Countdown to West Cork History Festival 2018!

As last year, Roaringwater Journal is very involved in the marvellous upcoming West Cork History Festival. We are both on the organising committee and this year we are leading field trips and chairing sessions, and I am giving a paper (more on that below). The Festival will be held in Skibbereen this week – 16th to 19th of August.

This is St Barrahane from Castletownshend. During the Thursday Field Trip we will be revealing his secret message

We haven’t had a lot to do with the detailed logistics or with the ultimate lineup of speakers – that is the purview of the Founders, Simon and Victoria Kingston. What a force they are! As you can imagine, organising a festival like this is an enormous amount of work and they do it while working full time, with two young children and a life lived between two countries – all while remaining cheerful, focussed, inventive and energetic. Here are Simon and Professor Roy Foster, our keynote speaker, talking last year about the upcoming festival.

Simon and Victoria are next door neighbours to the wonderful Liss Ard Estate. This place is dear to our heart as it’s where we were married, and they have been incredibly supportive of the festival, providing parking and accommodation.

While many of the speakers are academics and writers on the national scene, local historical societies are attending and volunteering and local experts have been persuaded to share their knowledge. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is a big part of the festival this year, with both Terri Kearney and Philip O’Regan on the program, and William Casey giving a talk and launching a book.

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads a walking tour of the historic town. Here he points out the building where O’Donovan Rossa founded his Phoenix Society, forerunner of the Fenians

We are looking forward to the field trips, a new addition this year and a popular one, given how quickly they booked up. Thursday’s focusses on archaeology and history and Friday’s on the Famine and Art.

Coppinger’s Court – these fortified mansions gradually replaced tower houses in the seventeenth century, during of the series of changes from Irish to Planter land ownership

The Festival aims to cover international, national and local themes and this year will, of course, focus partly on the events of 1918, with talks on WWI, Carson and Redmond, Women’s Suffrage and the great Flu epidemic. The Irish Revolutionary Period is the subject of several talks, by both academics and non-professionals, ranging from the hot topic last year, Protestants in West Cork, to the violence suffered by some women during that period.

Inspired by the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition currently running at Uillinn/West Cork Arts Centre, there is also a thread that looks at the intersection of art and history. It will be the main focus of Friday’s field trip, and run through sessions on Margaret Clarke, on Gothic art, on George du Noyer and most pointedly in the talk by Niamh O’Sullivan on the Coming Home Exhibition itself.

Stone Circle by George Victor du Noyer

We’re not forgetting the Medieval and Early Modern periods either. Dr David Edwards from UCC is recognised as an expert on Richard Boyle and on this period and his talk on Gaelic politics in the later Middle Ages should be fascinating. But never mind all that politics – what did people actually do back then, and what did they eat, before the advent of the potato?  Dr Susan Flavin is going to tell us that when she talks about ‘Food, Drink & Society in 16th century Ireland’.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork

Lots of local history too – on Cillíní (children’s burial grounds), women in the fishing industry, Sam Maguire and his memorial bells in Dunmanway, Pirates and treasure of the Coast of West Cork, and my own talk on Agnes Mary Clerke who grew up in Skibbereen during the famine and went on to become the most successful science-writer of her day, with a moon crater named in her honour.

Agnes Mary Clerke

That’s just a taster of the talks – there are lots more. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also film screenings, a concert by Jessie Kennedy based on the life of Lady Mary Carbery of Castle Freke, and a poetry reading by none other than Jeremy Irons! How can you resist that voice?

So if you don’t have your tickets yet, get them now. Yes, you’ll still be able to get them at the gate, but if you want to secure them now, do it online at this link.

