By Denise Gilardone
As a prosperous businessman whose family made its fortune in the 19th-century China Trade, Robert Bennet Forbes wasn’t the most likely candidate to help famine victims in Ireland. Yet, in the winter of 1847, Captain Forbes and his brother, John Murray Forbes, partnered with the New England Relief Committee to organize a relief effort. On the U.S. Navy’s USS Jamestown, Captain Forbes and his crew carried 800 tons of food and other provisions to Cork, Ireland.
“This is really the story of the first organized international aid project,” said Susan Lachevre, Forbes House Museum trustee. “The initiative quickly spread, from children donating pennies to railroads offering transportation assistance. All the donations – money, food, supplies and related services – were gathered in a matter of weeks. The mission captured the attention of all of New England and beyond,” Lachevre noted.
This remarkable humanitarian effort is chronicled in “The Irish Atlantic,” an exhibit at the Massachusetts Historical Society featuring many artifacts from the Forbes House Museum collection. The exhibition explores 175 years of Irish experiences in Boston, from the founding of the Charitable Irish Society in 1737, through the famine relief project, colorful history of community building, and well-known examples of Irish descendants as prominent political and civic leaders.
Once the Massachusetts Historical Society exhibit closes on September 22, items from the museum’s collection, including the wheel of the Jamestown presented to Forbes, will return to the museum. These artifacts and others, such as personal items taken on the voyage, significant documents, and tributes and testimonials from the Irish government and people, will be featured this fall in new exhibits space at the museum.
“Our rotating exhibits room will provide a dynamic new facet to our historic house,” explains Heidi Vaughan, Forbes House Museum Executive Director. “With a calendar of exhibitions organized by other institutions, coupled with exhibits showcasing less-familiar pieces from the museum’s own collection, there will always be a new reason to visit, or revisit, the Forbes House,” Vaughan added.
In addition to the recently-designed exhibit room, the museum’s extensive renovations over the past year include restoration of the house’s north and south porches, as well as new handicap access and facilities. A state appropriation administered by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, supplemented with grants from the Milton Woman’s Club and other donors, provided the funding.
For more information about the “The Irish Atlantic,” see www.masshist.org. Details about the Forbes House Museum’s exhibit opening, new house tours and upcoming events will be available on the museum’s website, www.forbeshousemuseum.org. Built in 1833 as the home of Margaret Perkins Forbes and her family, the museum on Adams Street has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966.