Artist Toma McCullim led an exploration into the stories of the 110 Skibbereen girls as a catalyst to nurture a sense of place and a community of interest between the people living, working and visiting Skibbereen hospital campus.
110 Skibbereen Girls explores the poignant story of 110 girls from Skibbereen who escaped famine for Australia in 1848. The Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme, named after the Colonial Secretary who enacted it, had two main aims: to reduce overcrowding in the workhouses through an assisted emigration scheme and to send female immigrants to settle in Australia where at the time men outnumbered women.
The Board of Guardians in every Union put forward the names of suitable girls, aged between 14 and 18 years of age. Skibbereen Workhouse offered the most girls of anywhere outside Dublin – 110 girls. The young girls recruited for the scheme were expected to work as domestic servants on arrival in Australia, until they reached an age to marry a suitor. The girls did not necessarily have to be orphans, but for whatever reason, were no longer living with their families. They were to be of good character, unmarried and with no children, so that there were no encumbrances to marrying Australian settlers. It is estimated that there are at least 10,000 descendants of the girls.
The yearlong project took place across the campus involving everyone in the research of the girls’ stories. One hundred and ten sculpted spoons were made by staff, residents and visitors to the Skibbereen Hospital Campus.
There were a number of layers in which participants engaged with the project including week to week workshops across the year were held in the Day Care Centre, Community Hospital and Mental Health Residential Centres with residents, visitors and staff.
There were three residencies at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre (six weeks), Skibbereen Hospital Campus (two weeks), and again at Uillinn (three weeks). During each of these residencies many talks, workshops and discussions were held in studio and on-site. This became a web of encounters where a community of interest grew and spread across the locality.
The artist visited existing groups at Uillinn such as Rusty Frog Youth Theatre, Arts for an Active Mind, Arts Participation QQI students, the Contemporary Dance group and other groups in the community including St. Gobins, Bantry Art Group, and Skibbereen Luncheon Club.
Spoons were chosen for their special resonance: as a symbol of food, as anthropomorphic shapes, and as one of the objects allocated to each girl on her journey. Beeswax sheets for honey hives were chosen as a medium for lost wax process which allowed us to work in the permanency of bronze.
This wax was particularly suited to people experiencing cognitive dissonance as it is multi-sensory, non-toxic, easily manipulated, it smells of honey and carries the tactile imprints of the honeycomb.
The threat of modern famine from losing pollinators was suggested and the folklore of the bee discussed.
The activity of holding the wax in one’s hand and slowly working it into a spoon shape gave the time to reflect on the girls’ stories. Staff and residents alike remarked on how touching it was to think that they were making one individual girl’s representative object. As we worked, I shared information that I had gathered about the girls and their lives.
Residents in the hospital shared their recollections, increasing their sense of self-worth in the important contribution they were making. The conversations rippled out into the community and in turn returned, growing the network of relationships within the campus and strengthening participants’ sense of place and connection.
I was keen to integrate the sculpture into the boundary walls at the arch of the former doorway into the women’s section of the workhouse. Through contacting the Australian Embassy we had a large slab of Australian sandstone donated. The action of standing on the stone and touching the bronze
spoons lets people be active participants in a kind of ritual action which I think of as a type of Famine Lament.