The woollen red cardigan that Connie Robert wore as a child of four before the industrial school took her away hangs recreated in crushed glass in the National Museum of Ireland. She had written a poem about it some years ago after it was found in a suitcase above a press following the death of her mother, bringing with it a fresh round of memories and sorrows.
“There were six crude mendings in it and I could picture my mother darning it by the range, waiting for me to come home,” she says.
Connie, now aged 56 and a 36-year resident of the US, didn’t come home for 12 years after she was sent to Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, Co Westmeath, to the grief of her battered mother who lost all 15 of her children to institutions because of the violence of her alcoholic husband. Now the artistic representation of the cardigan and Connie’s poem form part of an absorbing new exhibition in the museum’s Collins Barracks campus.
(A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths is the work primarily of Northern Ireland artist Alison Lowry. She has selected items that symbolise some of the darkest parts of Ireland’s recent history — industrial schools, mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries — and recreated them in pate de verre, layers of crushed glass made into a paste and fused into shapes with both strength and fragility.
In one display, pairs of glass scissors are suspended from rosary beads above a pile of cruelly hacked hair, remembering the women shorn of their identity when they had their names and hair stripped from them on entry to the institutions. In another, nine children’s christening gowns hang glistening in the dark in memory of the 796 babies and children buried in the disused septic tank in Tuam.
A soft voice in the background lists all 796 names while dotted between all the displays are earphones for listening to the recorded memories of survivors. The final displays deal with the current issues of sexual assault and domestic violence to show that the subjugation of women is not only historical. Audrey Whitty, curator of the exhibition, says while the subjects are not easy to explore, exploration through art is a valuable pursuit.
“A national museum in the true sense presents all history pertaining to that particular nation and if you’re looking at the history of 20th-century Ireland and you were not to respond to these issues, you wouldn’t be doing your job,” she says.
Connie Roberts, a poet and teacher, also believes art is an important tool for truth-telling. “The 2,500-page Ryan report [from the commission on child abuse], very few people will read that but when you tell the stories like this through art, people will take it in a little better. They might listen to a three-minute ballad, they might look at the glass sculptures and take away a bit of Irish history.”
The exhibition is being opened tonight by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone who is urging all schools to visit it.