October 2017 Scholar Spotlight

Christine Kinealy, Quinnipiac University

Posted by Fiona on October 3, 2017


Christine Kinealy is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where she completed her doctorate on the introduction of the Poor Law to Ireland. She then worked in educational and research institutes in Dublin, Belfast, and Liverpool. She has published extensively on the impact of the Great Irish Famine and has lectured on the relationship between poverty and famine in India, Spain, Canada, France, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand. Christine Kinealy of Quinnipiac UniversityShe also has spoken to invited audiences in the British Parliament and in the U.S. Congress. She has been based in the United States since 2007, and in 2013, she was appointed founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Professor Kinealy is the recipient of a number of awards and honors. These include being named one of the most influential Irish Americans in 2011 by Irish America Magazine. In 2013, she received the Holyoke, Mass. St. Patrick’s Day Parade’s Ambassador Award. In March 2014 she was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame. For the last five years, Professor Kinealy has been included in the “Top 100 Educators in Irish America” list.

As the founder and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, what is mission of the Institute and what hopes/goals do you have for the next five to ten years?

The key mission of the Institute is to promote scholarly research on the Great Hunger. In the short four years of its existence this has been achieved in a number of ways – through teaching, lecturing, conferences, exhibitions, publications and making the resources held at Quinnipiac University available to students, scholars and other researchers. All of these functions will continue. We have made a good start. Two of the exhibitions that began life in Quinnipiac are currently on display in Ireland – Lady Sligo (this exhibit includes more than 200 letters many of which were written during the Famine) and the Grey Nuns (who helped save thousands of Irish immigrants who arrived in Montreal during the Famine).

And this is part of a larger project to write women back into history. A documentary made by a colleague at Quinnipiac, Rebecca Abbott, entitled Ireland’s Great Hunger and the Irish Diaspora won an Emmy in 2017 (I won an Emmy for my role as historical advisor). Over the next few years, I hope to build on these successes. At the moment, we are preparing an exhibition of Frederick Douglass and his time in Ireland (1845 and 1846), which will open in February 2018 – Douglass’s 200th birthday.

I also hope to build upon our links with our partners’ institutions in Ireland – the Irish Heritage Trust, the National Famine Museum in Roscommon, Westport House, the Ionad Dierbhile Heritage Centre in Aghleam, Maynooth University, Cork University, the Epic Museum in Dublin, etc. There are a lot of moving parts, but I would like to see even more collaboration and a greater exchange of resources and personnel.

My own personal interest lies in placing the Great Famine in a broader context and developing more comparative approaches to this topic. I have been working with Drs. Gerard Moran and Jason King on a four-volume study of the Irish famines, which seeks to do just this (Routledge 2018). And, as a historian, I also want to spend a lot more time in the archives.

How does the Institute support and complement the work of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac?

Quinnipiac University is fortunate and unique in having three rich resources devoted to a study of the Great Hunger: the Institute, the museum and the Great Hunger Collection in the library. Although we each have a distinct focus, each complements the other. The focus of the Institute is student-orientated (I am also a professor in the history department), and we are based on campus. Having the museum so close at hand is an incredible resource for our students and faculty alike. It not only enriches the teaching of Irish Studies, but also enables us to teach our students about more generic issues such as human rights. Because of its unique collection, it also attracts visitors from all over – including Ireland. In the space of five short years, Quinnipiac University has established itself as a leader of Irish Famine Studies.

Recently, you have hosted several conferences at Quinnipiac that highlight underrepresented voices/experiences within the Great Hunger such as women and children. By bringing together scholars who focus on these voices, what impact do you hope this will have on Famine studies?

Conferences are a key part of the work of the Institute and as you suggest, we have focused on areas that are clearly underrepresented in Famine studies and Famine historiography. One outcome has been to show that despite the massive increase in reach on the Great Hunger since 1995, there is much that remains unknown and many sources that have been little used by researchers. Another aim of our conferences has been to provide a forum for experienced and new researchers to meet and exchange ideas.

In 2018, we will co-host a conference at the National Famine Museum in Strokestown in Roscommon. We will encourage students, faculty and our librarians to attend.

What challenges have you faced in developing a new Irish studies minor at Quinnipiac?

I think the challenges are universal. Clearly, there are wider challenges that are damaging to higher education in the U.S., in Ireland, and in Britain, where education is undergoing a period of change which is unfavorable to subjects that are not seen to be “market driven.” The humanities in particular are repeatedly being squeezed and starved of funding.

