THE exhibition, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, being staged at the Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen from July 20th to October 13th, is probably the most important ever to be shown there so far and, perhaps, for many years to come. This exhibition is on loan from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in the United States – which has the largest collection of Great Hunger-related art in the world – and is curated by Professor Niamh O’ Sullivan, who edited the excellent the catalogue of Coming Home, a hefty tome that is well worth reading and certainly whets the appetite for the exhibition.
Having been on display at the Printworks in Dublin Castle since March, it is now moving to Skibbereen for the next 12 weeks before continuing to the Glassworks in Derry from January to March of next year. In his speech at the opening of the exhibition in Dublin four months ago, President Michael D Higgins remarked on how appropriate it was that the exhibition would be shown in Skibbereen.
The President reminded the attendance that ‘Skibbereen and its surrounding townlands, as some of the art in this exhibition details, suffered terribly during the Great Hunger. The Abbey Cemetery still stands today, with the Famine dead buried beneath it, as a reminder of blianta an droch shaoil, the years of the bad life. How inadequate that phrase sounds.’
He referred to the University College Cork publication, The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, in which Professor William Smith tells us how Skibbereen and Schull got the title of ‘Two Famine Slain Sisters of the South.’ In the wider Skibbereen area, out of a population of 43,266 in the Spring of 1847, 22,241 died and 997 emigrated – 535 to the United States and 262 to England.
It is more than 20 years since the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine was marked by a series of events which raised public consciousness about the awful events that decimated the area from the mid-1840s onwards and which must never be forgotten. The permanent exhibition in Skibbereen Heritage Centre is a constant reminder, but high-profile public events from time to time are also necessary to keep the story vibrant.
In 2015, we had a year of events to mark the centenary of the death of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, whose experiences during the Famine years as a youngster in West Cork honed his revolutionary zeal, which in turn inspired the leaders of the 1916 rising, leading eventually to Ireland’s independence. All such events that evoke and emphasise the callous injustice that was done to the poor people of Ireland during the Great Hunger are educational and always need to be remembered.
Most people’s visual images of the Great Famine are through the drawings done by artist James Mahony for the Illustrated London News – many of them in the Skibbereen and Caheragh areas in 1847 – of emaciated victims of starvation, which brought their desperate plight to the attention of the wider world. Mahony himself was appalled at what he saw and remarked ‘I fear we must bury the dead coffinless in future. My God! What a revolting idea! Without food when alive, without a coffin when dead.’
His work and that of many other artists is featured in the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition. Among them are major Irish and Irish-American artists such as Daniel Macdonald, Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats, William Crozier, Hughie O’Donoghue, Dorothy Cross and Alanna O’Kelly – many of whose works one would not usually get to see in West Cork, so this exhibition provides quite a unique opportunity.
As curator Niamh O’Sullivan wrote on this page a month ago, ‘the impossibility of giving those dispossessed of life and home back their voices, the paucity of material traces, and the scarcity of contemporary images make it important to find other ways to remember.’ As the vast majority of the artists featured in the exhibition were not around during the Great Famine, through their art they can still re-imagine its enormity and powerfully reflect the savagery of it all in their imagery.
The exhibition in Skibbereen for the next three months is certainly a must-see for locals and visitors alike and it’s free. No doubt, when the schools return in September, students will be brought along and, in the meantime, local events such as the Skibbereen Arts Festival, the West Cork History Festival and A Taste of West Cork Food Festival will include Famine-related events, while the exhibition will be accompanied by a diverse programme of performances, talks, lectures and events at Uillinn, as well as off-site in other locations in West Cork.
It’s there to be appreciated, so don’t spurn the opportunity to learn from it and be moved.