‘It’s just perplexing to me:’ Former Quinnipiac president disappointed with Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum’s closure

Chatwan Mongkol, News Editor

Former Quinnipiac University President John Lahey remains skeptical of the reasons behind President Judy Olian administration’s decision to close Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum given the university’s “healthy” financial situation when he left. 

“It’s just perplexing to me as to why (the current administration) would do something that would in any way send less than a positive signal to get a population that represents 10% of the United States,” Lahey said.

Former QU President John Lahey criticized the current administration’s decision to close down Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. (Chatwan Mongkol)

Associate Vice President for Public Relations John Morgan said Quinnipiac closed the museum because it generated funds only to cover nearly 25% of its operational budget. He also said the university has invested time and resources pursuing philanthropic support of the museum.

Lahey said he didn’t believe it because the university was doing well financially when he left in June 2018. Quinnipiac’s endowment totaled around $530 million, and there was a $30 million surplus in the operating budget when Olian came in July 2018.

Quinnipiac announced it would end its sponsorship at the St. Patrick Day’s parade in New York City in January 2019. Lahey said it only cost $100 to affiliate in the march. The Chronicle reached out to the parade’s organizers for an updated price but did not receive any response.

“Obviously, it didn’t have anything to do with money,” Lahey said. “It was three years before COVID, so there is (nothing) to do with COVID.”

Another sign Lahey noticed signaling the closure was when the museum’s former Executive Director Ryan Mahoney was let go in June 2021.

Morgan confirmed Mahoney is no longer an employee of the university. Mahoney, who now works at Springfield Museums in Massachusetts, could not be reached for comment.

Quinnipiac’s Board of Trustees voted to shut down Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum due to financial loss and low attendance. (Connor Lawless)

For Lahey, the move was a dismissal to the student body and alumni that make up a huge part of Quinnipiac’s community. The former president confirmed that he is not privy to the current state of Quinnipiac’s financial standing and was not consulted before this decision was made.

“At least from my distant view of things looking at Quinnipiac, I teach logic, and I must admit the logic of reasoning on this is lost on me,” Lahey said.

In an attempt to call for reopening, the Committee to Save Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which has over 1,300 members on Facebook, submitted a letter to Connecticut Attorney General William Tong asking his office to investigate it.

At least from my distant view of things looking at Quinnipiac, I teach logic, and I must admit the logic of reasoning on this is lost on me.”

— John Lahey, former Quinnipiac president

Tong’s office has an open and ongoing inquiry into the museum’s closure, a spokesperson confirmed. The office declined to comment further.

The letter to Tong stated that the attorney general should look into the closure because it involves selling or distributing the museum’s collection, which is in the public interest.

“Furthermore, donors want to know what happens to their gifts of artwork and money to a museum that is now closed,” the letter stated.

Michale McCabe, the group’s attorney, said he had no direct contact with Tong, but he knows that Tong’s office received and acknowledged the letter.

“We’re not really considering any other legal options,” McCabe said. “We’re a group of private citizens, we have no real standing to challenge the decisions made by Quinnipiac. That’s why we got the attorney general involved.”

Tong’s office already reached out to Quinnipiac to inquire about the closure. Morgan said the university is being cooperative.

“We are being responsive to the Attorney General’s Office and will provide the necessary information requested about Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, including relevant policies about gifts, any donations that were received, and the financial operations of the museum,” Morgan wrote in an email statement.

Quinnipiac began its relationship with the Irish community when Lahey was president because it hoped to increase visibility of the university since the majority of Irish Americans live in the Northeast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Lahey said Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was a “strategic” decision. 

The late Murray Lender, former vice chair of the Board of Trustees, provided financial support to build the museum with a mission to educate the public about the Great Hunger. 

Lahey said he hopes to see the collection remain at Quinnipiac, which is in between the two cities – New York City and Boston – with the largest Irish population in the world outside of Dublin, Ireland. He said if the administration proceeds with the closure, there will be a long-lasting impact.

“I would say that some of the enrollment declines, I would guess, have something to do with the current perception within the Irish, Catholic communities about Quinnipiac’s sensitivity to those groups and appreciation for their values and experiences,” Lahey said.

Morgan said the closure of the physical museum doesn’t mean that Quinnipiac no longer wants to continue the relationships with the communities. He said the university is committed to ensuring that the collection remains publicly accessible.

“Quinnipiac University wholeheartedly agrees with the importance of preserving, and continuing to raise the visibility of, the story of the Great Hunger,” Morgan wrote.

There are many options the university can consider, Lahey said, from scaling back the museum for limited openings to making up the shortfall overtime since finances go up and down.

“I think any president and any university needs to think long term,” Lahey said. “(The relationship with Irish and Catholic communities) seems to be something you’d want to continue to do even in the face of what might be some short-term financial issues.”

The university has been in touch with the Consulate General of Ireland and the Irish Ambassador during the transition to keep lines of communication open with the Irish community, Morgan told The Chronicle.

The museum-saving committee will hold an event on Oct. 30, from 1-5 p.m. to salute the “unexpected” closure. The event will feature street art, Irish dancing, food, free treats, live performances and other family-friendly activities. It will take place at Woodruff Street at Whitney Avenue next to the museum.

Update 10/27/21: Associate Vice President for Public Relations John Morgan said, after publication, that the university will not sell any of the art in the museum. He also said the university intended to march in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2020 and 2021, but the parade has been canceled the last two years because of the pandemic.