Kieran Tuohy doesn’t really know why he was compelled to create a body of work that draws on and explores one of the darkest events in Irish history – the Great Famine. A psychic friend told him that it was possibly because he lived through it, but “I don’t believe in that kind of stuff”, he says firmly.
Yet, when he guides you through his beautiful, exquisitely detailed bog-oak sculptures currently being exhibited in the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, it’s clear he feels an extraordinary connection with that time.
During the interview, he mentions that his great-grandmother and grandmother, then aged nine, had been inmates here later in the 19th century so the link is strong, although his grandmother, whom he remembers, never spoke of it.
Twenty–three pieces are listed in the catalogue for the show, Dark Shadows, but given that one of these – Line for the Soup – consists of 10 life-size figures of all ages and a giant cauldron, with skeletal arms reaching up the sides to the top and blighted potatoes at the base, there are nearly 40 works on show.
However, while the number of pieces is impressive, it’s the detail of the sculptures and the stories behind each one that makes Dark Shadows special.
This is a temporary exhibition at the Workhouse Centre – its run has already been extended and it will continue until late September as part of the annual Shorelines Arts Festival.
The guides at the Centre feels it’s a special addition and the perfect conclusion for tours of this place that opened in 1852 to house the poorest of the poor around the Portumna area.
The guides bring visitors through the building – to the dormitories, the laundry-rooms, the schoolrooms – explaining how husbands and wives, parents and children were separated on admission and outlining the rigid regime under which they lived. But seeing Kieran’s life-like figures or looking at a sculpture entitled Alexis Soyer’s Six-Minute Soup and reading the story behind it, gives visitors a different and profound engagement with the Great Famine.
Kieran lives in Kilcolgan, but if he happens to be in the Portumna building when people visit, he’s happy to talk to them about the work.
That’s what happens as our interview draws to a close and a Dublin couple on a tour of the Centre come into the exhibition room.
As they leave, 10 minutes later, they’re blown away by Dark Shadows and by his devotion to the topic.
When Kieran isn’t there, information is on hand about each piece in the show, because there’s a story behind all of them. All are inspired by real events and by stories that move him.
One such example is When. It’s about a mother who is trying to save her children from death by starvation. But, by engaging in an epic battle with death, she faces her own demise.
“It’s when you go a bit too deep with thoughts, thinking about your own children,” says this softly-spoken man who has a grown-up son and daughter, about the inspiration behind When.
The sculpture shows the mother reaching down to save her children from the arms of death, which is depicted by potato ridges and rotten Lumper potatoes with death faces on them.
“It’s about the mother’s choice,” he explains. “How do you abandon your children?”
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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Get all the latest Covid-19 coverage in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
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Read the full interview with Linda Hughes in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
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Read Mary’s full, heart-warming story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now – or download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie