Connecticut’s Coffin Ship Art Exhibit
By Olivia O’Mahony, Editorial Assistant
June / July 2017
Aseries of art pieces portraying the struggle for survival aboard the “coffin ships” on which 1.5 million Irish escaped the Great Hunger are now on display at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. The exhibit, Fleeing Famine: Irish Immigration to North America, 1845-1860, includes six oil paintings of the harrowing, often-deadly conditions on such vessels, several bronze sculptures on loan from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, and a visual simulation in which visitors find themselves standing in an artificial rendition of a famine ship’s deck.
“When you go onto the ship [in the museum], it’s obviously not meant to be exact, but it does still give you the feeling that you are boarding a ship,” museum curator and registrar Bethany Sheefer explained to IrishCentral. “With our space, it has its unique challenges, [but we did] include a fire pit that would have been on top of one of these ships and that’s where they would have cooked their meals.”
The deck-feature was inspired, she added, by British artist Rodney Charman’s painting “The Odessa” (pictured above), which shows the turmoil that characterized each day of a famine ship’s gruelling journey.
Though the average mortality rate of up to 30 percent plainly justified the “coffin ship” moniker, many famine refugees achieved prosperity in North America, as seen in the exhibit’s embedded narrative of a young boy named Patrick, a real-life passenger of the Washington Irving, whose family would obtain prominence in the U.S., and the story of the Knights of Columbus founder himself, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, himself the son of famine ship survivors. The exhibition runs through the fall. ♦