Quinnipiac is rich in material about the Great Hunger

Ed Forry

Quinnipiac University Vice President for Public Affairs Lynn Bushnell was in Boston last month seeking to find new audiences for the school’s extensive histories of the Great Hunger.

“Quinnipiac hopes to increase awareness of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum and Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute in the Boston area with the intent of encouraging visitors from this area to visit the museum,” Bushnell said. “I just returned from Ireland where we opened a very special room in Westport House based on research conducted by Christine Kinealy, the founding director of the Institute and the world’s foremost authority on this period of Irish history. She would be a tremendous speaker at some future Boston event.”

In early April, Bushnell joined with Professor Kinealy in Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland, where Quinnipiac installed an exhibition of the Famine Letters of Hester Catherine Browne, also known as Lady Sligo. Lady Sligo, a 19th century “grande dame.”

On April 12, the Irish Independent newspaper reported, “An exhibition of previously unpublished letters has travelled from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and opens in Westport House on Tuesday. Some 20 letters describe the tragedy of the Great Hunger through Lady Sligo’s eyes, revealing her to be a socially aware woman with a keen sense of duty.

In May 1845, she writes, with one or two word omissions, to her estate manager at Westport, George Hildebrand: ‘I fear there must be a great deal distress & poverty about Westport now that there is so little money spent in the Town, & I do not all grudge the money you gave away in charity for me.’

“Four months later, she sends the following description from Clontarf, Dublin: ‘I am sorry to say there is in this country a blight on the potatoes, which has caused the stems to turn black, & wither - I believe it was caused by a frosty night we had a fortnight ago. It has occasioned a rise in the price of potatoes here, which shows there is some anxiety on the subject… Let me know whether the potatoe crop in Mayo is affected?’ She goes on to comment that stormy and wet weather would be very bad for the harvest and requests that tenants be given good-quality warm blankets. Yet she still needed her gowns and silks for daily life.”

The exhibit will become a permanent one at the Westport House “The Lady Sligo letters are a unique collection of documents that chart a turbulent period in Irish history in the mid-19th century,” Professor Kinealy said. Despite her wealth and social position, she repeatedly demonstrated her concern for the poor who lived on her estate in Co. Mayo.”

Lady Sligo lived from 1800 to 1878. Her collection includes more than 200 letters covering the period of the Great Hunger and adds an important new dimension to scholarly understanding of the tragedy. “Students can view actual documents from the 19th century, which will make their learning experience both more authentic and more powerful,” Kinealy said.

“The Lady Sligo Letters were acquired by Quinnipiac University because of their significance in fulfilling the mission of the Lender Special Collection, which is to be the largest repository in the United States related to the history of Ireland’s Great Hunger,” said University librarian Robert Jiven. “The letters are an important primary resource that provide a view of the famine from a unique perspective, that of a titled woman of the Anglo-Irish gentry.”

Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute is a scholarly resource for the study of the Great Hunger. Through a strategic program of lectures, conferences, course offerings and publications, the institute fosters a deeper understanding of this tragedy and its causes and consequences.