode the leaking coffin ships to America because staying home meant starving to death.

Between 1845 and 1852, more than one million young Irish immigrated to America to escape An Ghorta Mhóir — "The Great Hunger" — which is now regarded as the single greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe.

An entire generation of the stronger, mostly teenage, sons and daughters came to find jobs and money for the families they’d left behind. The youngsters packed into the port cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia where they fought for jobs and futures.

They met obstacles because of the overwhelming number of unskilled and uneducated laborers. Prejudice ran rampant and it took time to claw their way up the social ladder.

But, by 1910, there were more Irish living in New York City than in Dublin. Many of them soon moved out to join the first big wave of immigrants to challenge the Yankee population of Connecticut.

For Margaret Mary Burns Clancy, the story recently became personal. She discovered that her great-grandfather, Thomas Burns, was one of those teenagers. He landed in New York in 1849 at age 18. By 1950, the census shows him living in a tenement in New Haven and working as a house painter.

By 1860, he was married to Bridget Kelley and raising a family in Terryville, as a locksmith. His son, Timothy, received enough education to get a job as a school teacher, then went on to become a successful business man and civic leader in Torrington.

In one generation, the family went from penniless immigrant to prosperity, with Timothy owning a drug store, grocery store, hardware store, liquor store and, ironically, tenements.

“I didn’t know his story because the family never talked about the famine or how they came to this country,” said Clancy. “It was pretty much a taboo subject.”

Clancy now lives in Morris Cove, bordering East Haven. She spent much of her married life in Madison, where 25 percent of the population claims Irish ancestry.

In fact, all of the shoreline towns have significant Irish American populations. For East Haven, home to the Irish American Community Center, those of Irish ancestry make up 19 percent of the residents.

For Branford, home of the Crooked Shillelagh Irish Pub, it’s 21 percent. Guilford, with its Augur's Irish Pub, has 22 percent; and Old Saybrook has 24 percent.

While there are three million Irish Americans in Connecticut, the way most of their ancestors came to this country has been a closely held story, much like in Margaret Mary Clancy’s family. Those who suffered didn’t want to pass the stigma of their arrival on to future generations.

Experts estimate that between 1841 and 1900, the population of Ireland went from 8 million to 4 million. Almost half of the population of Ireland either died or emigrated — forever changing the face of Ireland and the United States, where 35 million Americans now claim Irish ancestry.

"This is a grossly undertold story," said John L. Lahey, Quinnipiac University president, speaking about the Irish Famine. "Most people don't appreciate the magnitude of it and the devastating effect it had on Ireland. And to the extent to which people do know something about the Great Famine, they know a misrepresentation of what really happened."

In order to put faces to the story of the famine, the Museum of Ireland’s Great Hunger — the Músaem an Ghorta Mhóir — is opening Oct. 11 as part of Qunnipiac University.

Lahey, himself the descendant of Irish immigrants, is the driving force behind the museum. He wants to set the record straight. The worst famine in history was not inevitable. It was avoidable. And, somehow, that makes it all the more deplorable.

Noted authorities on the famine have written that no issue provoked as much anger between England and Ireland as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. Ireland remained an exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.

Reports of exports at the time showed livestock and produce was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland. However, the poor had no money to buy food and the government did not ban exports. In London, many of those in power believed this was a way to permanently settle the Irish problem.

There were attempts at the time on the part of much of the world to assist the Irish, but often the food sent was not distributed in a timely manner. Cash sent often failed to get into the hands of those most in need.

And, in the end, those most affected by the situation either died or chose to remain silent about what had happened. It was shameful to a generation of Irish men and women that they couldn’t help those in need and left home to survive.

Lahey is determined to change the misinformation and silence that has surrounded much of the famine when the university opens the museum at 3011 Whitney Avenue in Hamden. It somehow seems fitting that the museum will be housed in a 19th century building which originally housed Hamden's first free library.

The 4,750-square-foot museum will be home to the world's largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials related to the Irish Famine. Along with its mission to educate visitors about a calamity that took more than one million lives, Ireland's Great Hunger museum will showcase that nation's contributions to the visual arts.

The focal point of the museum is the extraordinary Lender Family Special Collection. The art work purchased in this collection was donated by Marvin and Murray Lender. Murray Lender was a former vice president of the Quinnipiac trustees.

When approached by Lahey, the brothers saw the parallels between what happened to the Irish in the 19th century and the Holocaust of the 20th century. They agreed that the story needed to be told.

The Lender Collection contains 700 volumes of historic and contemporary texts, and an ever-growing number of works of art that portray or respond to the loss of more than 1.5 million Irish lives to the famine.

Museum programs will include tours of the collection, discussions, films, plays and concerts. It will be open to the public Wednesdays 10-5; Thursdays 10-7; Fridays and Saturdays 10-5; and Sundays 1-5. Admission to the new museum is free.

Robert H. Avino October 11, 2012 at 10:53 PM
There are not 3 million Irish Americans in Connecticut. There are only 3.5 million people in Connecticut.
Doreen Boudreau Hausler October 11, 2012 at 11:34 PM
Mary, very interesting piece, as always. I feel so connected to my maternal grandmother's Irish heritage and really appreciate your writing on this subject. Mr. Avino is correct. I believe the most recent data says that the Irish American population in CT is closer to 565,000. There is something like 35 million Irish Americans claiming to live in the entire US (according to the US Census bureau's 2010 report). Just to clarify. Thank you for your continued efforts in sharing our local history.

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