Irishwomen of our past – March 2013


As we mark International Women’s Day and St Patrick’s Day this month, artist Rachael Flynn shares her current work on exploring memories of migration within the Irish Diaspora through the narratives of women like her grandmother, Agnes.

I cannot remember a time when I did not carry with me a sense of Irishness, despite having been born and raised on the north east coast of Scotland. My paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents were Irish and, although I never knew my great-grandparents, I spent a lot of time with my father’s parents, listening to tales of their life back home and of their journey to Scotland, particularly the stories told by my grandmother Agnes, narrating her journey as a fifteen year old girl running away from rural poverty to find work in Glasgow.

Working as an artist, these notions relating to my identity have often found their way into my work but they took on a particular focus when I decided to embark on doctoral research at The University of the West of Scotland’s Scottish Centre for Island Studies in late 2009. My research is an exploration of the heritable memories of migration within the Irish Diaspora, specifically the narratives of the women who made these journeys. This creative engagement is explored through the biography of my grandmother, Agnes Flynn (née McBride) who lived within a peripheral environment on the coast of a Northern Donegal peninsula, with shoreline as a continual symbolic edge. Agnes felt this ‘edge’ contained her and she grew up with a sense that she had to escape. She ran away from home at fifteen, catching a boat at Derry which was headed for Glasgow.

My research involves a traditional written thesis along with creative work formed in response to the questions raised by this inquiry. Immersed within my creative research is the translation of a diasporic cultural memory. In many ways this displacement is something that is repeatedly experienced, building up layers as it is inherited through the generations. Central to this is the documentation of myself forming engagements with the thematic concerns of the research: notions of separation, loss, distance, absence and the internal and external boundaries of a personal sense of landscape.

At the start of 2012, I began collecting the names of women who departed from Ireland, as I sought to create a work which would capture their individual struggles and successes. Drawing from this collection of personal histories, I created a map of sorts, marking the significant points of embarkation, the last places where these women had contact with the land of their birth and often the places where they left their families behind. Setting out on a modern-day pilgrimage around Ireland, I visited the main ports the women departed from, taking with me a small candle which I first lit in front of my grandmother’s family cottage in Donegal, re-lighting it in their memory at each stop. I filmed this along the way and this documentation will be used to produce an online memorial space, with scope for others to share and contribute.

Marking the first of a series of events, on Tuesday 4th December 2012, a ‘sea’ of candles was lit in memory of those Irish women who journeyed to other lands. This sculptural space was located at Film City (Old Govan Town Hall), Glasgow, close to the Broomielaw where boats from Ireland would moor. Govan itself was a site of considerable Irish immigration. Each of the women’s names sent to me was represented with its own small candle which was lit within this temporary devotional space. The names of the women and the places they left were commemorated in a subtle video work close by. The lighting of the candles was filmed and streamed online for those who had submitted names, allowing them to see the event from any location, and witness it on behalf of their relation. The original candle which I lit for my grandmother in Donegal, and at various ports, sat amongst these other candles, adding to the “sea” of light – a simple but effective act of remembrance.

I am trying to create an embodied and personal ‘documentation’ of migration and its legacy. This notion of empathy – often considered in academic research contexts as a more feminine approach – is core to my work. An example of the way it has entered into my creative research practice occurred when I first sat down with letters between my grandmother and her family in Ireland. I came across an envelope thick with correspondence about the death of Agnes’ seven-year-old son Stephen. I asked my father – who was nine at the time of Stephen’s death – if he had read them. He told me he remembered my grandmother sitting by the window reading them and hiding her tears. On several pages there are marks of these tears as the ink has run. These visible signs on the paper help to reveal the emotive histories within my study of her story.

These ‘hidden’ factors allow me to engage in making work which responds to the layered narrative of a woman who was continually striving to create a better future for herself and her family, alongside a wider set of people who were attempting to overcome the social difficulties and prejudices that could face migrated communities. Through this creative body of work people are able to contribute the names of their ancestors to a record that seeks to move beyond formal data to create a human document. I am articulating historical information through alternative methods such as creative writing, sculptural spaces, visual imagery and group activities. I hope that people will be able to access a sense of this history through personally relating to them, rather than just assuming another person’s textual account.

