Uillinn – Surviving and Thriving

Uillinn, Skibereen’s unique contemporary art gallery, is thriving and surviving while apparently ‘under siege’ from the onslaught of the major engineering works engulfing the town centre at the moment. It’s all about making the town and its buildings safe from future flooding: extreme weather conditions – which are likely to get worse as the years go by – are threatening Cork city and many of the low-lying  West Cork communities and works are now in hand to protect these settlements against serious flooding into the foreseeable future. The result is a whole lot of disruption but, as always, imperturbable Cork Rebels are just getting on with life in spite of it all.

Peace and quiet in Skibbereen, before the works commenced. Header picture – the Caol Stream reflected on the canopy of the cantilevered gallery

When the West Cork Arts Centre took the plunge to propose a significant arts gallery in Skibbereen back in the early years of the new Millennium, an architectural competition was held. In 2009, the winning design, by Dublin based Donaghy and Dimond Architects, proposed a dramatic 5-storey high Corten steel-clad box cantilevering over the Caol Stream that runs beside the site, gaining valuable ‘bonus’ space for accommodating the work of the Centre. In fact, the name Uillinn means ‘elbow’, and the gallery is situated on a bend – or elbow – of the stream. Economically – after the collapse of the Tiger years – it was a difficult time for Ireland and numerous projects were being cut or shelved, but work on the gallery went ahead, although not without compromise. Here’s an excellent article from the Irish Times which charts the progress of the building process.

Now, the gallery is facing new challenges as the flood relief works are encroaching on the surroundings of the building. The basis of the engineering solution to protect Skibbereen from further floods is to build high, waterproof walls around every watercourse in and around the town. The principal one of these is the River Ilen, which skirts the north side of the town. However, the Caol Stream – a tributary of the river – runs right through the commercial centre, and right by Uillinn. Finola has written about the abundant natural life that was contained in this stream, albeit much of it partly hidden from view. Everything is changing now, as the sides of the waterway are being steel-piled and concrete walls are being built up to a height of 1100mm all the way around it, as you can see in the photographs below. In places, toughened glass sheets will be inserted in perforations in the retaining walls to enhance the structure and allow views to the water.

Of course, a fresh ecosystem will establish itself in the new, concrete-encased channel, although the character of it is sure to change. Uillinn’s problem is that it is bounded by the stream all the way along its east elevation – and the main entrance is via a bridge (now temporarily dismantled) over the waterway.

Close work: the channel of the Caol Stream is being excavated and then lined as it passes beside Uillinn. The bridge providing the main access to the gallery has been removed to allow these works to proceed

In spite of all these works (which, for Skibbereen as a whole, won’t be finished until 2019) Uillinn – and the renowned Kalbo’s Café which it embraces – have to remain open and viable at all times. This is being achieved by constant liaison and close co-operation with the contractors, Jons Civil Engineering, appointed by Cork County Council, as agents of, and in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Although delayed by the ravages of Hurricane Ophelia and other severe winter storms, the contractors have pulled out all the stops in order to restore normality to the centre of the town as soon as possible and have managed to maintain full access to the gallery and cafe, and all premises in the path of the works, although some disruption to businesses in such circumstances is inevitable. On the west side of the Caol Stream, between Uillinn and Skibbereen’s Main Street, a disused single story shop has been purchased and demolished, and its site now provides a new pedestrian access to the gallery – and it’s one which will continue to be used once everything is finished and the bridge is restored. Suitably streetscaped, the overall approach to Uillinn will be much improved as a consequence of all these works.

The ‘old shoe shop’ (top) was an unusual structure, partly cantilevered out over the Caol Stream. Its removal (lower pictures) has enabled an extra pedestrian access to be established from Main Street

As a member of the Board of Uillinn, closely involved with much of the liaison between the gallery personnel and the contractors, I can confirm that relations have at all times been caring, cordial and helpful, and I commend those involved in the physical work for their skills and approachability through all the potential difficulties. I also commend the Director, Anne Davoren, and her dedicated team at the gallery for keeping cheerful and smiling throughout, and always maintaining a smooth efficiency. The staff of Kalbo’s Café have also kept up their impeccable standard of service and remain such an asset to Uillinn.

