America’s Irish Famine Museum

November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT.  My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring.  May she rest in peace.

I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general.  I kind of regretted this.  Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent.  And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise.  In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums,can make or break the visitor experience.’  Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through.  This is to avoid rote-memorization.  They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.

The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc.  Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.

People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours.  I’m more ambivalent.  Sometimes they’re fantastic.  Other times, they leave a lot to be desired.  My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience.  The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner.  He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this.  He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student.  He made eye contact, he had a presence.  What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice.  He talked in a dull monotone.  And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments.  And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.

As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent.  My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman.  Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course.  But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.

So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.

The museum itself holds so much promise.  The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century.  The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent.  There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.

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The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials.  And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course.  The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered.  I found this bizarre.

One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine.  I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet).  But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.

I don’t disagree.  As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’  It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.

But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part.  Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.

And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British.  The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.

An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000.  And then there’s Trevelyan.  He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’  But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’  When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up.  I wish.

At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen.  Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin.  Or to the Foyle in Derry.  But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description.  This is the centrepiece of the museum.  It still haunts me.  A family of 6, victims of the Famine.  Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer.  He began with the infant in the mother’s arms.  He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.  IMG_0791

Was the baby dead?  The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces.  And then as one scans downward, there are no feet.  These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts.  They are the dead of the Famine.  The dead of our ancestors, essentially.

But this is kind of it.  The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art.  The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display.  In fact, almost none of it is on display.  On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War.  The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States.  For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine.  And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.

While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy.  This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora.  And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time.  To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.

Either way.  The Civil War.  I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.

And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine.  And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America.  Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found.  This was the story of the Irish in America.

And then there was the thing I found most fascinating.  Our docent told us the origin story of the museum.  But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so.  And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.

1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine.  And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.

And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing.  That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes.  Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.

At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message.  So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.

Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much.  The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits.  There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.  The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course.  But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.

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Captain Charles Boycott and the First Boycott

January 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming.  The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response.  In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.

The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland.  Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League.  The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers.  The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked.  The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century.  And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.

In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo.  He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land.  Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour.  And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott.  Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.

Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London.  And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news.  This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.

With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops.  In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops.  The boycotters won, at least locally.

What was the long-term effect of the first boycott?  Not much, at least locally.  Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent.  And evictions continued apace around Ireland.  And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.

But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory.  It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure.  But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).

So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful.  And maybe this speaks to something else.  We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today.  Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.

For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central.  But this was’t created overnight.  While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley.  In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Update: Commemorating the Victims of the Irish Famine in Montreal.

May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, the news out of Montreal was that the piece of land the Irish Memorial Foundation sought to create a proper memorial of the mass grave of Irish Famine victims had been sold to Hydro-Québec, which sought to build a power sub-station there, ironically to serve the burgeoning redevelopment of Griffintown.

But all is well that ends well, apparently.  On Friday, Hydro-Québec and the Ville de Montréal issued a joint press release saying that they, along with Montreal’s Irish community, had come to an arrangement to see the redevelopment of a memorial to the 6,000 victims in that grave under what is now Bridge St.

And, frankly, it is about time that this project got underway.

 

(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § 6 Comments

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Griffintown

October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood.  It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press.  To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement.  The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.

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UPDATE: The Griffintown Horse Palace

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare!  As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335!  The goal was $45,000.

The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm.  Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here.  More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed.  Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!

Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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