Brabazon of Tara

Brabazon – that’s an unusual Irish family name that’s been around for very many generations. In fact, Finola’s maternal grandmother was one. A  Jacques le Brabazon was in the service of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the name is said to mean an inhabitant of the former province of Brabant, in Belgium. The current – 15th – Earl of Meath (of Killruddery, County Wicklow), John Anthony Brabazon, claims descent from Jacques. In 1534, Henry VIII sent Sir William Brabazon of Leicester to Ireland to serve as Vice-Treasurer – he founded the Wicklow dynasty. In the troubled Cromwellian times, another branch of the family settled firstly in Ballinasloe and then in Swinford, County Mayo. Earlier this year, Finola and I went up to Swinford for a family gathering and, for the occasion, I had to learn to play the two Planxty George Brabazon pieces by Turlough O’Carolan on my bosca ceol: here they are played – more appropriately – by a harp ensemble.

When I first learnt that the name had Irish connections I was fascinated, as I had known the word Brabazon from my early years in England and it’s one of those that is so striking, you just don’t forget it. I knew it in connection with an aeroplane – the Bristol Brabazon: it was the largest airliner ever built in Britain, something that impressed this four-year-old boy who saw it flying at the Farnborough Air Display in 1950. Not only was it large – it was elegant: my memory is of a gigantic all-silver bird, rising in a stately fashion over the crowds and disappearing into a blue sunlit sky. I demanded – and received – a model of it for a birthday or Christmas, sadly now gone the way of all such treasures. So, why the name? I didn’t know then – but I do now – that it was named after the grandly-styled Lieutenant-Colonel John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara GBE MC PC, who in 1943 chaired the Brabazon Committee which planned to develop the post-war British aircraft industry – one product of which was the factory in Bristol which produced and housed the behemoth.

Header – The Bristol Brabazon landing at the 1950 Farnborough Air Display: I was in the watching crowd! Upper – an excellent short documentary on the life and death of the Brabazon Aeroplane project. Above –the enormous Assembly Hangar at Bristol which was constructed to allow the Brabazon aircraft to be built. Outside stands the incomplete fuselage.

Brabazon’s Committee correctly anticipated that there would be a major development of civil aviation following the war, particularly for trans-Atlantic crossings. The plane was designed with two decks and luxurious accommodation: each passenger was to have a space equivalent to the inside of a modern car! Consequently the Brabazon had room for only 100 passengers, even though it compares in size to a present day Airbus A380, which can accommodate from 600 to 800 passengers, depending on the configuration. This shows up the fact – which the Committee didn’t seem to anticipate – that air travel would become accessible to all, and not just to those who could afford luxury. Another innovation of the Brabazon was the use of eight engines buried in the wings, coupled in pairs driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers to give a very low noise level in the passenger cabins, again to achieve maximum comfort.

Passenger accommodation in the Bristol Brabazon: comforts also included a dining room, sleeping berths and a cinema

That’s probably enough of my obsession with beautiful but impractical aeroplanes. This one ‘didn’t take off’ in that the post-war world wasn’t ready for it: there weren’t long enough runways, service facilities etc. Having been airborne only for publicity events between Bristol, Farnborough, London and Paris, the whole project – and the plane – was scrapped in 1953.

Let’s go back to the man himself – John Moore-Brabazon. Although he spent most of his life in the UK he was a descendant through a female line of Edward Brabazon, 7th Earl of Meath. He wasn’t shy of publicity: here he is in 1909 in Kent making porcine aviation a reality. He fixed a wicker basket to a wing strut of his Voisin biplane and carefully strapped a pig into it. The basket had a hand written sign . . . I am the first pig to fly . . . Then he took the bemused animal for a journey of about 3.7 miles from Shellbeach, the Short Brothers airfield at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. Brabazon’s family wealth had enabled him to learn to fly and to posses his own gliders and planes. He is noted as the first Briton to fly in Britain and, also in 1909, won the £1,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the first closed circuit of a mile in a British aeroplane. He was also the owner of the first pilot’s licence issued in the UK by the Royal Aero Club. In the First World War he was a pioneer of the Royal Flying Corps and had a leading role in the development of aerial photography. He also raced cars, together with Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) and was an unconventional yachtsman.