It’s unlikely that things will be back to normal before the opening of Uillinn’s momentous venture on 20 July this year – Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

. . . The exhibition of artworks at Uillinn, including work by major Irish and Irish American artists of the past 170 years such as Daniel Macdonald, Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats, William Crozier, Hughie O’Donoghue, Dorothy Cross and Alanna O’Kelly, will be accompanied by a rich and diverse programme of performances, talks, lectures and events at Uillinn, and off-site in other locations in West Cork. These will resonate with the history and legacy of the Great Hunger and also amplify the contemporary themes explored in the exhibition. The themes include famine, the politics of food, poverty, displacement of peoples, refugees, emigration, identity, memory and loss . . .

We are all looking forward to the launch of this unique event in Skibbereen, and we know our contractors will ensure that everything will be done to prioritise good access and presentation of the gallery through the duration of the exhibition.

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger runs from 20 July to 13 October at Uillinn, Skibbereen

Down By The Old Caol Stream

Skibbereen has a flooding problem and the flood-relief project is in full swing now. A lot of it concerns the stream that runs through the town, under several bridges, past Field’s supermarket and the West Cork Arts Centre, to empty into the Ilen River by Thornhill’s Furniture Shop. The stream is tidal, creating flooding hazards from above and below.

The lush growth along the stream: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Valerian, Twiggy Mullein and Bindweed; Red Valerian and Twiggy Mullein; Twiggy Mullein close-up.
Clockwise  from Left: Field Bindweed and Meadowsweet; Hemlock Water-dropwort (yes, as it sounds, poisonous!); Red Valerian and Monkeyflower

While the stream has enormous potential to be an attractive part of Skibbereen’s urban environment, nobody could call it beautiful – it’s neglected, choked with ‘weeds,’ and full of rubbish. But wait – it also happens to be home to an astonishing variety of wildflowers!

A sea of yellow. Clockwise from Top Left: Marsh Marigold; Marsh Ragwort (not the unwanted Common Ragwort); Monkeyflower; Yellow Water-lily

Or rather, it WAS home to the wildflowers. As the project advances, the flowers have become collateral damage in the march forward of the steel barrier that will (we hope) keep flood waters contained. Most of us who shop in Skibbereen cross the bridges over the Caol Stream (pronounced Kale, Irish word for ‘narrow’) several times a week, normally without a glance over the side.

This is Water Figwort, closely related to Common Figwort but adapted to an aquatic environment
Clockwise from Left: Yarrow – although Yarrow is mostly white, this one is a lovely deep pink; Short-Fruited Willowherb; Snow-in-Summer or Dusty Miller

I decided to record the biodiversity of the stream flora before it disappeared and took photographs over the course of the spring and summer. It’s amazing really, what flourishes in such an unpromising environment. This photo-essay is an homage to what I observed.

Clockwise from Left: Ivy-leaved Toadflax (look for it on the wall); Common (or possibly Long-headed) Poppy; Marsh-bedstraw

Purple Loosestrife

Stream beds are a particular type of habitat. Tony O’Mahony in his magisterial Wildflowers of Cork City and County, points out that riverine habitats provide a welcome environment not only for native, but also for naturalised alien plants. Combined with the fact that the Caol Stream runs through a town with cultivated gardens backing on to it, this means that many of the wildflowers I saw are non-native, naturalised species. But all, native and non-native, are uniquely adapted to this watery channel, even tolerating periods under water.

The area behind the steel barrier is being filled in with gravel. I don’t know if it will be topped with soil. Hoping so.
Left: Below the uppermost bridge. Right: the stream where it empties into the Ilen – the vegetation has already been stripped

Wildflowers are incredibly resilient. One of their favourite habitats is waste ground – no sooner is a plot of land disturbed than the flowers move in. My prediction is that, despite the seemingly barren and hostile environment created by the sterile gravel fill behind the steel barriers, we will start to see, as early as next spring, the shoots of little plants moving in to colonize the available space. The Willowherbs first, perhaps, followed by Loosestrife and maybe Figwort.  And of course good old Herb Robert (below), which seems to survive and thrive just about anywhere


This is a highly poisonous plant called Lords and Ladies – perhaps we could do without this one, although no doubt there are critters that depend on this too

Direct access to the water will no longer be as easy, though, because of the steel barriers, so the flowers may take on a different character. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next few years. Keep watching!

The Community Orchard seems to be far enough upstream that it may escape major flood works. This is a beautiful and contemplative place. I was shown around by an eager young boy who knew the names of all the plants

This is what it looks like now – the view from the upper of the two bridges leading to Fields

What can you identify in this picture?