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.

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