By Veronica Corr, The Northern Standard
Australian Ambassador to Ireland, Dr. Ruth Adler, returned to Carrickmacross Workhouse on Sunday afternoon, 25th May, to launch a permanent historical exhibition, which the International Fund for Ireland financed. The beautiful building was packed to capacity, just as it was on the Ambassador’s first visit last April.
The IFI has donated €890 million to 5,800 projects across Ireland since 1986 and Australia was one of the primary contributors to this fund.
The fund has now closed and the last raft of funding the Workhouse received was spent on professional artist Orlagh Meegan Gallagher’s Famine-inspired exhibition, and an exquisite commissioned piece of Carrickmacross Lace by Elizabeth Daly.
Art Agnew once again acted as Master of Ceremonies and during his speech some footage shot by Aideen Hand of Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney was shown.
Thirty-eight girls from Carrickmacross Workhouse were amongst the thousands upon thousands of Irish teenagers who landed at this immigration depot between 1848 and 1850.
Aideen’s video can be viewed on the ‘Carrickmacross Workhouse’ page on Facebook. More information is also available at: www.irishfaminememorial.org.
Ambassador Adler observed during her address that links between the two countries remained extremely strong, with 10% of Australians describing themselves as Irish in the last census.
Since her last visit to the Workhouse, Dr. Adler was delighted to report that she had found long lost relatives in both Monaghan and Armagh!
Orlagh Meegan-Gallagher then brought the Ambassador and other guests around to view her multi-media exhibition comprising of a ‘Voyage to Australia’ – a moody and atmospheric sunset seascape; ‘The Last Resort’ – skeletal figures entering the Workhouse embroidered on the cloth ‘inmates’ uniforms used to be made out of. These people were surrounded by the shadows of their fallen kin.
Nearby is another installation, two children, the 3D figures of a small boy and a girl –‘The Forgotten’ – driving home just how tiny some of the occupants were in this lace with a very sad history. Children, whether they were orphaned or not, were separated from their parents by the age of two.
‘The Voyage’ is a multi-faceted seascape, and the moonlight and endless sea, (which Orla envisaged was the view from deck when the girls got out of the ship’s hold), helps one to empathise with the despair and desolation the teenage girls being transported must have felt.
Anyone who has visited the Workhouse in the last year may have seen the girls’ dormitory in which a picture entitled ‘The Departure’ is hanging.
This haunting piece has since been added to as Orlagh gave us a glimpse into these girls’ lives with the luggage they took to Australia – trunks were filled with brand new clothes and vanity items, so that they would make a good impression when they landed in Australia. Many were promised as wives.
Each of the boxes has a name painted on it, taken from the surviving Carrickmacross Workhouse passenger list.
The three replica boxes themselves were made by local carpenter Philip McArdle by reclaiming original Workhouse floorboards, which were split by Hugh Hanratty from Magheracloone.
There is also an authentic replica bonnet hanging in the dormitory as part of the artwork of several parts.
The final work is one this reporter found particularly moving. ‘Land of Plenty’, an embroidered and hand-painted tiled work depicts on one hand the unbearable hardship that was endured alongside massive exports from fertile lands and richly-stocked sea.
Yvonne Marron of Carrickmacross Workhouse explained to the Northern Standard recently how whole thing came about:
“We wanted to thank the Ambassador as a member of the Australian Government for all the money that they (the IFI) had put into the Workhouse over the years.”
“With their last ever bit of money we did some final pieces of work to the building including information boards on the history, it’s something the building lacked.”
Yvonne explained the process evolved. Orlagh became interested in the history of the building when she began teaching art there.
The girls who were sent to Australia from the Workhouse dormitory particularly ignited her imagination. That’s why she donated the initial piece, ‘The Departure’ to the building.
Yvonne and co were delighted: “The community’s response to that really made us think that instead of dry information boards with just writing on them, a piece of art says more than a thousand words.”
“So we approached Orlagh and asked her if she would consider undertaking a few pieces around some certain key areas to do with the Workhouse.”
They approached Orlagh with the concept before contacting the International Fund for Ireland. Orlagh did up a whole brief with sketches, her vision statement and information. The IFI signed off on it and Orlagh set to work!
“The IFI have always been very good to us and a few things coincided, they are closing or closed down and they have invested so much in this building,” Yvonne explained:
“And once they had seen the works that Orlagh had proposed they understood them. They are meant to be very relatable.”
“This (the launch) will be Board members’ first chance to actually see them. The Australian Ambassador also represents one of the biggest contributors to the IFI, so we just thought it would be appropriate to have her do the official launch.”
This is what the artist herself had to say: “It has been an incredible opportunity for me as an artist to do something of this scale – public art for a public building.”
Orlagh said that although the project was collaborative, it afforded her great artistic freedom to produce work that reflected the deep feelings she had for people who had been in the Workhouse in the past.
“I think this building evokes that kind of feeling in you, I don’t think you can be in this building and not want to know about it and the past.
“As an artist when you think of the Famine you think of these millions of people – and in this context in Carrickmacross thousands of people – but there’s no names, no faces. I wanted to give them names and faces again through my work,” Orlagh explained.
The exhibition also aims to connect with everyone who visits the Workhouse in the present and future. The artist wants people of all ages and walks of life to feel empathy for those who went before.
“It felt like a great honour and responsibility, I wanted to do it so badly, it was kind of a need. With artists you get the compulsion to create and this place does that to me,” the Ms. Meegan-Gallagher concluded.
It was very clear that Orlagh truly connected with her work, and this really comes across as no explanation is required. If you haven’t been yet, you simply must go to see this permanent exhibition commissioned by and for Carrickmacross Workhouse.
At the end of her visit the Australian Ambassador was presented with a framed piece based on ‘The Last Resort’ from Orlagh Meegan-Gallagher.
Elizabeth Daly of Carrickmacross Lace Gallery also unveiled her stunning interpretation of the Workhouse façade, based on a design by PJ McCabe.
Workhouse Co-ordinator, Kevin Gartlan, explained the significance of the craft to the Workhouse, as the female ‘inmates’ there were taught how to do it from 1849.
Sunday’s family event culminated in the showing of footage from Carrickmacross Scouts in the 1970s.
The management and staff of the Workhouse wish to thank everyone that assisted with the Ambassador’s visit, especially: Liam Connolly for use of his sound equipment; The Shirley Arms for use of their tea and coffee canisters; and Noel Jones for providing the footage of the Scouts.