Gallery exhibit explores legacy of Ireland’s famine

HUNTINGTON, Ind. Messengers of Yesterday, a photography exhibit by Cynthia O'Dell, will be on exhibit in the Robert E. Wilson Gallery at Huntington University from now until Oct. 17. On Saturday, Sept. 27, the public is invited to hear O'Dell speak about her work. The reception will take place in the Wilson Gallery from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Admission to the exhibit is free, and the gallery is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., before and after all Merillat Centre for the Arts performances and by appointment.

In Messengers of Yesterday, O'Dell, a photography professor, explores the legacy of Ireland's 1845-1852 famine, also known as An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), and the perpetual migration narrative that has shaped Ireland's identity since that great trauma.

Photographs of her ancestors, engravings from the Illustrated London News and quotes taken from the "1937 Schools' Folklore Scheme," commissioned by the Irish Folklore commission, have been transferred to transparencies and re-photographed in the contemporary Irish landscape.

The quotes give privilege to folk memory and those who attempt to remember this great trauma in Irish history and the illustrations from the Illustrated London News (published between 1845 and 1852) demonstrate the significant changes to the land since then. Simultaneously, the photographic transparency layered over the contemporary landscape becomes a metaphorical device, exploring dislocation and absence, as the past and present visually entwine.

O'Dell grew up with what she calls an inheritance of longing. As a child, her own family's narrative was one of dislocation, due to lost homes, expulsion from rental properties and disrupted family dynamics. This prompted a nostalgic yearning for a vague Irish heritage. This early life experience dovetailed with stories of her ancestors being forced to leave Ireland, and so her empathy for that kind of dislocation and loss of place continually draws her there.

The project seeks to validate the cultural memory of a community, explores the lineage of colonization, and examines a legacy of dislocation. O'Dell is attempting to re-position the famine within a 21st century framework, from the perspective of an American with Irish ancestry. The project debuted in Ireland at the National Famine Commemoration (May 2013).

For more information about Huntington University's Robert E. Wilson Gallery, log on to To learn more about O'Dell and her work, visit