Quinnipiac University finds a home for the closed Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has found a home that should end an international controversy over its closing in Hamden by Quinnipiac University, a battle that until now left unsettled the fate of the premier collection of artworks related to the 19th century tragedy on the Emerald Isle.

Quinnipiac will announce Friday it has agreed to transfer the collection to the Gaelic-American Club of Fairfield. The club will, under the deal, create a museum of similar size in the historic district of Fairfield, staffed by curators and open to the public.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility. I’m so grateful that we have the opportunity,” said John Foley, vice president of the Gaelic-American Club, who’s leading the effort. “It has to be brought back. It needs to be in front of the Irish community and that’s what we’re doing.”

When it happens, the transfer will close a tense chapter for Quinnipiac, whose trustees voted unanimously last May to not reopen the museum after it closed for the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. The museum, opened in 2012 in a former bank building on Hamden’s main drag, had cost Quinnipiac some $15 million and counting, not including the art purchases — and didn’t fit into the plans of the board and the president who arrived in 2018, Judy Olian.

An uproar ensued. Protesters — including Foley himself and others in the very group that’s now taking control of the collection — said the university should reconsider, and was forsaking a cultural touchstone that spoke to universal issues of human suffering and oppression.

Olian and other top Quinnipiac administrators described to me a long search for a new home for the museum. With no established museum in Connecticut able to take on and display the collection, two proposals came together in recent weeks: One from Foley and the Gaelic-American Club and one from a group that formed in the fall called “Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum” — which pitched a plan to run the museum in its current, shuttered Hamden location, a building Quinnipiac owns.

“We need that space for other academic purposes, we have plans for that space and they really did not have a sustainable model,” Olian said.

Provost Debra Liebowitz added, “The Save group doesn’t have an organizational infrastructure, they just formed three months ago and just came to us. The other group has a 75-year history and a building and operations and things that will help more easily kind of scale up.”

And so on Tuesday, the university’s board voted, unanimously, Olian said, to accept the Gaelic-American Club’s bid. No money will change hands between the three nonprofit organizations — the club, the university and the museum — but the club agrees to raise the money, hire staff, prepare the space and maintain the museum permanently.

Moral and emotional weight

It is, like all mergers, acquisitions and partnerships in public and business life, billed as a match made in heaven. But while many such deals fail, this one has the signs of success — in the words of Olian and Foley and more to the point, in the ways their two institutions are positioned to make it work.

Quinnipiac will maintain its Irish Great Hunger research institute and reading room on the main campus, a short distance from the off-campus museum location.

The museum had been the project of former Quinnipiac President John Lahey, now a professor of philosophy at the university. Without graduate degrees in art, and with attendance and donations to the museum sparse — an average of about 20 visitors a day before the pandemic, the administration said — maintaining the museum became an extra that cut into other priorities.

“The historic message is present on the campus,” Olian said, adding that the museum “was not as integrated in campus studies or lives as you would hope.”

A former dean of the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, Olian rebuffed the idea that Quinnipiac’s move was blind to the community. “If this was highly endorsed and if there was significant philanthropic support, we would never be having this discussion. Those are community indicators. They’re not there.”

The Great Hunger of 1845-52, known more commonly in the United States as the Irish Potato Famine, grew tragic with 1.2 million deaths and some 2 million people emigrating from Ireland not only because of a widespread crop blight; the British government made the crisis worse by taking food produced in Ireland and forcing the island state’s residents into a form of indentured servitude.

These paintings, drawings and sculptures depicting the horrors carry all the more moral and emotional weight at a time when the dictator of another superpower in Europe is overrunning a democratically led nation it once controlled.

But while critics have accused Quinnipiac of abrogating a responsibility, Olian and her top administrators said they always intended to keep the collection intact, and that the Gaelic-American Club plan will not diminish the museum’s historic value.

“We’re not abdicating the moral force, we’re actually amplifying it,” Olian said.

The head of the group that was working to save the museum in its current location did not respond to my email Thursday night to comment on the plan and on whether the group will support the Fairfield effort.

Because the collection and museum are a trust as a nonprofit with assets in the public interest, Attorney General William Tong’s office has confirmed it is investigating the closure. The new arrangement should satisfy any issues, said Elicia Spearman, the Quinnipiac general counsel.

“We’re not just trying to give it to someone who’s going to fold in a year and not be successful,” she said. “They have the kind of long-range thinking about the importance of this collection and how to manage it.”

‘The art blew me away’

Before I spoke with Foley on Thursday, I had visions of a sleepy cultural club with a pub and restaurant, an events hall with step-dancing and soccer games and of course, a focus on upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations. A multi-million-dollar museum? Hmmm.

The Gaelic-American Cub has all that but it’s by far the largest Irish-American group in Connecticut, a tightly run organization with, get this, 6,000 dues-paying members. That Foley is among them is no small thing.

He arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s as a trained architect and he’s an executive overseeing projects at one of the largest property management firms in the nation.

Leaders of the club naturally talked about the Hamden museum closing and set about doing something — including a “day of awareness” in October, in the pouring rain as it turned out, Foley recalled. Whether that was some kind of a sign is a different story but the club soon realized Quinnipiac wasn’t going to reopen the museum, period.

Talks began, and grew friendly in contrast to the more tense relationship between the university and the group that formed to force a reopening on the existing site. Foley was invited to size up the closed museum.

“I went there with a measuring tape and I didn’t take it out once. The art blew me away,” he said. “You cannot understand how it connects with an Irishman.”

And how it connects with the modern world.

“Do you think that after 170 years we could start treating people with respect? The lessons from the Great Hunger haven’t been learned. I want this building, I want the art work, to tell the story of where we were,” he said.

The group will set about raising money from the strength of its 6,000 members in the hopes of opening in a space within walking distance of the club’s building in the heart of Fairfield’s business district. There’s no timetable for opening.

“I can handle the construction, I can handle the design, I can put all these pieces together,” Foley said. “The truth needs to be told.”

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

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