Gathering rust: a tribute to Derry women’s industry

A sculpture designed and then reworked by Louise Walsh to commemorate the city’s famous ‘factory girls’ may never be put on public display

Louise Walsh: “Ethically, as an artist, to re-envisage something that’s been made for a different site is a bit like making a rope to hang yourself. I don’t think officials understand the artistic process.” Photograph: Trevor McBride

Louise Walsh: “Ethically, as an artist, to re-envisage something that’s been made for a different site is a bit like making a rope to hang yourself. I don’t think officials understand the artistic process.” Photograph: Trevor McBride


Huge, round, rusted and on its back. The sight of the massive steel sculpture by Cork artist Louise Walsh, lying abandoned in a bleak industrial estate outside Derry, is powerful and sad.

Walsh is currently locked in a standoff with Northern Ireland’s Department of Social Development (DSD), which could mean her proposed tribute to Derry’s generations of female shirt factory workers will never be put on public display.

The four-tonne steel wheel is the main component in her celebration of factory women – “their strength, dependability, resilience and power”. Now, though, it lies weathered and emasculated behind the engineering works where it was made, five miles from its original intended site.

In 2006, Walsh – whose artworks feature prominently in Belfast city centre and Heathrow Airport – won a £90,000 public art commission to commemorate the City of Culture’s predominantly female shirt factory workforce. She threw herself into “a labour of excitement, love and folly”.

“Those women worked long and hard to feed their kids, pay the rent and manage situations when their men couldn’t get work,” she says. “They were the city’s backbone. Even during the Troubles, they got on with it. They kept things civil.”

At its peak, Derry’s shirt industry employed 18,000 people. Walsh envisaged something “huge and iconic – not patronising – about an industry and a commitment”. She themed it around a sewing machine – “the tool of the trade” – and hoped to celebrate the powerful industrial heritage acknowledged by Marx in Das Kapital: “the shirt factory of Messrs Tillie at Londonderry which employs 1,000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9,000 people spread up and down the country, working in their houses”.

Abstract proposal
Her proposal for an abstracted Singer sewing-machine on a Waterside roundabout was accepted by the DSD, which had advertised the commission. A seven metre-wide steel wheel would be linked by an overhead thread to an ornate front-piece across the road; the foot would appear to be stitching a white concrete collar on a shirt, sculpted in grass and sweeping down towards the river Foyle.

The DSD gave Walsh the go-ahead to start work, on the assumption that planning permission would be granted. However, in early 2007, after the sculpture’s main components had been fabricated, the artist was informed that Roads Service – a wing of the Department of Regional Development – had vetoed the project on the grounds that it might distract motorists. Planning permission was refused.

The following year, the DSD asked her to use the wheel for a new artwork that could be incorporated into a proposed redevelopment scheme at Harbour Square.

“Ethically, as an artist, to re-envisage something that’s been made for a different site is a bit like making a rope to hang yourself,” she says. “I don’t think officials understand the artistic process.”

Walsh returned to the drawing board in 2009, hoping that an unveiling of her redesigned tribute to the shirt-making tradition would coincide with City of Culture celebrations, marking that aspect of its history.

She conceived a new artwork, representing a walk through a huge Victorian sewing machine. Her original steel wheel, with a section removed, would form one end, while an ornate “needle panel” inscribed with texts gathered from interviews with shirt factory women, would be at the other. “It felt good to carry on.”

Before doing any further design work, however, Walsh sought an assurance from the department that it would pay the scoping costs for the new project and guarantee that – in the event of planning permission being granted – a budget of £95,000 would be available to refurbish, fabricate and install the sculpture.

The department says it has already spent £72,000 on the Factory Girls project; £50,000 of this went on fabricating the artwork, while the artist’s fees and expenses accounted for another £20,000.

A spokesperson stated that the DSD would fund the artist’s design fees if it could establish that planning permission could be secured for the overall redevelopment proposal at Harbour Square. But it could not guarantee extra money without a robust estimate and analysis of the project cost. If the artist’s total costs exceeded £135,000, a special case would have to be made to senior management, in accordance with government-accounting rules.

