Contributed by Joanne McEntee
The above verse, taken from Amhrán na bPrátaí Dubha (The Song of the Black Potatoes), starkly reveals the immense impact of the Great Famine 1845-50. While it is easy to get lost in figures with the 1851 census revealing how at a national level some 2,400,000 or more than a quarter of the population were lost through death or emigration, one can only imagine the effect of such losses at a local level.
Various museums exist across the country that exploring different aspects of the famine from a local perspective. From Doagh to Donaghmore, and from St. Mary’s Church, to the Jeanie Johnston to mention but a few, such local sites act as significant reminders in their vicinities and beyond of both the suffering and immense endurance of man. Although billed as the Irish national famine museum, the Strokestown Park museum, Roscommon appears to remain outside of the consciousness of many.
The establishment of the museum within the demesne walls of a planned Georgian estate, complete with Palladian mansion or ‘big house’ and a six acre walled pleasure garden, adds complexity to the narrative of the museum itself. Yet the history of the Packenham Mahon estate, Strokestown, replete with stories of eviction, emigration, and murder, serves perhaps as the perfect prototype from which to relate the story of the famine.
Autumn 2010 saw the National Academy for Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (NAIRTL) support a number of voluntary internships at the Strokestown Park Famine Museum with the intention of revitalising the space. In total nine internees, from NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth, along with project leaders Prof. Terrence McDonough, Dept. of Economics, NUI Galway and Dr. Eamonn Slater, Dept. of Sociology, NUI Maynooth, took on with the task. Fundamentally, the aims of the group are twofold; firstly, to design and produce professionally a museum exhibit of material related to an aspect of the Irish Famine for installation in the museum. Secondly, to undertake an historical experiment on the grounds of the museum growing famine era crops with alternative nineteenth century methods.
With respect to the initial aim, seminars led by Irish and international experts from different disciplines on various aspects of the Famine and museum practice took place over several months. Notable speakers included Prof. Peter Gray, Prof. Christine Kinealy, Prof. Denis O’Hearn and Dr. David Nally. A design group ‘Aad’ (Art and Design), Dublin were also commissioned for the purpose of redesign. In relation to the second aim, a lazy bed experiment session took place last March under the expertise of Dr. Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson.
For photographs click here and a video of the session available here. the appropriate links. A Strokestown Project blog has also been created which contains interesting photographs of both the exterior and interior of the famine museum and Strokestown Park House itself. At present funding is a concern. It is important that Irish communities abroad or ‘diaspora’ communities have a voice in the construction of a truly representative and inclusive museum. Conversations are ongoing in relation to a twinning of the project with ‘Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute’, Quinnipiac College, Connecticut. The group would be open to a possible twinning with any institute in Britain interested in participating. Any suggestions or comments on any issue related to the project would be most welcome. It is imperative that this episode of Irish history is appropriately commemorated and remembered.
Joanne Mc Entee is completing doctoral research on the nineteenth century Irish landed estate, as part of the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme in the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. This project is funded by PRTLI 4.