The Irish Problem

Refugees fleeing untenable situations at home.  That heartbreaking reality seems to recur with uneasy frequency, but I had never made the connection between the Holocaust and the Great Famine in Ireland that lasted from 1845-1852.  But Murray Lender, of Lender’s Bagels and a New Haven native, did.


Low ceilings and wood planks meant to mimic steerage

He funded the Quinnipiac University collection of materials and art about the famine, which after collection growth, opened in a new home three years ago.

Even the building tells the story.  The exterior is meant to resemble the stone-faced hovels the Irish lived in, and the first floor exudes the cramped feeling of steerage on the ships coming to New York.  Only the upstairs, which references a ship’s topside, has high ceilings and windows.

Alexander Williams. Cottage, Achill Island. The museum facade resembles a stone cottage.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum presents the painful facts of the famine and now has an exhibition of Daniel Macdonald’s paintings.  The show features a rare depiction of the famine by any artist during the Great Hunger itself.

Daniel Macdonald. An Irish peasant family discovering the blight of their store. 1847.

The painting shows the severe distress of a family that has discovered that their storage pit has been ravaged by the fungus that rots the potato, killing it from the inside out.  When an average man ate 12 to 14 pounds of potatoes per day (perhaps supplemented with some buttermilk and herring) and the usually hearty crop could last a family for almost a year after working an acre, the blight was devastating.

Macdonald otherwise made fairly ordinary scenes of angelic children, dances, and fairies.  But the Great Hunger that ravaged his people compelled him to make this painting when not only was Realism of everyday people considered unworthy of fine art, but his principal patrons in London would be repulsed by the subject.

The English condescended to most of their colonists, but perhaps none took it quite so hard on the chin as the Irish.  During this famine, unbelievably, Irish food was still being exported to England.  Absentee landlords raised rents so that subsistence, potato-reliant tenants could no longer afford to stay.  The landlords converted their lands to pasture for the more lucrative grazing of cattle.

For those who had nowhere else to go, they dug pits called scalps, roughly covered with a roof of sticks.  Others hit the road.  Who cared if eviction essentially meant death for the poor family?

Daniel Macdonald. Eviction. Crawford Art Gallery, Cork City.

Racist attitudes that relied on stereotypes of the Irish as lazy wastrels justified the lack of action; these evicted families didn’t deserve aid.  It was the Irish Problem, and the British government responded with “systematic neglect.”

Some charity existed.  The workhouse, where 750,000 displaced and homeless families crowded together, fomenting deadly disease.  Many more were on the waiting list.  Three million a day went to soup kitchens run by Quakers.  Other Protestants exchanged soup for conversion.

So you can imagine why emigration appeared to be the only reasonable action.  Two million left Ireland, some stymied by disease before and during the crossing.  Along with the one million who starved or died on the roads, the population of Ireland was decimated and has never recovered to the pre-famine levels.

But the Irish fighting spirit has been there, too.  Emasculated by British imperialism, Irish men long acted out, through rebellious acts and fighting, often spurred on by alcohol.  Factions formed and ritualized fights both were glorified and were killers.  Here’s Macdonald’s heroic take.

Daniel Macdonald. The Fighter. 1844.

The poignant film at the museum suggests how the Irish spirit still bears the wound of the Great Hunger.

Kieran Touhy. Thank you to the Choctaw. 2005

Kieran Touhy. Thank you to the Choctaw. 2005


How ironic that 16 years after their own forced removal to Oklahoma, the Choctaw Native American tribe in 1847 raised $170, sent to Ireland for famine relief.

This moving tribute to that extraordinary act of generosity is in the museum’s contemporary art gallery.

The modern painting below by Lillian Lucy Davidson captures the alienation and grief still felt a hundred years after the Great Famine.


Lilian Lucy Davidson. Horta. 1946.









I understand this ongoing wound.  For me, the Holocaust still seems close.  The Somali’s and now the Syrian’s remind us that the world, or more accurately, human nature doesn’t seem to change.  Painful.


Could be Anatevka…

2 thoughts on “The Irish Problem

  1. It’s heartbreaking to think about. I know a few families whose relatives came over back then because of the famine. Native Americans sent money to Ireland? Wow, seems more than other countries did? Maybe none helped. Loved the art.And, it’s what so many families now, around the world are having to contend with.

  2. Almost impossible to comment on these emotionally moving paintings.
    We all have relatives touched by one or more of these heart rendering.
    Thank you, Rena, for sharing these with us.

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