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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Monumental History

May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments

I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.  It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story.  Of course, that is bloody obvious.  But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US.  He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War.  The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.

He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War.  And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC.  He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.

And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory.  There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts.  But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials.  Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative.  They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.

sieur_1In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal.  This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance.  And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man.  In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.1280px-Exploit_de_la_Place_d'Armes

The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then).  Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.

800px-National_Famine_Monument_with_Croagh_Patrick_in_the_backgroundAn example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52).  The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million).  It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland.  The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo.  But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.

But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event.  And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event.  How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen?  Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland).  So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?

I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.

 

Punk as the Establishment

February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian.  I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs.  Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more.  And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work.  It got published today.

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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How We Remember: Siblings and Memory

November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments

My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas.  The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness.  Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead.  However, it turns out he is not.  I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.

But what interests me is the relationship between siblings.  Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice.  Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing.  It’s also not clear when their parents died.  Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died.  She has only recently returned to the colony.  Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.

The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different.  In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child.  She has no recollection of it.  And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look.  At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.

I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory.  Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually.  In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book.  In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out.  Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story.  But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.

Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families.  I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does.  Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.

As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory.  Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.

The Myth of the ‘Founding Fathers’

November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers.  In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling.  Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.

The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable.  Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too).  The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country.  And they all agreed on things.

Reality is far from this.  The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are.  Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not.  Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population.  And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%.  The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.

The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe.  The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other.  Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought.  In other words, the Constitution was a compromise.  The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.

Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814.  But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country.  In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.

It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time.  Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless.  You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race.  It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.

But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements.  The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central.  I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives.  Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.

Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs.  So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.

“War is Hell”: Public History?

September 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

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This is Wesleyan Hall on the campus of the University of North Alabama.  It is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1855.  Florence, the town in which the university is located, was over-run by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  Parts of northern Alabama were actually pro-Union during the war and at least one town held a vote on seceding from the Confederate States of America.  This was made all the more complicated by the fact that the CSA was actually created in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, and the first capital of the CSA, before it moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Wesleyan allegedly is still marked by the war, with burn marks in the basement from when Confederate troops attempted to burn it down in 1864.  A local told me this weekend that there is allegedly a tunnel out of the basement of Wesleyan that used to run down to the Tennessee River some 2 miles away.

The most famous occupant of Wesleyan Hall during the war was William Tecumseh Sherman.  It is in this building that he is alleged to have said that “war is hell” for the first time.  Of course, there are 18 other places where he is alleged to have said this.  And herein lies the position of the public historian.

Personally, I think Sherman said “war is hell” multiple times over the course of the Civil War, and why wouldn’t he?  From what I know of war, from literature, history, and friends who have seen action, war is indeed hell.  But I am less interested in where he coined the phrase than I am in the multiple locales he may or may not have done so.  What matters to me is not the veracity of the claim, but the reasons for the claim.

So why would people in at least 19 different locations claim that Sherman coined the phrase at that location?  This, to me, seems pretty clear. It’s a means of connecting a location to a famous event, to a famous man, to raise a relatively obscure location (like, say, Florence, Alabama) to a larger scale, onto a larger stage.  It ties the University of North Alabama to the Civil War.  But more than that, since we already know the then LaGrange College was affected by the war, but the attempt to claim Sherman’s most famous utterance creates both fame for the university, and makes the claim that something significant connected to the war occurred on the campus.  There are no major battlefields in the immediate vicinity of northern Alabama, so, failing that, we can claim Sherman declared that ‘war is hell’ in Wesleyan Hall.

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