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.

The Workhouse

The ruins of the Schull Worhouse

The ruins of the Schull Workhouse

Of all the old ruined or abandoned buildings that dot the countryside of Ireland, one type has the distinction of being the most hated – the workhouse. Many have disappeared: most of the West Cork workhouses have been pulled down or completely rebuilt as community hospitals. A few hints remain – a wall here, a shed there. The workhouse in Schull, although in a ruinous state, has managed to maintain enough of a presence to remind us of its former role in the community. Surrounded by a high stone wall, you can still see parts of the administration building where inmates were admitted, remains of the dormitories and the hospital.

Administration Building and Entrance to the Workhouse

Administration Building and Entrance to the Workhouse

We wander around a lot of ruins here in West Cork, but this one is different. No good feelings emanate from these walls. Instead, an aura of decay and sadness lies thick upon the site. We found ourselves exploring in silence, contemplating the misery that was the inevitable condition of those who entered.

Schull Workhouse Plan

Schull Workhouse Plan

Workhouses were built throughout the nineteenth century in Ireland. The philosophy of charity prevailing at the time dictated that the workhouse must represent the absolute last resort of the desperate – those who could no longer feed, clothe or house their families or themselves. Once admitted, families were separated and might never see each other again. All inmates were assigned hard labour, although some rudimentary schooling was provided for children. There was no comfort, little sanitation, crowded conditions and meagre allowances of food.

One of the most intact spaces

One of the most intact spaces

The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna has an excellent website if you want to learn more about the Irish context, but the site that dwarfs all others in the sheer amount of information is The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution, created and maintained by Peter Higginbotham. He makes the point that not all was bad about workhouses, that many workhouses in Britain provided inmates with sanctuary, life-saving treatment and skills. This is not their reputation in Ireland, however, where their memory evokes dread and abhorrence.  Part of this is rooted in their response to the Great Famine of 1845-49. Established to provide Inside Relief many of them initially turned away those who came to the gates asking not to be admitted but to be fed. For those inside, conditions at this time were appalling. As an example, the Durrus History Blog records the report of a Dr Stephens on a visit to the Bantry Workhouse in 1847.

A kitchen, perhaps?

A kitchen, perhaps?

The workhouse in Schull was not built until 1851, in the aftermath of the Famine. It was burned down in 1921 during the War of Independence (there’s an account here), as were many workhouses, to prevent it being used as a barracks by the British army. When the Irish Free State was established, one of the first acts of the new government was to abolish the despised workhouse system and transfer its responsibilities to a new Ministry of Health.

The hospital wing?

The hospital wing?

Because all Irish workhouses were designed by the same man, to one plan, you can get a better idea of how the Schull workhouse might have looked on Tarquin Blake’s brilliant Abandoned Ireland website. An exception to this sameness was the Durrus Grainstore, pressed into service as an auxiliary workhouse at the height of the hunger for a couple of years.

Durrus Grainstore. Photo by Amanda Clarke of Sheep's Head Places.

Durrus Grainstore. Photo provided by Amanda Clarke of Holy Wells of Cork