Apologies for the quality of this image, but it’s the only one available of Brabazon in 1930 with his gyro sail boat. Fiona Sinclair of the Amateur Yacht Research Society gives us the following information:

. . . this boat was adapted by John Brabazon in 1933. It is an autogyro, which means that the blades are not driving a propeller – the wind turbine is being used the same way as a sail. This is the earliest autogyro boat that I have found, and I think that we can safely credit Brabazon with the original concept of using the turbine force to drive a boat directly, since all the other people before him had only thought of using the turbine to drive a propellor. After all, the aircraft autogyro was only invented a couple of years earlier in 1930. This boat is called KESTREL, and the hull is an1896 Bembridge Redwing. This class has an unlimited sail plan – you can do whatever you like as long as the area is less that 200 sq ft. So Brabazon tried a whole lot of different sail rigs, including this one, which had a blade area of only 30 sq ft. King George V, who knew a lot about yachts, said “I have never seen a yacht sail so close to the wind”. . . Unfortunately, there was an accident in Cowes Harbour – Lord Brabazon shouted out “Let her go”, and his crew let go of the rotor instead of the boat, and then it could not be stopped, because the brake wasn’t strong enough. It was eventually stopped, after demolishing the next boat along. The moral of this tale is that you should be a bit more specific when giving instructions to your crew . . .

The boat was, and remains, dangerous but, as suggested above it was probably the first ever auto-gyro boat. The boat is currently in the collection of the Classic Boat Museum at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, and still ‘sails’.

A rather unexpected publicity item for Lord Brabazon of Tara – a fridge magnet base on a cigarette card image

Brabazon had a career in Parliament – both Commons and Lords, however he rather blotted his copybook when in 1942 he publicly expressed the hope that Germany and the Soviet Union, then engaged in the battle of Stalingrad, would destroy each other. Since the Soviet Union was fighting the war on the same side as Britain, the hope that it should be destroyed (though common in the Conservative Party) was unacceptable to the war effort, and Brabazon was forced to resign. His political affiliations were somewhat doubtful in any case as he had been associated with Oswald Mosley before the outbreak of war. Readers might remember my reporting on an Irish dimension to Oswald Mosley in an earlier post.

Left – Lord Brabazon wrote an autobiography in 1956; right – a portrait of Brabazon in his role of President of St Andrew’s Golf Club (Alfred Egerton Cooper – courtesy Royal Air Force Museum)

I haven’t mentioned other aspects of Brabazon’s sporting life: he excelled at golf and bobsledding. I found a curiosity in that he narrated the background track of an EP about British history in 1960. A reviewer has remarked:

. . . George Formby & Adolf Hitler on the same record, with Mussolini on backing harmonies apparently . . . A soundscape of the last century starting with the clip clop of a horse drawn cab and ending with the bleep bleep of Sputnik. In between the voices of Churchill, Hitler, Marie Lloyd, Caruso, Gracie Fields and Formby to name but a few. Commentary by Rt Hon Lord Brabazon of Tara whose fruity tones link one voice and sound effect to the next in a weird yet strangely comforting way . . .

An entertaining little taster – hopefully – about somebody who had Irish antecedents, but was essentially an English eccentric.

‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’

As you will know from these pages, ‘Ireland of the Saints’ is a country rich in treasures dating from medieval times. Architecture and stone carved ecclesiastical monuments were prolific on the island of Ireland, with many examples and fragments remaining. Finola has a series covering Romanesque Architecture, while I have always been on the lookout for High Crosses from the early medieval period. Over 250 examples of High Crosses are said to survive in Ireland, either complete or broken – a remarkable number. Without fail, all are beautiful, and wonderful examples of early art and craftsmanship.

When we are out and about, we usually don’t have to go very far off whichever route we are travelling to find more examples to add to our archive of The Irish High Cross. Last week was no exception: we were off to the Burren in County Clare to see a new exhibition of the work of our friend Keith Payne, and it was no trouble to take a little detour in County Clare to view ‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’ – Kilfenora. A wonderful carved capital on the Cathedral there is shown above (the drawing of it on the right is from Duchas). I knew the place because of its famous Ceilidh Band, but I am now aware that even this admirable institution must take second place to the Kilfenora High Crosses.

