Quinnipiac University professor among scholars making the National Famine Walk in Ireland


HAMDEN >> As one of the foremost scholars on the Great Hunger — the Irish potato famine that took place in the mid-19th century — Quinnipiac University Professor Christine Kinealy is well acquainted with the hardship faced by those who died or fled the country during the 1840s.

But now, Kinealy will see in a way that can’t be gleamed from a book what the approximately 1 million Irish who emigrated faced in that time.

Kinealy is one of six Great Hunger scholars who taking part in the National Famine Walk from May 27 to June 1, which will trace the steps of almost 1,500 people who, because of the famine conditions the country was facing, were evicted from the Denis Mahon’s Strokestown Park House estate in western Ireland to Dublin, where they then set off for Liverpool, and ultimately to Canada. The group, made up of men, women and children, walked the 100 miles to Dublin, and that is the route Kinealy and her fellow walkers are taking.

“That is the route that we will be following so we are really retracing their route,” said Kinealy, who also is the founding director of the Ireland Great Hunger Institute at the university, which runs the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum on Whitney Avenue.

Kinealy has done other walks that commemorate those who died during the famine, but those only totaled 10 or 11 miles, she said. It’s only the second time the National Famine Walk has taken place, she said — the first was two years ago, and it will be held every two years going forward. There is a group of six core walkers making the trek this year, including Kinealy, but there are others who will join them for a day along the way, she said.

She tried to physically prepare herself for the walk, but because she was in the United States, while the others are located in Ireland, it was difficult, she said.

“I’ve been trying to walk everywhere. I did a five-mile walk myself, but everyone else doing it is based in Ireland. I’m the outlier - I’m here by myself so I haven’t been able to prepare quite as much as them,” she said recently. “One of the women doing it this year also did it two years ago. Everyone will probably be better prepared than I am, but being in America just made it difficult for me to practice.”

The walk is similar to the Camino de Santiago — the Way of St. James — that begins in France and ends in Galicia, Spain at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great, made popular by the Martin Sheen and Emilio Estavez movie, “The Way.” In both cases, people living along the route open their homes to the walkers at night. But while people do the Camino any time of the year, the National Famine Walk is held once every two years and the walkers are chosen for their involvement in studies of the Great Hunger.

It is similar to Compostela — it is like a pilgrimage, Kinealy said.

“But the people who did it in 1847 were men, women and babies who walked 100 miles to Dublin, got in a ship to Liverpool and then sent to Canada because that was the cheapest place to go to. Seven hundred of them died on the way to Canada. It was very poignant because half of the people who took part in 1847 never made it to Canada,” she said.

As an Irish scholar, Kinealy is familiar with the plight of those who made the walk, she said. “I’ve known of this story for some time.”

Two years ago, the Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac had an exhibit on the Grey Nuns of Montreal, Sisters of Charity who provided aid to the immigrants after they arrived in Canada.

“The Grey Nuns offered to look after the orphans that survived. It’s a story I’m very familiar with, and the people organizing it (the walk) wanted historians participating who could speak to the history and explain what happened,” Kinealy said. “And even though other people asked if they could join, they said they wanted to keep it to the historians. Others can come in for a day, but not for the whole trip.”

After a career of studying the Great Hunger, this should give her a whole new perspective, Kinealy said. “I’ve studied the Great Hunger for many years, and think this is the closest you can get to feeling it, the anguish, the pain, the hardship. These people were hungry when they started, and then they got to Dublin, and got aboard a ship, heartbroken at having to leave their home. It’s almost like taking a pilgrimage, honoring their tremendous loss.”

They walk during the day and stay at the homes of locals at night, she said. “People along the route have made their houses available for the walkers to stay at night, so we will be staying in their homes and enjoying their hospitality,” she said. “People are very engaged with this story and want to help.”

She’s taking with her little more than the essentials, she said. “I’d love to take my dog but that would be a bit complicated,” she said.

“I think people realize the importance of this story and of remembering this sort of story,” she said. “There’s a hardship attached to emigration and it makes sense that people didn’t survive. That is why it’s so great that we have the museum now and it keeps the memory alive. We are trying to get the younger generation to understand — it’s their history, and there’s famine in the world today. I think it’s important to keep the younger generation engaged with this as well.”