“A terrible apathy, like that which oppresses a plague-driven people, seems to hang over the poor of Skibbereen ... One scanty funeral is fast followed by another and that by another.”
— Editorial from The Cork Examiner, December 1846 [quote sourced by UCC historian Laurence Geary]
Skibbereen is one of the jewels of west Cork, the bustling town’s charm and vibrancy a draw for visitors from all over the world. It is hard to comprehend that a little over 150 years ago, it was a hellish landscape, ravaged by poverty and death. Described as the ‘ground zero’ of the Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852, the town and its surrounding areas were scoured by hunger and decimated by emigration.
The local workhouse was seen by many as a chance for survival, but once they got there, cholera and typhoid often claimed them. The horror and scale of the Famine meant the chance of escape was seized by many. Under the Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme, suitable girls between 14 and 18 years old were selected to go to Australia, where at that time, there were nine men for every woman. Skibbereen Workhouse offered more girls than anywhere outside Dublin — 110 in all.
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. Artist Toma McCullim explores the poignant story of these girls in 110 Skibbereen Girls, a year-long project which will culminate with the unveiling of a sculpture made from bronze and Sydney sandstone later this month.
The girls are represented by 110 spoons, sculpted from beeswax and cast in bronze, which will be embedded into the remaining walls of the Skibbereen Workhouse at Skibbereen Hospital Campus, where there is also a famine burial ground. The spoons have been made by the staff and residents of the hospital. McCullim says she chose spoons as the central element of the artwork for a number of reasons.
“The girls were given a bowl and a spoon going to Australia. The idea of a spoon is being able to feed yourself. It’s also one of the objects they found when they recently did archaeological work at the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney [where emigrants would have arrived].
"Also because I’m working with people who have dementia and other cognitive problems, I needed something that was simple for them to make and understandable. Working with beeswax was very immediate. Each ones of the spoons is very individual, one can see the thumbprints, it is amazing how it all comes out.”
The project has been managed by Justine Foster of the Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, which has co-ordinated a programme of events around the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition which it hosts until October. It is the world’s largest collection of art relating to the Great Famine and is held permanently in Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut.
According to director Ann Davoren, the themes of the exhibition and the 110 Girls project will have strong resonances for audiences today.
“Skibbereen is almost a memorial itself to the Great Hunger because it was totally decimated, it almost disappeared off the map. We have quite a large programmes of events which amplify the themes in the exhibition, looking at the contemporary themes of famine today, and also food security, migration, emigration, displacement of peoples, identity, loss, memory. The exhibition not only has very significant historical artworks but also contemporary artwork. The contemporary artists are thinking about the contemporary world as well as the legacy of the Great Famine and how it has influenced and conditioned our identity.”
Toma McCullim says the seeds of the 110 Skibbereen Girls project were sewn during her work in various arts programmes at the Skibbereen Hospital Campus, site of the old workhouse.
“When you’re out there, surrounded by these very old walls, it does make you question the legacy of the workhouse. I was asking what effect does that legacy have on workers and residents? In the psychiatric unit and the hospital, it is mostly older people. Those people have a far greater connection with the workhouse and the famine. One of the male residents in the hospital, his father would have actually been a teacher in the workhouse. That is a very immediate relationship.”
When McCullim spoke to Terri Kearney of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, she heard about the Earl Grey Scheme and the girls who were sent to Australia.
“She told me about the diaspora from Australia that come into the centre, looking for their connection to these girls.”
The girls were known as ‘the breeders’ and on average, would have had eight children each. According to McCullim, it is conservatively estimated that there are at least 10,000 descendants of the girls in Australia.
“They were being farmed by the colonial government to Australia, as their worst nightmare was that the men would find Aboriginal wives. They needed these white women for this large new colony which was only colonised 16 years before.”
McCullim says that the experience was probably a surreal one for the girls involved, going from extreme poverty and hunger to being given new clothes and as much food as they could eat.
“They were well treated on the boats. They knew exactly what they wanted from these girls, they were fed right up; they gave them half-a-pound of meat a day, beef dripping, sugar and tea. Imagine coming out from the workhouse and being given all of this. They were also given a trousseau, with two specially-made dresses, five pairs of stockings, two underskirts, two pairs of shoes. Before that, everybody had sold everything. There were three pawn shops in Skibbereen and everybody had pawned everything they could.”
However, McCullim says that rather than viewing the girls as victims, she wanted to pay tribute to their bravery in leaving everything they knew and everyone they loved in search of a better life.
“I think people forget how bad Skibbereen was….we are talking about the invitation to leave piles of skeletons. People couldn’t even bury their loved ones. It was so horrific. But that was not the story I wanted to build on — I wanted to tell the story of the bravery of the girls. For me, it is a story about the heroism of these young girls who had been through so much. They did not give up. That is the powerful part of this story. Even if they are having to work with an agenda that is outside of them, they are doing whatever it takes to actually make a life.”
McCullim has been contacted by several descendants of the girls since she began work on the project. Two descendants of one of the 110 girls, Jane Leary, will be coming to Skibbereen for the unveiling of the sculpture.
“The story that has passed down from Jane Leary was that she was told her brothers were in Australia but when she arrived, they weren’t there. She thought they might have gone to America, she didn’t know where they were. There are other stories where the authorities lied to the girls, telling them they had relatives in Sydney, that it was only a short walk from Melbourne,” says McCullim.
However, she adds that many of the women, including Jane Leary, went on to have successful marriages and good lives in Australia. McCullim says the project has been a hugely rewarding one for the staff and residents of Skibbereen hospital.
“Some of the people who worked on it found it really amazing that they were making a public artwork out of bronze that would outlast all of us. My idea at the beginning was to make those connections between residents and staff, so that they were on a level playing field, it was an ‘us’ instead of a ‘them and us’.
It has worked brilliantly. One of the psychiatric patients got so enthusiastic and one of the staff was the same and they shared that and did the research together. That is the type of thing I wanted to do. It is an act of healing really. It is a human story that affects all of us and doing something about it makes us feel better about our relationship with ourselves and each other.”
McCullim hopes that those returning to west Cork to explore their Irish connections will also find solace and hope in the sculpture.
“I want this to be a kind of touchstone for the diaspora, that they have this link that honours the fact that this where they come from. The famine graveyard is at the back of the hospital, but that is a story of the dead — this is a story of the living.”