The most detailed description of the Kilfenora crosses was written by historian Jack Flanagan (1921 – 2014) and it’s available online, courtesy of Clare County Library. Jack lived most of his life around Kilfenora, and charts the fortunes of the High Crosses through the 20th century, mostly from his personal experience. Now they are well looked after – some are under a glass roof – but they have suffered various misfortunes throughout the last Millennium. Above are all that’s left of two of the crosses – both now protected.

You would hardly think of Kilfenora as a ‘city’ – but the hamlet of thatched dwellings was an important monastic centre from the days of  Saint Fachtnan (from County Cork) who founded it around 650AD. It has its Cathedral (above), although . . . it was the smallest with the poorest diocese in Ireland . . . (Flanagan). However in 1111 the Synod of Rathbreasail snubbed the claims for diocesan status by Kilfenora, and the O’Connors and the O’Loughlens came together in their desire to remain aloof from the Diocese of Killaloe which was very much under the patronage of the O’Briens. There was history here, as it was the O’Briens who had burned Kilfenora Abbey and its inhabitants in 1055. At the Synod of Kells in 1152 Kilfenora did succeed in its claims, and attained status as a separate diocese. It’s said that some of the High Crosses were carved and erected to celebrate this achievement.

If this is the case, then the Kilfenora High Crosses are relatively late examples of the art. This would seem to be borne out by the style of the finest of them – now known as the Doorty Cross – because the interlacing designs on the shaft are undoubtedly influenced by Scandinavian motifs. This, then, must have been a time when the Viking invaders were not only accepted but also assimilated into the artistic culture: this would have been the case by the mid twelfth century.

The Doorty Cross (upper, details from west and east faces and lower, Duchas drawing) has a partially traceable history. Jack Flanagan remembers when the main part of the shaft was in use as a grave slab of the Doorty family in the burial ground of the Cathedral, while the head was lying under the chancel arch in the sacristy. In the 1950s the two parts of the cross were reunited by the Office of Public Works, and the restored cross was erected next to the Doorty grave – hence this cross is now known as the Doorty Cross. Interestingly, there is an inscription on the base of the cross shaft which dates from 1752: this was buried when the cross was re-erected, but is now visible as the cross was removed into the new glass roofed shelter in the mid 2000s. The upper picture below shows the inscription visible today – it’s upside down on the raised cross: the lower picture shows a drawing made by Westropp in 1910 when the shaft was still used over the grave: the inscription can be read as IHS X V n D – the V n D stood for V ni Doorty.

The battle between the diocese of Kilfenora and Killaloe wasn’t quite won as they became combined in later years. Dr Richard Mant was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, and in that year he set out on a visitation of his two diocese. In early August he arrived in Kilfenora which he described as “the worst village that I have seen in Ireland and in the most desolate and least interesting country” . In a subsequent letter to a friend he describes;

. . .  On a visit to Kilfenora in 1820 where there had been five or six stone crosses I found two or three broken and laying on the ground, neglected and over-grown with weeds. On expressing my concern that these remnants of ecclesiastical antiquity were left in such a state, a clergyman of the parish proposed to send me one of them, which he said might be done without difficulty or danger of giving offence, as when they were brought to that state the people had no regard for them. One was accordingly sent to Clarisford, and I caused it to be erected among some trees in a picturesque spot, between the house and the canal, having inlaid the shaft with a marble tablet bearing the inscription annexed below. When my daughter was at Clarisford about three years ago, the cross was still standing, being considered “an ornament to the grounds” . . .

Upper picture – the High Cross which was taken from Kilfenora by Bishop Mant in 1821, and which has ended up – after a series of excursions – in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe. A translation of the Latin on the marble tablet which was placed there by the Bishop:

. . . R.M.S.T.P. (Bishop’s name and title) of both diocese, being solicitous for church antiquity, took care to erect at the See of Killaloe this cross which you see, and which collapsed at Kilfenora lest it entirely disappear through neglect, and by reason of the site A.D. 1821 . . .

