A new exhibition gives Irish people their first chance to see the largest collection of Famine-related art, writes Alan O’Riordan.
In 1847, the Cork artist James Mahony was dispatched by the Illustrated London News to depict the realities of the Great Famine in and around Skibbereen and Clonakilty.
His stark, immediate, drawings of gaunt beggars and starving children are like precursors to photojournalism and have become familiar to us from school days.
Yet, these images are respectful and reserved compared to the “almost indescribable in-door horrors” he witnessed first hand.
One report in the Illustrated London News describes a hut surrounded with a “rampart of human bones” and within, a “mass of human putrefaction, six individuals, males and females, labouring under most malignant fever, were huddled together, as closes as were the dead in the graves around”.
The centre of colonial rule in Ireland, Dublin Castle, meanwhile, in the years of famine continued to be a place of pomp, balls and feasting. In 1846, mere months after the potato blight was first reported, the castle hosted an St Patrick’s Day ball.
The route taken by guests’ carriages was made such that they would avoid what historian Ciaran Reilly calls “the throngs of destitute and hungry” who were flocking to the city.
Two worlds then: One where famine was a horror almost beyond depiction; the other, where it could be strenuously kept from sight, even as policies decided at Dublin Castle worsened its severity.
Between them, the places tell two sides of the famine story, and, fittingly, each will play host this year to Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, a major exhibition drawn from the collection at the Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
The exhibition runs from March to June at Dublin Castle, before moving to the Uillinn in Skibbereen from July to October. The exhibition will also visit Derry early in 2019.
Niamh O’Sullivan is emeritus professor of visual culture at NCAD. She is the Quinnipiac museum’s inaugural curator, and has spent the last several years adding to its collection.
“It’s open five years now,” she says. “I was brought on board about a year before that. The university had been collecting related art for the previous 15 years, so they had amassed quite a bit of work things.
"They asked me to go and evaluate the collection and see what was needed to be done to bring it up to the opening standard. We have acquired a lot of new art since then, both historical and contemporary.“
The museum has been critically lauded since its opening, both for its collection and the context it provides for it. “We have always tried to do interesting things curatorially,” says O’Sullivan.
She cites an entrance way that features nine large panels covered with newspaper reports and depictions of the famine.
“I’m always amazed,” she says, “to go and see people just sitting in front of all that, sometimes sobbing. I think Irish-Americans feel their story is really being told for the first time.”
Now, O’Sullivan has selected 50 works to represent that collection for the travelling Irish exhibition.
“This is an unparalleled collection,” she says.
“And it’s the first time it will be seen in Ireland. It connects us with our diaspora, and I think it is important for us to view the famine not just as an event of historical importance, one to understand as our own history, but to see it in terms of contemporary world issues, too. I am very keen that people see it in terms of contemporary significance.”
On the day we speak, news bulletins are reporting that 90 people drowned in the Mediterranean after their boat sank off Libya. “If you look at the whole migration crisis in the world today,” O’Sullivan says, “the famine was the migration crisis of the 19th century.”
One piece in the collection speaks to that stark fact: Rowan Gillespie’s Statistic I & Statistic II, created after a mass grave of 650 famine refugees was uncovered in Staten Island some years ago.
“It was possible to recover the documentation which gave the name, the age, the cause of death, and the date of death for each of these individuals,” O’Sullivan says. Those names appear on the work’s two bronze tables. “It’s a remarkable testament to that awful story.”
The exhibition includes contemporaneous works like Mark Anthony’s Sunset, which contrasts peasant hovels against the Rock of Cashel, and Daniel Macdonald’s Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store.
It also includes works from around the time of the famine’s centenary, such as Gorta by Lilian Davidson. Later works like Michael Farrell’s Black 47 take an allegorical approach, while William Crozier and Brian Maguire are represented via expressionistic works.
As such, the exhibition documents changing attitudes, practices, and intersections with the Famine.
“In terms of the contemporary artists,” says O’Sullivan, “there is a concern with memory and emotional response rather than description, so that the art is abstract. It will appeal probably to more of an adult audience.
“But we are putting together a programme that will appeal to all ages and all levels of educational attainment. Children will respond to some works I think like Margaret Chamberlain’s The Leave Taking, or Lilian Davidson’s Gorta.”
Part of O’Sullivan’s brief with the Quinnipiac museum is its series of publications, the Famine Folios, which has attracted academics from diverse disciplines. In keeping with this, the catalogue for the exhibition will run to more than 200 pages and include several essays.
“With the 150th anniversary of the famine there was an explosion of publications,” says O’Sullivan, “and interestingly that has gone on. I suppose everybody talks about the Great Silence after the famine, but that’s not quite accurate. There is more than people think out there, quite a lot of material.”
O’Sullivan believes the silence was more in the nature of the discipline of history itself, because “history was always about great men and great deeds and not about the poor”.
“This is a story that has to be told from the ground up and that’s what allows us to take an original focus in what we publish.
"I think what is very unusual about what the Great Hunger Museum has done is it has placed the visual at the centre of the famine scholarship. There is no one else was done that so I think what we are doing is original and without compare really.”
Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger is at the Coach House, Dublin Castle, from 8 March 8-June 30. It is at the Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre from July 20-October 13; and at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, Derry, from January 18-March 16, 2019.