Schull to relive Famine experience at workhouse

Artist Alanna O’Kelly to create audio-visual one-off performance at Schull Workhouse

Alanna O’ Kelly beside her piece, A Kind of Quietism. Her site-specific once-off work, Anáil na Beatha, takes place at Schull Workhouse on July 21st. Photograph: Maxwells

Alanna O’ Kelly beside her piece, A Kind of Quietism. Her site-specific once-off work, Anáil na Beatha, takes place at Schull Workhouse on July 21st. Photograph: Maxwells

 

One of the art highlights so far this year was the arrival at Dublin Castle of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, a major exhibition showing how artists and illustrators tried to reflect the horrors of the Great Hunger, much of it on view for the first time. The exhibition, which draws from the world’s largest collection of Famine-related art at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, is now moving to the West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen.

In honour of the move, multimedia artist Alanna O’Kelly will give a once-off site-specific performance in Schull Workhouse on Saturday, July 21st.

The performance will utilise elements of fragmented sound, video, music, layered imagery and light to create a sensory experience that will articulate the narratives of those silenced by the Great Hunger.

Those who attend will be brought around the site, procession-like, to view the various components of the piece.

O’Kelly involved local people, the majority of which are female, who contribute to the work. They will at different points to chant place-names both historical and contemporary. “Places that are affected by famine, by people who are ‘moving’, asylum seekers and refugees moving from famine and war-stricken districts,” O’ Kelly explains. Another facet of the performance will be a keening or a vocal lament for the dead, which the female voices will carry out.

Famine memories: the interior of Schull workhouse, which will be the backdrop for Alanna O’Kelly’s Anáil na Beatha on Saturday night.
Famine memories: the interior of Schull workhouse, which will be the backdrop for Alanna O’Kelly’s Anáil na Beatha on Saturday night.

There is a famine grave just outside the performance grounds which O’Kelly hopes will carry the experience beyond the work. “We are still in the middle of a very important space; before people go home they are going to pass by something that’s happening, the graveside,” she says.

She collaborated with multiple artists to complete the project including Micheál Moley O Súilleabháin, Ruah Berney Pearson, Libby Seward, Cormac Begley, Karen Minihane and Pól Brennan.

The performance is entitled Anáil na Beathe, which translates into the “breath of life”. A collaborator on the work, Cormac Begley will use his concertina to embody this idea. “He is literally at times using the concertina to breathe, to give breath to the space,” she says. The idea speaks to a quote O’Kelly offers by Hilary Mantel from the BBC Reith lectures who said: “St Augustine says the dead are invisible they are not absent.”

Despite being based around the Famine, O’Kelly feels the work is reflective of contemporary society. “I have this story of a young Rwandan man, and I’m finishing with this story of his. He’s living in Dublin at the moment, and he is trying to get his papers organised, and it’s really difficult. We make it difficult for people.”

Her work is a poignant offering in a time where immigration issues are to the forefront in Irish society. “It is very difficult I know there is not any simple solution but we are all intelligent thinking beings, and I think we have to find through our art, our journalism and our language ways for humanity to survive better than we do.”

  • Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, on show at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen from July 20th until October 13th .
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