It seems there was still little love lost between the two diocese. The Kilfenora Cross on the Hill has now been moved into the St Flannan’s Cathedral at Killaloe – and that’s where we saw it back in September last year. When you speak to local people in Kilfenora you get a sense that there are grumblings – they feel they would like their cross back: it would be one of the finest in the collection.

Left – the West Cross (see header picture and below) in 1910, possibly taken by Westropp: it’s still in situ to the west of the Cathedral today – the cathedral building is on the right of this photo. Right – the Doorty Cross standing beside the Doorty grave in 1980.

The West Cross at Kilfenora has escaped capture under the glass roof and still stands – probably where it always has – on a prominent knoll to the west of the Cathedral. It’s open to the elements, but seems to be in good condition. In some ways, the protection of these ancient pieces does in some way detract from their magnificence, but there’s no doubt that constant exposure to the weather extremes that we experience here in Ireland must ultimately adversely affect them. It’s a conundrum – and a debate we have touched on before.

Perhaps my own response to these protected High Crosses in Kilfenora is that I feel they are under-appreciated. I saw – at the height of the tourist season – coach-loads of visitors disembark, enter the sheltered enclosure, stand and look at the old stones for a few minutes and then file out. What did it all mean to them? There are interpretation boards but I doubt they get the message across: these are great monuments of the world, to be revered, respected and wondered at: these representations take you back through a thousand years of history: we are fortunate that we can still be in their presence.

Coming Home

It may seem strange to commemorate ‘The Great Hunger’ – the Irish famine years of 1845 – 1849 – with an art exhibition. Yet, when we look back on that time, 170 years ago, the only possible reaction to the starvation, mass graves and wholesale emigration which happened within the boundaries of the great British Empire (and not too far from its capital) is raw emotion: it’s a subject that can’t be intellectualised. The 1.4m high work above, by bog oak sculptor Kieran Tuohy from County Galway, is an example of an emotional response: hands hold up a group of anonymous and vulnerable figures.

John Coll’s piece, Famine Funeral (above), is also evocative. The exhibition at Uillinn in Skibbereen opened on Thursday and attracted a large and excited crowd; since then, record numbers of visitors have come daily to the town’s iconic gallery. The work is all from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which has the largest collection of Great Hunger-related art, and will be shown here in West Cork until 13 October.

Skibbereen was one of Ireland’s worst affected towns during the famine years, which makes the visit of this exhibition entirely appropriate. It has shown that our gallery is able to display a collection such as this of the highest calibre, giving the community an asset unique in rural Ireland. All credit must go to the Director, the staff and the Board of the West Cork Arts Centre who have worked hard to raise funds and make all this possible. Also Cork County Council have to be commended for finishing off the flood relief works and the associated landscaping around the gallery in time for the opening: Uillinn now features a significant architectural setting in the town centre. The photographs above were taken outside and inside the building on opening night.

With some exceptions (Glenna Goodacre’s bronze – Famine – is one, above), I am only showing extracts from the works in this review. The whole exhibition is so powerful that it has to be seen in real life, so I’m hoping that these tasters will persuade you to visit.

The artist Micheal Farrell (1940 – 2000) is well represented in the Quinnipiac Museum and some of his works have come to Skibbereen, including the enormous Black ’47 (4.5m wide and 3m high) a detail of which is shown in the upper picture above, with a detail from The Wounded Wonder below it. The Irish Times described Farrell’s largest work:

. . . Farrell’s canvas seems to float on a wall by itself in the museum. It is the trial of Charles Trevelyan, the British official who was in charge of Famine relief. Trevelyan stands in a searchlight shaft, a hand on one hip, embodying the arrogance of empire. The prosecutor gestures towards Irish skeletons rising from an open grave, evidence against the man who called the Famine “the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence” and a “mechanism for reducing surplus population” . . .

Dorothy Cross – Basking Shark Curragh (a comment on the vulnerability of Irish coastal communities in famine times) with Micheal Farrell’s The Wounded Wonder and Kieran Tuohy’s Thank You to the Choctaw beyond.

Also extracts: the upper image is from a powerful bronze work – The Leave-Taking by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain – and the lower image is part of The Last Visit by Pádraic Reaney.

