Great Irish Famine: Learning From The Past To Understand The Present And Potential Future

Great Irish Famine memorial in Dublin.
Great Irish Famine memorial in Dublin.

The New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum was written by a team based at Hofstra University headed by Dr. Maureen Murphy. Dr. Murphy is past president of the American Conference for Irish Studies, a past chair of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures, and the historian of The Irish Hunger Memorial at Battery Park City in Manhattan. In her introduction to the curriculum, Dr. Murphy argued that “the most compelling reason to study the Great Irish Famine is that hunger and homelessness are still with us; that there is want in a world of wealth.” The last section of the curriculum guide explores the legacy of the Great Irish Famine and includes lessons for middle-level and high school students on famine in the world today.

Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut has taken a major lead in Irish and famine studies with an Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum (Múseam An Ghorta Mhóir) and an annual conference. The museum collects and exhibits art, artifacts and literature relating to the Great Hunger in Ireland from 1845–52.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

The theme of this year’s Quinnipiac conference, June 14-17, 2017, focused on Children and the Great Hunger. It explored the impact of famine on children and young adults and many of the presentations used events in Ireland as a starting point for understanding the impact of famine on children and young adults in other famines including in the contemporary world. Keynote speakers included Michael Collins, author of the novel The Keepers of Truth, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Christine Kinealy, founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University; Mark McGowan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, who specializes in Canadian, Irish, religious and immigration history, particularly the Irish Famine migration to Canada in the 1840s; Gerard Moran, a researcher at National University of Ireland Galway, and author of "Sending Out Ireland's Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century"; and Maureen Murphy.

The conference was also a book launch for The Bad Times (Quinnipiac University Press, 2015), a graphic novel set during the Irish Famine (or, The Great Hunger), It features three teenager from the west of Ireland, Brigit, Daniel and Liam, who live through the horrors of the Great Hunger. Their friendship keeps them strong as they each have to make tough decisions in order to survive. Lesson material based on the book are scheduled for publication in the next issue of Teaching Social Studies, the Journal of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.

The Hofstra University Irish Studies program offers an annual class on the Great Irish Famine. This semester’s class organized a panel for the conference, "Great Hunger Legacies: Ecology, Epidemiology, Memory," chaired by Maureen Murphy. Karla Freire, a junior, reported on “Women Under Scrutiny: Moral Anxieties and the Female Body During the Great Irish Famine"; Nicole Lentini, a senior, discussed the impact of famine on the neurological development of children; and faculty member Alan Singer presented a paper he wrote with graduate student Ashley Balgobind on globalization, climate change, and famine today.

In her paper, Karla Freire reported how gender stereotypes and antiquated moral codes undermined relief efforts during the Great Irish Famine. Nicole Lentini focused on how new scientific understanding of child development exposed new, damaging, information on the impact of famine on the long-term intellectual development of children. Dr. Singer discussed recent United Nations studies on the impact of climate change and how it is contributing to famine in vulnerable parts of the world where people are already living on the margins.

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