HOME in the Carrickmacross Workhouse
The Context The Potato Blight The 17th century conquest of Ireland transferred ownership of the land to largely absentee landlords resident in Great Britain. Most of the native Irish were reduced to the level small tenant farmers, and/or, landless cotters , who were ‘paid in kind’ with the use of plots of land so small that only potatoes could provide enough nutrition to feed their families. In return the ‘cotters' laboured on their landlord’s ranches to provide the vast quantities of grain and cattle needed to feed the burgeoning industrial cities of Great Britain. In 1846 a fungal blight destroyed the potato crops right across northern Europe. Most governments averted famine by banning the export of food. London, by contrast, saw the blight as a providential opportunity to ‘reform’ Ireland by clearing out the surplus population. The landlords knew that they could make bigger profits from grazing cattle, then from labour intensive tillage. London’s laissez faire policies led to hunger, disease and emigration. By 1849 Ireland ’s population had reduced from nine to five million. This was considered a worthwhile price for preserving the free market. The Workhouse System The mineral rich potato diet meant that the Irish peasantry had been generally larger and more robust than their bread eating neighbours. Consequently Irishmen constituted over forty percent of Great Britain’s soldiers and sailors throughout the Napoleonic Wars, from the Duke of Wellington downwards. However, peace ended three decades of agricultural boom. Many Irish veterans marched home to face creeping destitution. London reluctantly decided to extend the workhouse system -England’s safety net for the poor, to Ireland,. Between 1830 and 1856, 160 workhouses were built throughout the island to a standard plan. Irish taxpayers were expected to pay for their construction and upkeep. Each workhouse was designed to house up to 500 destitute men women and children. To enter, families had to prove that they had neither land, nor possessions. Families were split up into separate walled compounds. They lived under a crushing work regime designed to deter others from entering. Inmates could be jailed and flogged for the ‘theft’ of their ragged work clothes if they attempted to leave. The Earl Grey Girls the workhouse system was overwhelmed. by the great famine. Many landlords realised it was cheaper to pay for their tenants to emigrate, then to pay the spiralling local property taxes. When 4,002 orphan girls in workhouses, aged between 14 and 17, were identified as being of ‘good character' Earl Grey paid for them to be shipped to Australia as indentured servants. Most of them settled, married, and prospered. In Northern Ireland, the famine is not regarded as part of their history. If it is remembered at all, it is as the righteous judgement of a Protestant God on the superstitious Roman Catholics of the south and west of Ireland, for stubbornly refusing to eat anything but potatoes. So it was instructive to discover that the photographs of Earl Grey Girls in the Sydney immigration museum reveal girls from every religion, from every corner of Ireland. Carrickmacross Workhouse Today Carrickmacross workhouse was closed when Ireland became independent in the 1920’s. Despite being a place of evil memory, the semi-derelict site is being gradually redeveloped by the Farney Community Development Group Ltd, supported by Monaghan County Council. Portions of the enormous complex built in 1841in had been demolished. Other parts are semi roofed and await restoration. The Entrance block retains its imposing Victorian facade. But the interiors have been remodelled to exorcise the ghosts, and to accommodate contemporary needs such as a community creche, and business start-up units. In recent years visitor tours have been enlivened by colourful modern art installations. and the depth of knowledge of the tour guides. However cheery office corridors cannot fully convey the grimness of the original interiors. Only the chilly orphan girl’s dormitory, on the top floor, retains its palpably haunted atmosphere. The Design Brief When Buckled Cranium and it’s associates were first appointed, they were asked to : A Clarify A Confusing Site Provide visual tools to help the tour guides convey the original extent and purpose of the buildings, inside and out. As yet site has no dedicated interpretive, or museum space, other than the orphan girls dormitory. Here it was felt intrusive exhibition panels would destroy the untouched atmosphere. B Explain the social and economic context The tour guides needed somewhere for graphic information panels with self explanatory visuals, maps, graphs, bar charts etc to convey the distressing scale and effects of the and famine and disease in Ireland between 1846 and 1849. C Create Human Stories The third aim was to humanise the mind boggling famine statistics with the personal narratives of real people, to explain the desperation that drove hundreds of thousands to give up their last vestiges of human dignity in the workhouses. D Present a message of ultimate hope and redemption The final request was to enhance the contemporary role of the work houses as an information hubs for members of the Irish diaspora returning to trace their roots. ~Despite the severity the workhouse system it provided basic sustenance for tens of thousands to survive, to make better lives in Britain, the Americas and Australia. We know the ultimate fate of Rose Sherry, who was one of twenty eight Earl Grey girls chosen from Carrickmacross, thanks to the return of her descendants. Rose offered an authentic narrative arc for the un-named heroine of of ‘HOME .’ Framed photographs in the narrow corridors record the visits of descendants of former inmates such as the English musician Sting. confirmed, the workhouse’s suspected links with Joe Biden’s mother, could lead to a future display ‘From Workhouse to White House’. Preserving the Intangible heritage of Gaelic Ireland Carrickmacross borders the Farney and Fews districts that retained their ancient Gaelic music, culture customs and language into the 20th Century. Victorian travellers remarked on the distinctive Irish ‘keening’ or wailing lamentations of professional mourners. Keening provided a bitter backdrop to the famine. Keening is regarded as having died out by the 1950s. So we were surprised to discover Padraigin ni Uallachain, a traditional keener, and music scholar from nearby Crossmaglen. Padraigin performed authentic laments including one collected in 1900 from an inmate of the workhouse who was a contemporary of the Earl Grey girls. These laments add an edge the bespoke music sound track composed by Jonathan Casey. Synopsis of HOME HOME presents the gradual descent into starvation and eviction of a relatively prosperous family of smallholders. In 1846 only half their potato crop was blighted. Like many others our family traded all of their assets to obtain seed for the following season. But the entire crop failed in ‘Black 47’. The eldest son was killed when they were violently evicted from from their cottage by the landlord’s .agent. The second segment covers the family’s time in the workhouse. Both parents were worked to death. Their daughter refused a place on an Earl Grey ship. She could not abandon her younger brother. His subsequent death from typhus freed her to agree to passage on a subsequent ship. She endured a four month voyage to Sydney knowing that she would never see home or family again. Saint Patricks Festival TV Channel In March 2021 HOME audiovisual was selected from among hundreds of films and television programmes from around the world for broadcasts on Irish national television during the week- long (SPFTV )Saint Patricks Festival TV. Because of Covid this cultural event has replaced the Dublin Parade as the central feature of the national saint’s day celebrations. Contemporary resonance of HOME HOME is particularly relevant in a time of : Environmental degradation; global pandemic and famine ; mass migration of the planet's poor ; group kidnappings of teenage girls for marriage purposes; in other continents; and inadequate provisions in Ireland for for immigrants fleeing war, famine and disease as well as for and homeless Irish families.