Lilian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta (upper image) and Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees (lower) are both powerful statements on hunger and our own attitudes to the problems of the contemporary world.

At the opening of Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger – Cyril Thornton, Chairman of the West Cork Arts Centre made the following observations:

. . . We are formed by our memories, experiences, the voices of our ancestors carried through the ages that carry into the soul of who we are. When we refuse to listen to the voices of the past or learn from our ancestor’s achievements and mistakes we lose a piece of our soul.

In a world that appears to becoming more soulless and intolerant it is now more important than ever to shine a light on our past for another generation, not to blame or recriminate but to help them to shape a world where humanity will never accept that injustice, poverty or hunger can be imposed on those in need of support.

The memory of the death of over 1 million people and the subsequent emigration of another 1.5 million defines us as a nation. The bringing home of this exhibition in many ways is a cultural reconnection. Art in all its form captures emotions and feelings, this exhibition in so many ways captures the tragic emotion of An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger . . .

Detail from William Oliver Williams The Irish Piper 1874. Although painted after the ravages of The Great Famine this picture is said to imply that, despite hardship, the joyful side of Irish life was always irrepressible . . . whatever the occasion there was music and dancing . . . Below – powerful juxtaposition: a Rowan Gillespie figure seen against West Cork artist William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End.

Seeking Calm Now

What a week it’s been in our part of West Cork! Only the gentlest of images will help to bring me back to earth – hence the somewhat random collection of photographs today, some taken along the Toormore Loop Trail or in my own garden.

Along the Toormore Loop Trail

The highlight of the week was the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger – Robert has given you some sneak peaks into this incredible exhibition in his post. If you do nothing else in West Cork this summer, take in this experience.

Eyebright, along the trail

But that’s not all – we also attended the unveiling of the memorial to the 110 Skibbereen Girls, which I wrote about last week. Most movingly, the ceremony was attended by Judith Constable, the Great, Great Granddaughter (and her daughter) of one of those girls. This is a story of hope, of the bravery of those adventurous girls who accepted the passage to Australia and went on to have full lives in their adopted land. It reminds us that it is possible for individuals to transcend the wretchedness of their circumstances.

Above, Judith Constable – her Great Great Grandmother, Jean Leary, was pictured in my previous post on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. Below, the commemmorative spoons, finally installed, and the block of Australian stone.

And on Saturday night there was the long-anticipated performance of Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) at the ruins of the Schull Workhouse. We found ourselves seated outside the former hospital on the Workhouse grounds, listening to the unearthly lament of a chorus of voices, chanting the names of places stricken by famine, and then walking silently in a torchlight (well, lightstick) procession through the place where so many had come to die. It felt cathartic, respectful, important.

There was a memorial for Seamus Hogan too this week. He was one of us blow-ins to Ballydehob, a poet and raconteur and he will be much missed. His portrait was one of Shay Hunston’s finest and is reproduced here from Shay’s Wild Atlantic People series. It’s in a shop window in Ballydehob, across from his favourite hangout, Ina Daly’s pub.

Photo courtesy of Shay Hunston

And in between we had the launch of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival, which goes from strength to strength each year and which will keep us busy from July 27th to Aug 5th. The program includes many concerts, the world premier of the Asenath Nicholson play, poetry, art exhibitions, movie screenings, walking tours.

Finally, today, was the opening of the new Toormore Loop walk. I helped out by leading a wildflower walk around the small looped trail with a happy group of a dozen lovely people. The greatest reward – a mother telling me that even the kids enjoyed it!

I’m wiped! All this stimulation is wearing me out. I need to take up meditation so all together now. . . om. . .om. . .

Art and the Workhouse

Trump was not the first man who thought that separating desperate families applying for asylum provided an additional deterrent – that distinction belonged to the workhouse system in which men, women and children were kept apart once admitted.

Two distinct artistic projects centre on the remains of local workhouses in West Cork in the coming week. Both are associated with the highly anticipated Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger Exhibition at Uillinn.

