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.

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.