Out in the Field

During the West Cork History Festival field trips, led by Roaringwater Journal last week, treats were in store. Many thanks to volunteers Jenny and Ray who worked hard to provide the refreshments (and who baked the scones!) on Friday’s ‘Art and The Great Famine’ excursion, which arrived at Reen Farm in time for tea.

Artist John Kelly‘s cows are abundant at his home at Reen, and the experience of the connections with this unique place and Famine times were admirably and sensitively presented by Siobhan Burke of West Cork Experiences (she’s on the left, facing the bronze tree, below).

The day included organised visits to the 110 Skibbereen Girls project at the old workhouse site in Skibbereen – where we were given a presentation by artist Toma McCullim – and a guided tour by West Cork Arts Centre’s Zenda Williams of the Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, followed by a visit to the mass famine graves in Abbeystrewery, where Philip O’Reagan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre explained the site’s enormous significance. Just as well we had those scones to bolster us up!

On the previous day we began the ‘West Cork Archaeology’ tour at Knockdrum Fort, where – in benevolent weather – you get the most spectacular views (above). Finola talked about the Rock Art on the site, which takes it back in time perhaps 5,000 years, and she also explained about the alignment with the Bealtaine sunset discovered by Boyle Somerville, described here – and which we witnessed ourselves earlier this year (below).

Highlights of that day’s expedition also included an entertaining time at Castletownshend hosted by George Salter-Townshend (below, he’s leading us into the Castle which has been owned by his family since medieval times).

After more on archeoastronomy from Finola, at Drombeg Stone Circle (above), a further treat was in store at Castle Salem, near Rosscarbery, where we were given a tour and talk by its owner Peter Daly (below).

We were delighted to be given the opportunity to provide this ‘lead-in’ to the History Festival weekend itself which – as last year – was a roaring success. If you didn’t go to it, take a look at the festival programme, and see what you missed!

Because our time has been taken up with the festival we haven’t written any posts this weekend. Normal service will be resumed next week. I can’t resist finishing off with another look at John Kelly’s sculpture garden at Reen.

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.