Great Hunger Museum

Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Stories From Main Street: Museum Tells Darkest Chapter Of Irish History

March 10, 2019 - 4:00 pm

HAMDEN, Conn. (WCBS 880) — As we approach St. Patrick's Day, a museum dedicated to one of the darkest chapters in Irish History is calling on all Irish Americans to help.

Quinnipiac University’s Great Hunger Museum might lose it’s funding in the next year, according to WCBS 880’s Sean Adams, who visited exhibits in this week’s Stories from Main Street.

“It's certainly the world's largest collection of art and sculpture devoted to this particular topic,” says Quinnipiac’s vice president of public affairs Lynn Bushnell.

The museum walks visitors through the history of Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s, during which a potato blight, multiple failed crops, British indifferent and insufficient relief led to mass starvation and the Irish diaspora.

“When you first enter the museum, you come into a small gallery that has very low ceilings, and that is intentional, so that you have the sense that you are in the hull of a ship,” Bushnell explains.

The exhibit aims to make visitors feel as if they are making the journey to America as a film narrates the history of famine and poverty that struck Ireland.

Art at the Great Hunger Museum
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Bushnell explains that one million people died and half a million emigrated. The museum strives to educate and draw parallels to modern day struggles and suffering.

“Some of the accounts of what life was like there is just terrible and appalling that a government could do this to another group of people. But, we see that repeated time after time throughout the decades and of course, we're watching it unfold today,” Bushnell says.

“We provide the context and we like to think that we do a pretty good job of drawing parallels to what is going on in the world today in terms of political oppression, famine, hunger – they're all important stories for us to tell,” she adds.

The Great Hunger Museum tells that story through art.

Art at the Great Hunger Museum
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

“We certainly have a fair amount of sculpture and those are some of the most important pieces, I think, that we have but we also have paintings from the 19th century by (John Butler) Yeats and other noteworthy artists that, we think, also represent, not just the famine itself, but the landscape of Ireland at the time,” she says.

Quinnipiac's collection is in demand. Many of the pieces are on loan to museums in Ireland. Currently, the collection is in Derry, where it’s wrapping up a year-long tour.

The father of the Great Hunger Museum is former Quinnipiac president John Lahey, a onetime grand marshal of the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade.

“John actually carried the first piece back on his lap on the plane, it was a small sculpture called ‘The Victim,’” Bushnell notes.

Art at the Great Hunger Museum
Sean Adams/WCBS 880

Lahey was able to create the museum by solicited contributions from a university trustee who wasn't Irish, he was Jewish. It was Murray Lender, of Lender's Bagels.

“I think he saw some parallel. His parents emigrated from Poland, I believe, so he clearly saw the pain and suffering that is involved when someone leaves their own country,” Bushnell explains.

Lender's donation helped start the collection, which eventually found a home in the Museum.

Adams reports that today, the Great Hunger Museum could sure use another kind-hearted donor like Lender. The new University President wants the museum to become financially self-sufficient.

The museum is looking for donors and corporate sponsors. To learn more about how you can help, visit