Friday, May 18, 2012

Honoring Irish Women of Our Past: Q&A With Artist Rachael Flynn

The Book of Names is an Internet-based project to recognize the women in our past who have migrated from Ireland. By adding the names of your Irish mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on, you will have the chance to ‘light a candle’ in their memory.

The effort is the brainchild of Rachael Flynn, who was born on the east coast of Scotland and grew up in the coastal village of Barry. Studying fine art and specializing in sculpture, she graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee and headed south to Goldsmiths, University of London, were she was awarded a Master of Arts degree.

Rachael has worked with independent filmmakers, artists, research groups and production companies, and is using skills gleaned from that experience for her Ph.D. work at the Scottish Centre for Island Studies. Her dissertation, in the discipline of Visual Arts Practice, is focused, in part, on the personal narrative of her Irish grandmother and the family that her grandmother left behind. Returning to her parents’ native Glasgow area, she currently teaches filmmaking at the University of the West of Scotland. The Wild Geese’s Preservation Editor Belinda Evangelista e-mailed her some questions about the project. WG

The Wild Geese:  The Book of Names project was inspired in part by the letters from your Glasgow grandmother from Donegal to the family she left behind in Ireland.  Is there anything you have learned about her that stands out from reading the correspondence? 

Flynn: I think one of the most important things that came from reading the letters was hearing the conversations and correspondences of a woman. What I mean by this is that, for me, my grandmother was very much the character of a grandmother. She passed away when I was 8 and still a child so to read these letters as a young woman meant I got to hear the voice of someone who -- although facing a different set of circumstances -- was reflecting and discussing some of the same age old things as I do. Although always remembering her fun and energetic ways, this strong character suddenly became located amongst the experiences that formed such a headstrong spirit. To read this prevailing determination to cope and to make things work was something that made me incredibly proud when reading the letters. As with many old letters the handwriting is beautiful and very gracefully scripted. This reinforced my sense of a woman who had great academic gifts who, although pushing the boundaries of opportunity, didn’t have a chance to study further than childhood. This again translated as reigniting a sense that my research and studies were as much for her as they are for me, as I partake in activities in which she would have thrived. This is something that I hope underpins the Book of Names project, as we recognize our positions now as things made possible due to these brave women of our past.

The Wild Geese:  Would you describe the experience of migration as bittersweet for most of the women and could you explain why that is? 

Flynn:  I think that for the people who are sharing and contributing such stories of migration within their family histories, there is this strange mix of feelings. In my own ancestry, both my maternal and paternal lines quite quickly lead back to Ireland; a trail weaved from stories of McBrides, Shevlins, Gallaghers, Laffertys, 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 feeling a great sense of pride at their determination to create better lives for the families they were to create. Furthermore, in bringing these stories to the fore, there is a humbleness when comparing our daily trials with those that these women would have had to cope with. At a recent event that I held at Glasgow Women’s Library, during which people were invited to share similar stories of Irish migration within their families, this bittersweet sentiment was again echoed.  We discussed that despite these women having the accomplishment of creating more hopeful futures, and of, against the odds, rebuilding homes for their families, many left behind ancestral landscapes which they would always feel a great longing for. In many ways this displacement is something that is repeatedly experienced as a cultural memory which is inherited through the generations. The idea that we belong somewhere, and that the place from where you belong is somewhere that your family had to depart from bred a notion in me that the place where I now was represented something of a holding ground; somewhere that housed me but that was separate to the land ‘where I came from.’ This obviously was a feeling which was steeped in the fables weaved by family members and of a cultural people who represented to me a poetic lineage filled with romantic, tragic and courageous trials that were bravely faced.

The Wild Geese:  Besides honoring these women, what do you hope that, as women, we can glean from the project?

