From under the carpet

A new visual-arts project captures the last days of a historic Cork carpet factory, and reflects the wider loss of community …

A new visual-arts project captures the last days of a historic Cork carpet factory, and reflects the wider loss of community in the workplace, writes Aidan Dunne, Art Critic

It is surprising that the closure of the Couristan carpet factory in Youghal last December attracted relatively little notice, nationally.

It's true that in latter years the company was a shadow of its former self, but in its heyday it marked a high point for Irish industrial achievement and its passing marks the end of a chapter of the economic history of east Cork. The fact that the looms and other machinery were dismantled for, reputedly, shipment to the Far East, is indicative of a global trend in huge swathes of manufacturing industry.

Commissioned as part of Triskel's Mayday programme, Last Days: The End of Carpets at Youghal is a collaborative project by Marcella Reardon and Derek Speirs, curated by Ruairi Ó Cuiv. It records life and work in the carpet factory in the weeks leading up to its closure. Large-scale photographs, text and a short video combine to provide an intimate portrait of the human face of an industrial enterprise. More, the exhibition is eloquent testimony to the fact that every economic story is first and foremost a human story, one that resonates through all aspects of our personal and public lives. And the fate of carpet manufacturing in Youghal is all the more relevant in an era of globalisation, when capital, jobs and populations move restlessly around the world.

Reardon settled in Youghal in 2003. As she explored the town, she chanced upon the carpet factory and gradually came to appreciate the history and role of carpet manufacture in the local community. She had worked with Speirs, well known for his photojournalism, on several projects previously. When she learned, last year, that the carpet factory was going to close for good, she thought that something should be done to document such an important aspect of cultural and economic history before it was gone. "One day I knocked on the tiny brown door that is the entrance to the factory, and I talked to someone who I later found out to be Paddy Pollard, an overseer. I asked if I could bring Derek along, and if we could have access to the factory to take photographs before the closure." After consultations with the management, Pollard gave the go ahead.

Speirs and Reardon subsequently visited the factory on several occasions leading up to the moment of closure on December 22. They were there when the workers left for the last time. "I was lucky," Reardon notes, "that the first person I met was Paddy Pollard, because he had the authority to do something about my request, and he had the confidence of the workers. We were outsiders, but people talked freely to us immediately." The photographs record the day-to-day working of the factory in an easy, empathic way. "What struck us immediately," Reardon recalls, "was that it was such an old-fashioned workplace. There was a sense of people having their own little nooks and corners for breaks. And there was a sense of community. We met people who have spent all of their working lives there. They went in when they were 18 and stayed.

"They forged lasting friendships. There was a poster of David Cassidy on the wall and I spoke to a woman who recalled the day it went up there in the 1970s." Youghal Carpets began production in 1954, located in disused 18th-century warehouses on the quayside, the brainchild of John C Murray and Brian LJ O'Brien. They enlisted Lancashire man Geoffrey Toft, who had experience of carpet manufacture, and the business grew quickly. As local historian Mike Hackett relates in a short essay that forms part of the exhibition, by the time of the economic changes of the early 1960s, Youghal Carpets was ideally positioned to cater to consumer demand for the novel luxury of fitted carpets. "The lino had run its course," giving way to "the soft deep pile" of fitted carpet. At its height, the business employed over a thousand people in east Cork, including a major wool-spinning and dyeing facility at Carrigtwohill, and Youghal became a byword for carpets of exceptional quality and durability.

That was all in the past. Latterly, Reardon notes: "You felt that the remaining workers knew that they were on borrowed time." They were, Speirs reflects, "philosophical about it. They lived with it. They could see the factory emptying out around them as the equipment was dismantled. That was happening when we were there, it was all being packed up." The machinery is both huge and intricate, and slightly frightening.

Time and again, Reardon says, they were impressed with the extraordinary delicacy and precision of the workers, who had built up exceptional levels of skill over the years: "On the one hand you have these massive machines, but you feel they have to be tended and coaxed gently." The images elucidate the relationship between people and machines. We see individuals physically and mentally immersed in their occupations, deft and experienced workers at home with what they are doing.

But a job is really more than a job: it is a large part of one's raison d'être, providing a sense of purpose and position in family and community. The photographs brilliantly convey a certain stoicism and grace on the part of the workers as they face the prospect of the closure and an uncertain future. During her spells in the factory, Reardon collected bits and pieces of cast-off wool, metal, carpet dust and other fragments. She wasn't sure what to do with them, though she wanted to incorporate them, as physical emblems, in some way.

The factory was directly beside the sea. "In the end, I brought everything out to the beach and laid them out on the shoreline." The video records the tide coming in, washing over the bobbins and scraps. There is no commentary, nothing extraneous at all. And there is nothing sentimental about the images but, as a quiet visual elegy for carpets in Youghal, it is moving and appropriate.

• Last Days: The End of Carpets at Youghal is at Triskel, Tobin St in Cork until May 31