Official withdrawal
In April, Walsh officially withdrew from the project, although she continued to correspond indirectly with the DSD via Derry City Council. She refused a DSD request to rework her concept drawings for submission to a pre-application discussion with planners.

“To make the proposal to the level the DSD wanted needed money. They weren’t coming up with it. What I’m saying is, ‘Let’s talk when you’ve got a budget to make this piece. If you don’t have a budget, stop torturing me.’”

Last month, however, Walsh allowed her drawings to be put forward for consideration, without doing any more work on them. The DSD says that at a meeting on June 25th, the planners requested further design work before they could reach a decision.

Walsh says she feels “battered” by the process and is adamant that she won’t commit any more effort or time without a guarantee that funding would be available to see the project through.

“Work like this needs generosity and magic. It needs people saying, ‘C’mon, we’ll get it made. Let’s try this, let’s try that.’ Instead, it’s been negative. Like pulling teeth. Whether it’s government agencies, DSD, city council or planning – there’s a lack of cohesion. There’s a culture running through our institutions that is obstructive, rather than conducive to getting good things done.”

Commitment remains
Seven years after awarding the Factory Girls commission, the DSD says: “The project is only at the initial proposal stage, as there is no detailed design, no cost estimate and it has not yet been established whether the proposed piece of art could secure planning permission at this location.”

However, it “remains committed to erecting a piece of public art” to commemorate the women’s key role in the city’s social and economic history. Derry City Council – the only conduit now between artist and department – says it’s happy to assist, in any way it can, to move the project forward.

Several hundred people have already signed an online petition, calling on the DSD to “rescue” Walsh’s sculpture. Meanwhile, the huge wheel – the centrepiece of her dream – gathers rust, panels of fretwork lie in a garden in Donegal, £72,000 has been spent, and the contribution made by legions of shirt factory workers continues to go publicly unmarked.

Positive Derry: City of Culture brings transformation
Halfway through its year as the first UK City of Culture, Derry is buzzing. The city is basking in the glow of unprecedented, positive publicity. During the past six months, high-profile events have brought thousands of locals and visitors to the streets, and filled cultural venues. A wealth of creative talent is being nurtured through community projects.

Music City Day transformed Derry into a vast open-air stage for professional and amateur musical performances; 38,000 onlookers lined the banks of the river Foyle during the Return of Colmcille pageant; 5,000 Annies broke the Guinness World Record for the biggest song and dance routine ever performed; and almost 40,000 music fans joined BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend; and the Royal Ballet and London Symphony Orchestra sold out their performances.

Infrastructural investment of more than £80 million has left Derry looking better than ever. Spectacular images of the river Foyle, iconic Peace Bridge, refurbished Guildhall, and the former Ebrington Army base – now a large performance area – are reconnecting Derry with its diaspora.

Average hotel occupancy in May was more than 80 per cent – the highest ever recorded – and there is talk of Derry being a leading contender when the UK hosts the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

Last week, a mid-point legacy conference was told that Derry had “come to life”. The council area, though, still has the highest unemployment rate in the North, with 6,000 people claiming benefit.

The digital economy and cultural tourism have been identified as the two main drivers for ensuring that Derry’s creative energy is used for transformation and regeneration after December 31st.

The Nerve Centre’s Creative Digital Classrooms project is a key element in this economic strategy. It has installed digital media suites in 17 special and primary schools, and is training more than 30 teachers and 900 children in digital animation, creating a new skills base for the future.

The Music Promise programme, as well as developing talent, uses music to boost children’s confidence, language and literacy skills. More than 7,000 children, in schools across the city, are involved. At neighbourhood level, another thousand 11- to 18-year-olds are learning performance, composing and music-production skills.

The City of Culture project partners are already preparing a funding application to support a Legacy Plan for after 2013. And despite early concerns that a £600,000 funding shortfall could damage the remainder of this year’s programme, the organisers insist all of the main events will go ahead as planned.

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will come north of the Border for the first time next month, bringing an estimated 250,000 visitors.

The Turner Prize will follow in the autumn (leaving England for the first time ever) and the spectacular Lumiere Festival will brighten up early winter with a city-wide celebration of light.

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