Robert contemplates the memorial plaque at the famine graveyard in the grounds of the Skibbereen Community Hospital – the former site of the Workhouse. The towering wall remains from that time

How do we address the ghastly system that was The Workhouse? How can we look back on the barbarity of the political and economic philosophies that dreamed up such an institution and perpetrated such depths of misery on starving people? How do we remember without stirring up old hatreds and move instead to a place of compassion and healing, a place of determination not to repeat such atrocities in this country? Perhaps one way is though art. Two distinct artistic approaches have been underway in West Cork for some time and each will culminate this week.

What’s left of the Schull Workhouse. It was destroyed by the IRA during the War of Independence. The dreaded reception area is on the right, and in the initial photograph

Before I talk about the two projects, take a moment here to revisit my 2014 post on the Workhouse. It explains the Workhouse system and has links to more information. You might also, if you haven’t already done so, read what Asenath Nicholson had to say about dire poverty and the Bantry Workhouse.

Jean Leary was one of the 110 Skibbereeen girls – here she is celebrating her 50th wedding anniversay in Australia. Thank you to her great, great……granddaughter Judith Constable for sharing this photograph. Judith will be travelling from Australia to attend the unveiling of the memorial on Friday

Artist Toma McCullim’s project centres on the Skibbereen Workhouse and is called 110 Skibbereen Girls. The Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme provided passage to Australia for young women. The young women from Skibbereen left a difficult present for an unknown future, and it is estimated that perhaps 10,000 Australians trace their descent to them. There is an excellent account of the project in the Irish Times and another in the Examiner.

Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

I participated in a Walk and Talk with Toma in the grounds of the former Skibbereen Workhouse, now the Community Hospital. It was a deeply moving experience, as Toma asked us to imagine ourselves in the position of one of the girls, and talked us through the events of their lives. We started at what was once the Women’s Entrance and walked up to the graveyard.

We chose an apple and mine represented Alice Fitzgerald. It was all too easy to slip into the past with Toma, and a very emotional experience. Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

Toma is a gifted educator: her tour immersed us in the lives of the young women in an imaginative and emotive way. The pièce de résistance, however, was when her phone rang, and on the line from Australia was a descendent of one of ‘our’ girls. It was a telling moment, somehow underscoring the resilience and heroism of the girls who had made such a difference in the land of their adoption.

The phone call from Australia

It is at the Women’s Entrance that the commemorative sculpture will be unveiled next Friday (July 20th, 2018) by the Australian Ambassador. All are welcome.

Installation underway

The following day (Saturday, July 21, 2018) we have another workhouse-based art project. It’s called Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) and it’s a multi-media performance by Alanna O’Kelly. Here’s the description:

The audience will proceed into the ruins of Schull Workhouse, where they will be immersed by fragmented sounds, layered imagery and light, surrounded by the silence and vastness of the countryside, and the stories of the thousands who were silenced by the Great Hunger. The performance will run as a series of vignettes that will reference some of the stories of the Great Hunger in West Cork, both historic and contemporary.

The only current inhabitants of the Schull Workhouse

Some friends are participating in the performance and, based on their experience in rehearsal, are urging everyone to go to what promises to be a deeply moving and artistically striking event. Robert and I have our tickets (they are available on Eventbrite).

Schull Workhouse ‘Mortuary Hospital’

I never thought I would get to attend something like this at the Schull Workhouse. In my Workhouse post I described the ‘aura of decay and sadness’ that resonates there, an echo of the misery that was visited upon the inmates. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Alanna uses the site in her performance piece, as expressed here:

She has a deep interest in place, people, community, our past and its effect on our present, the shaping of our culture, our identity and relationship to the world community and she is drawn to the particularities of place and context.

Workhouses stand out in Irish history as the most hated, feared and despised buildings in the land. The gaunt remnants that dot the countryside act as a constant reminder of a dark time in our collective memory. Perhaps through art we can begin to focus on a more hopeful and healing integration of that period: both a rejection of those values and compassion for those who suffered. We need, in Ireland, that kind of negotiation with our past.