Stories uncovered
As part of my practice I have held several events at Glasgow Women’s Library, inviting the general public to come along and share their family accounts of Irish migration. I asked my father’s sister along to one of these events. We all sat around in a circle with a pot of tea and shared our tales in turn. My aunt’s husband, from Newcastle, had come along to support her and when his turn came I asked if he wanted to share anything. The following conversation unfolded.

Myself: Jonathon, I know you are here today to support Eileen but if there is anything you would like to share you are very welcome.
Jonathon: Well, I hadn’t come to go into my own story particularly. I was really just here for support to yourself and Eileen. It is so interesting to hear such similar stories though as my grandparents were Irish and we used to come up to Glasgow to visit. They lived on Cadogan Street, not far from here.
[The woman beside him turned to him]
Woman: That is so funny … that is where my grandparents lived too. What number on the street were you?
Jonathon: We were number 8, on the second floor.
Woman: Goodness, they must have been neighbours to my grandparents. We were number 8, on the second floor… We were the flat on the left.
[Jonathon looked stunned and placed his hands on the table]
Jonathon: They WERE the flat on the left. Hang on…are you Jean?

They were cousins who had shared grandparents. They had lost touch over the years and hadn’t seen each other since they were children. They are now corresponding and Jonathan has dug out some old audio recordings of their grandfather telling family stories. It is very touching for Jean, who hasn’t heard his voice for so many years.

Another story to share happened at the end of last year. I had seen an advertisement for a talk by artist Dr Anne Marie Murland from Australia. She made work about her Irish ancestors and creatively responded to aspects of the Diaspora. I arrived just as the talk was starting and Anne Marie had handed out postcards of her work to look at. The audience were free to take and keep a postcard. I looked through the beautiful images and felt a strong pull to one of them, so I decided to take it and put it in my folder. After the talk I went to congratulate Anne Marie on her work. I turned the postcard over to see the title of the work and suddenly saw that the painting was called Agnes. She smiled and told me that Agnes was the name of her mother, for whom the painting was made.

I think it is interesting to consider the question of the ‘almost’-ness of some migrations and departures, of women who perhaps wanted to leave but couldn’t, or were stopped from leaving. There are also the silent histories of those who embarked on a journey but didn’t arrive, lessening the possibility of being recollected by subsequent generations. In creating a body of work which captures the emotions of the women as a whole, I hope that awareness will be brought to the cultural historical and social narratives in which the women who left and didn’t leave were embedded.

Mixed feelings
For the people who are sharing and contributing stories of migration within their family histories, there is a strange mix of feelings. In my own ancestry, both my maternal and paternal lines quite quickly led back to Ireland; a trail weaved from stories of McBrides, Shevlins, Gallaghers, Laffertys, Hannigans and Flynns. With such a mass exodus, there is both a sense of sadness, and at times anger, at the sacrifices and hardships which were part of their fate, alongside a great sense of pride at their determination to make better lives for the families they were to create. Furthermore, in bringing these stories to the fore, there is a humility when comparing our daily trials with those of these women. The idea that we belong somewhere, and that the place to which you belong is somewhere that your family had to depart from, bred a notion in me that the place where I now am represents something of a holding ground; somewhere that houses me but that is separate to the land ‘where I came from’. This is a feeling steeped in the fables weaved by family members and of a people who represented to me a poetic lineage filled with romantic, tragic and courageous trials that were bravely faced.

I hope that whilst creating a place to house the memories of these women, the project serves to represent the lineage of women who above all kept going and coped. This sense of determination and strength is something which I feel enriches us throughout our daily lives and remains a sort of inherited ‘backbone’ that allows us to tackle and fight for the things we believe in.

Rachael graduated from the School of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, University of Dundee in 2006, and was awarded an MA at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2008. She has won many awards, including the Carnegie Undergraduate Travelling Scholarship (Australia 2004),The Scottish Sculpture Workshops (Residency award 2006), and Outstanding Film Achievement Award by Honourable Goldsmiths Society, Creation II (London). She has worked in film and production companies and continues to work on freelance projects.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.