In 2018, artist Toma McCullim worked with the residents, staff and visitors of Skibbereen Hospital Campus on a collaborative art project to create a bronze public sculpture for the Hospital Grounds. In this year-long project, people working and living on the campus grounds were invited to take part in walks, talks, workshops and discussions about 110 girls who left Skibbereen Union Workhouse to travel to Australia as part of the Earl Grey Assisted Immigration Scheme.
There were a number of layers in which participants engaged with the project:
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.
Public events were held attended by historians, artists, tourists, students and others.
The social media participation mushroomed from a local group of people directly involved to a network of international connectivity linked to the diaspora of ancestors and descendants.
Supported by the existing infrastructure established by the Arts for Health Partnership Programme in West Cork, the artist 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 the 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.
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.
The sculpture has received many visitors and continues to inspire many conversations.
Artistic outputs included:
- The ‘110 Skibbereen Girls’ public sculpture
- Two sculptural artworks, one donated to the Australian Embassy and one to The Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac, which was exhibited as part of Coming Home: Arts and the Great Hunger at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre from July to October 2018
- A launch and performance event: Simon Mamouney, Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy, presided over the launch with music performed by Skibbereen Hospital Choir
- A programme of public engagement to develop the work
- A series of tours and talks for the general public
- Three residencies
- A long form poem
- Online documentation
- A printed postcard
- Establishment of a staff choir
A governance body was in place to steer the project and to represent the funding bodies, meeting at key points throughout and at the end.
A sub-group for evaluation and monitoring included the project manager, the artist and a HSE participant / staff member. The sub-group met at regular monthly intervals to review and reflect.
The artist and project manager were in regular contact co-ordinating the development, logistics and operational aspects of the project.
The artist used the dedicated project Facebook page as a shared journal and created a significant poetic work as part of her analysis and reflective process.
A project report was submitted to funding bodies.
‘It caught the staff imagination; the more the project grew, the more people became interested and connections grew. It was an amazing story.’
‘Some people who got involved in this project had never got involved in an art project before.’
‘Both residents and staff were sharing and learning together, with residents often knowing more than the staff.’
– HSE staff
‘Toma’s project on the girls certainly raised the profile of these young emigrants and engaged people, both locally and internationally.’
– Skibbereen Heritage Centre
‘It’s amazing to think this spoon will outlast us all.’
‘This project gave me the opportunity to work in bronze for the first time and gave me experience working with historical narratives and participative practice. I am interested in the types of stories that we decide to memorialize and how those stories effect our sense of personal and collective identity. I would like to develop further public works that help us understand and grow our better selves.’
Documentation and Dissemination
A dedicated Facebook page: https://facebook.com/110SkibbereenGirls/
Project page on the Arts for Health West Cork website:
Long form poem by Toma McCullim on SoundCloud:
Lyric FM, interview with Toma McCullim (14:30 minutes in):
Roaring Water Journal: https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/110-skibbereen-girls/
Toma McCullim presented on the project at Arts + Health Check Up Check In 2018 at Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.
Cork County Council, Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre and HSE Cork / Kerry Community Healthcare Organisation.
Other partners include: Quinnipiac University, Australian Embassy, Skibbereen Heritage Centre, Cork Education and Training Board.
Date of Publication
October 2017 to October 2018
Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre
Cork County Council, West Cork Arts Centre, Cork / Kerry Community Healthcare Organisation, Famine Heritage Project funded by the West Cork Municipal District Creative Communities Scheme, Cork Arts and Health, the National Lottery.
Mental Health, Older People, Primary Care/ Community Health, Training & Education
Nature of project
Collaborative/ participatory, Exhibition, Public art commission, Residency