Toma McCullim, artist in residence in Skibbereen’s Ludgate Hub, describes a project reconnecting diaspora and reinventing tradition through innovative storytelling.
‘Calling Home’ is an innovative participatory arts project which seeks to honour the experiences of Irish people who left the country during the 1950s and 1960s for new lives in other countries. It is a creative social inclusion initiative which connects older people through new technologies. We are reaching out to reunite the West Cork diaspora and remember together what it was like to leave home – or be left behind. In this time, when we are hearing so much about present day immigration, we are giving voice to the lived experience and wisdom of our elders.
I have been working with the West Cork Arts for Health Partnership for the last seven years, largely with older people, many of whom are experiencing dementia. During this time, I have heard many stories of emigration such as the ‘American wake’ (mourning parties for those who were setting sail from Ireland probably never to be heard from again) and the ‘parcel from the relatives’, (items that would be sent back to Ireland to fire the imaginations of those left behind). On a recent trip to the US, I talked to people from the diaspora about the hardships that emigres endured and hid from relatives at home. In discussing the trip with The Ludgate Hub’s CEO Adrienne Harrington we realised we could work together to reconnect Skibbereen’s diaspora through the Business to Arts AR programme, a partnership between Business to Arts and the Creative Ireland Programme’s National Creativity Fund to develop business-based creative community programmes. We were lucky to have their funding and support.
We then reached out to two local day centres who provide social lunch clubs for vulnerable older people. I had already built trusting relationships with the staff there, and Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre also supported me with studio time and time working in hospitals through their Arts for Health programme.
There are tales of road building and bus driving, nursing and hotels, of leaving industrial schools, of finding mothers ... we are finding poetic objects to illustrate these accounts
Our project flows both ways. It’s also about bringing a greater sense of community connection to its host organisation, The Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen. The history of this part of Ireland is framed by the legacy of the Irish Famine. Traditionally young people left for better lives abroad. The Ludgate Hub has attempted to reverse that trend by providing a hot desk centre with 1GB ultra-fast broadband, giving a new generation the ability to live rurally while still being in instant connection with the rest of the world. This project makes friends of old and new communities. It shares stories to create a network of belonging.
Carrying stories forward
We started with a series of workshops where we used live links to talk to people in the US, watched clips from our archive, and shared stories. From these initial storytelling sessions we came up with the idea for 'Stories we have Carried', a series of artworks installed inside vintage suitcases.
There are tales of road building and bus driving, nursing and hotels, of leaving industrial schools, of finding mothers, of being arrested after the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. We are finding objects that illustrate these accounts in a poetic fashion, like a trunk that went by boat to Boston with a young Skibbereen man and returned by plane with the addition of four children and a new wife, her wedding dress inside. One man who left the farm for New York at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised has made a small film about tending his garden in Brooklyn. There are many reasons why people left and we have had many lively and impassioned discussions about them.
There are also songs and vivid memories of the 'little Irelands' formed in dancehalls outside of Ireland. We are planning a dance at our local Town Hall during the Bealtaine Festival, which celebrates arts and creativity as we age. Ahead of this we will create a Ludgate Hub choir to sing the songs of the times and, through our live link connections, involve Irish communities abroad. We will be inviting our whole community to dress up in 1950s and 1960s clothes and bike into town.
Our objects will be exhibited at this event and our ambition is that the work will live on as a touring exhibition in libraries. We hope to expand the reach of this project by bringing it to international diaspora communities and then using live links to share that with Skibbereen. We are keen to get organisations and embassies involved to support these connections. This project shows the rich cultural value of bringing together arts, business and community. Through art, we call each other home.
Toma McCullim is an artist-in-residence at The Ludgate Hub who explores the role of material culture in identity making.