Exhibit A: John Behan's Coffin Ship Galway
Look. Now look more closely at the fragmented sails and rigging of John Behan's Coffin Ship Galway, for they are made out of human skeletons, just some of the cargo of dead humans on this ghost ship bound for a better life, for freedom. Death is perhaps indeed a form of escape, though not the freedom the occupants of this boat had dreamt of.
In 1847, some 200,000 people sailed for Boston alone during our Great Famine. Of this, 2,000 never made it to their destination, killed by disease and hunger during the voyages, their remains consigned to a watery grave. The St. John was one such a boat, sunk off the coast of Massachusetts in October 1849. The ship had sailed from Galway, loaded with passengers some desperate enough to walk from Clare to reach the ship. Most hideously of all, it survived the journey across the Atlantic only to sink within sight of the promised New World.
This unsettling and intriguing bronze piece features in a new Famine exhibition of Behan's sculptures currently on display in Dublin's Solomon Gallery (solomonefineart.ie). Dublin-born Behan has long been captivated by this time in Irish history and the theme of the famine ship has endured through his work for decades. One of his sculptures Arrival was commissioned by our Government and presented to the United Nations in 2000, where it is permanently sited outside the UN buildings in New York.
Behan is keen to interweave our history with our current selves. And, in this new exhibition, Behan also reminds us that the Famine is still with us... our most tragic past is Africa's present.