A trend within Irish Studies appears to have been that many programs were built around one or two key scholars. Sadly, as these scholars with Irish-related specialties have retired or moved elsewhere, they have not been replaced by people with similar interests. Given this trend, it is remarkable and encouraging that Quinnipiac University is standing firm in making such a strong commitment to Irish Studies and the Great Hunger in particular. I also want to pay tribute to all my colleagues involved in keeping Irish Studies so vibrant and relevant – of course the big players, but to all who keep the ideal alive – from Dr. Tim Madigan in St John Fisher College in Rochester to Laura Kelley in the University of New Orleans, and all in between – you are amazing. Keep the faith.

Regarding Quinnipiac, unfortunately, President John Lahey, whose vision and personal commitment have brought these Irish resources (and me!) to Quinnipiac, is retiring in June 2018. A challenge might be to persuade the new President that the Irish collection at Quinnipiac is a jewel in its crown (apologies for the royalist analogy).

You and John Walsh published the first and only graphic novel of the Great Hunger: The Bad Times. How did you get involved in this project and what was the impetus behind it?

The Bad Times (and there is an Irish language version, An Droch Shaol) was inspired by a work by Daniel MacDonald, an Irish painter, entitled Irish Peasant Children, which is owned by Quinnipiac University. It was painted around 1846, just as the tragedy of the Great Hunger was unfolding in Ireland. The children in it are both beautiful and haunting. It made me wonder, “What happened to these children during the Famine?” and, more broadly, “How did children – the most vulnerable group in any society– survive this catastrophe?” The three children in The Bad Times, are loosely based on those in the picture, but with the addition of a loyal dog called Cú who, in turn, is based on my own puppy.

I have always wanted to write about the Great Hunger in a way that was accessible to young people, or to older people who would never read a history book, yet had an interest in this topic. I know from working with undergraduate students that they have highly developed visual literacy and are familiar with the medium of graphic novels (Maus springs to mind). By serendipity, I met John Walsh at a book launch in Boston and a partnership was born.

For me, the hardest part was trying to put myself in the place of a young person who was experiencing this awful situation, who was an eyewitness to this tragedy yet helpless to prevent it. Also, how to make the narrative authentic and to convey the awfulness of what took place. For example, one of our characters commits suicide, another is eaten by rats while she is alive – that is where John’s artistry and skill were most challenged and most effective.

How do you think Famine studies has changed since you first started your work as a young scholar?

So long ago! (I received my PhD from TCD in 1984). When I was a young scholar, there really was no such thing as Famine Studies. Since 1995, there has been an explosion in scholarly research and publications on the tragedy – and it shows no signs of slowing down.

When I was doing my doctorate in Dublin, historical debate was more restrained, especially on controversial topics such as the Famine (read Brendan Bradshaw if you haven’t done so already). Revisionism was at its height and – from my lowly position – seemed unassailable. The Troubles were raging, which partly explains the restraint (“Whatever you say, say nothing”). I moved to Belfast at the end of 1987 and witnessed some of the impact of the conflict first hand. Living there piqued my interest in what happened to the Belfast – and Protestants – during the Famine. That led to a book with the wonderful Gerard MacAtasney, whose work has been so important.

In my day there was no email, world-wide web, digitization, Ancestry.com, etc. I wrote letters to archivists and librarians asking what they held and what were their opening hours. Today’s communication options represents a massive change – but nothing beats visiting an archive and holding an original document in your hand, with or without white gloves.

The Peace Process, although not perfect as the current impasse demonstrates, allowed the stranglehold of revisionism to be weakened, which was particularly evident in study of the Famine. Yet the topic still can invoke controversy – for example, the surreptitious erection of memorials in Ireland earlier this year criticizing the British Army for guarding food exports proved divisive (http://www.rte.ie/radio1/liveline/programmes/2017/0510/874092-liveline-wednesday-10-may-2017/), and the public debate concerning the erection of a Famine memorial in Glasgow is currently reviving, or perhaps exposing, sectarian divisions. Life – and research – is never boring!

Another significant change is that the Famine is very much in the public domain now with an annual Famine Commemoration Day and the Famine memorials, most of which were created after 1995. It has even spread to soccer with Celtic FC wearing jerseys with a symbol of the Great Hunger. The silences and lack of visibility that marked the study of the Famine for 150 years has been replaced with a visibility that is perhaps unique in terms of the commemoration of history.