Flynn: I recently had to deliver a talk at an academic conference. I had known in advance that the majority of people in the audience were studying aspects of science and engineering, and were engaged in research that operated using approaches incredibly different to my own. I had pictured the sea of faces in my head and was becoming increasingly nervous! I had phoned a friend for some reassuring words and she told me that if my grandmother can run away from home at 15, arriving in a city to make a new life for herself, finding work, a home and raising a family against the odds, then I could stand up and give a presentation! 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.

The Wild Geese: Would you agree that your approach to documenting history is in itself a softer and more feminine way to archive this material?

Agnes In Her Tram Conductress Uniform
Flynn:  Absolutely, for me it is about creating an embodied and personal ‘documentation.’ This idea of empathy -- often considered a more feminine approach -- is core to my handling.  When I first sat down with the various letters, I came across an envelope that was thick with various correspondences regarding the death of Agnes’ 7-year-old son Stephen. After spending some time with them, I asked my father about them -- who had been 9 at the time of Stephens’ death -- and asked if he had read them. He told me he remembered my grandmother sitting by the window reading them and hiding the tears that they were causing. On several of the pages, there are marks of these tears as the ink has run. I feel these visible signs on the paper help to reveal the emotive histories within my study of her story.

These ‘hidden’ factors allow me to then 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. In the Book of Names, it is my intention to develop this notion. Through the book, people will be able to add the names of their ancestors to a record that will start to build up a collection that seeks to move beyond formal data to create a human document. By adding the names of their Irish mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, aunts, cousins etc., those who engage with the book will have the chance to effectively ‘light a candle’ in their memory. Indeed, in the very way this historic commentary is portrayed, I am articulating historical information through alternative methods. Bridging approaches 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 and ‘experiencing’ a sense of history rather than just assuming another person’s textual account. Core within the work is creating a ‘space’ in which the reader can experience a sense of separation, loss, distance, absence and the edge of a personal landscape. All of which are wrapped up within the aspects of personal migration.    


The Wild Geese:  As an artist, do you have a visual image in your mind as to how your art might document this material or will that image evolve with the project?

A cottage on the Donegal coast.
Flynn:  I am wanting to, with permission of those who want to be involved, develop an artist’s book and set of artist’s prints using the names of these women. I feel there is a different experience associated with reading the actual names of such women -- and acknowledging that a relative submitted them -- which is different from reading the recorded statistics and typed data of state records. They live on as individuals, each receiving a page in the book for them to own and occupy. I also want to create a photographic and video sculptural work. I am going to put a call out to those who have submitted a name to the Book of Names who want to be involved in an interactive piece. For those who wish to, I will send a tea light candle and ask them to either photograph or film on their phones or cameras, the candle burning in their relatives memory.  I have already lit a candle for Agnes in front of her ancestral cottage in Donegal -- which is far harder than first imagined with such strong Atlantic Coast winds! I will then use these images to make a work that captures this living and continued presence of such memory in all of our Irish cultural psyches. I also hope to physically visit various sites where these boats would have come in or departed from and have a mass collection of candles burning to form a site-specific sculpture. The first location of these will be at the docks in Glasgow, but will grow as more names and locations are submitted. Depending on funding (as ever!), I also hope to take candles to the various counties and docks within Ireland where these women departed from. Traces of temporal elements and of frail yet enduring materials exploring a conversation between past and present generations lies beneath all of these activities.

The Wild Geese:  Is there anything else you would like the Diaspora to know?

Flynn:  Although as an artist I have launched this project, I would just like to underline that I feel this work is a collaborative work and would welcome any thoughts and reflections. It is one that will make its own journey as it stops to pause at various points. It is exciting to work on something that continues to grow and hopefully allow others to engage in their own histories. I myself feel that my journey into my Diasporic lineage is in its infancy. But something that has struck me as I have gone deeper into my grandmother’s narrative, and indeed the wider social background, is that I wish I had been prouder of all their achievements and unwavering strength sooner! WG

You can include names of the Irish women among your immigrant ancestors in the Book of Names Project, at

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