Whose History? began with walking. The idea for this project emerged in August 2020, following the success of the University of Liverpool’s Culture Unconfined festival in May that year, during the first lockdown. When the decision was taken to develop a performance event centring on sites associated with historical figures and events on the university’s South Campus, Sidelong Glance director Eleanor Lybeck began to walk around Abercromby Square and its immediate environs, looking for stories in the streets.
There was one story – or rather one set of stories – which she already had a sense of. She knew she wanted to return to this small plaque on Mulberry Street. There are two sentences on it: one in English, one in Irish. With dignified restraint, which respects the enormity of the human experience described, the words tell us:
Near this place in 1847, some 2600 destitute Irish Famine migrants were buried in unmarked pauper graves. They had died in extreme poverty in the parish of Liverpool, so ending their flight from the Great Hunger 1845-52.
The question “whose history?” could hardly be more apt for this site: “some 2,600 people”, lost in a disaster which claimed an estimated one million people, and nameless in death. For all that we know about the Famine, we will never know them: people who left Ireland during the year remembered as the very worst of that period, 1847, hoping to escape crisis at home, found only a new version of destitution in the city to which they travelled.
It is thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Great Hunger Commemoration Committee, during the events in the 1990s which marked the 150th anniversary of the Famine, that the plaque, and therefore the reminder, exists. While the remains of the people buried here were removed in the 1950s when the site was redeveloped, the street where they lay for a century remains an important focal point for our acknowledgement of this particular chapter in Liverpool’s Irish story.
The challenge of commemoration
But how can we remember these lives? How should we? And how can we take on remembering of this kind when commemoration has been, and remains, such a charged issue in Irish history and experience?
We considered various approaches to telling the story of this site, and in all our research we were guided by Greg Quiery’s indispensable history of the Irish in Liverpool, In Hardship and Hope (2017). This extraordinary study sent us to many other resources, including the archives of Liverpool newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s. In column after column these papers reveal how Ireland was never far from Liverpool in this period, from local politicians lobbying Westminster for greater relief as thousands upon thousands of migrants arrived in the city, to the reports of hearings at the Coroners’ Court, which attest without fail to the poverty, disease, and desperation in which so many Irish men, women, and children lived and died.
The more we read and talked about this piece, the more we felt that to recover one story from the historical record and make it stand for 2600 stories which left no trace would be out of keeping with the gesture of acknowledgment we felt Whose History? might perform on Mulberry Street. So we went back to the street itself.
We looked closely at the pavement, the tarmac, and the patch of grass in front of the student accommodation block which now occupies the site of the graves. We thought about how every act of commemoration belongs to its present moment, even as it looks to the past. And we kept thinking about that number, 2600.
The film we have devised seeks to incorporate both the contemporary reality of the street, and our contemporary relationship with its history. We invited 26 people of all ages, many of them with a direct connection either to the university or to Liverpool’s Irish community, or both, to assemble on Mulberry Street. Each of them was given a piece of chalk and invited to choose a small fabric pennant. In turn, they stepped forward to the pavement in front of the accommodation block, knelt down, and made 100 marks on the ground. Then they tied their pennant to the inconspicuous wooden railing which separates the grass from the street.
Music and Silence
While we were developing this piece, RTÉ television screened The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine, a major two-part documentary produced in collaboration with University College Cork and based on The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. One of the many details which stood out to us in this was Kevin Whelan’s observation that before the Famine, rural Ireland was full of noise: everywhere people talked. It was a shared, open culture. One of the saddest things about the Famine, Professor Whelan said, was that that culture weakened dramatically. We wanted the film to capture something of that shared experience, and also allow some release – even, briefly, some joy – into the way we imagined these lives. We did that through music: five exceptional musicians, Jennie Nolan, John Chandler, Mike Hogan, Mike Grisenthwaite, and Megan Nolan played a selection of traditional Irish pieces to accompany the commemoration. To end, we felt we had to make space for a different kind of silence – the false silence of the city. Once our participants departed Mulberry Street, the scene was left almost as we’d found it: the sounds of traffic and city life in the background, but the quiet acknowledgement – the marks on the ground, and the pennants on the railing – of the 2600 remained.
As we devised the action for the memorial, other places, gestures, references, and associations began to gather. We knew that music would be an important element of the piece – but that silence, too, among this gathering of people, would need to be captured. The order of service for Good Friday in the Catholic church concludes with the words “all depart in silence”, and we had that in mind as we considered the way in which our crowd of participants might leave the site on Mulberry Street, and each go their separate ways in the city after participating in this shared act.
We knew we wanted our participants to leave something behind on Mulberry Street – some small token which acknowledged the people who once lay buried there. Our videographer, Jenny Collins, had the brilliant idea of incorporating Irish linen in these tokens, so we made that our focus. While we wanted there to be a degree of uniformity about the tokens left by our participants, we also wanted to ensure some diversity. So we sourced a range of fabrics: as well as unbleached Irish linen from Cloth Dublin, we chose a selection of tweeds from the famous Donegal firm Magee, and traditional red flannel, and Aran wool, from Vibes & Scribes in Cork City. We had J. M. Synge’s observations from The Aran Islands (1907) in mind as we considered the colours of these fabrics: “The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at the back. [. . .] The men wear three colours: the natural wool, indigo, and grey flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural wool.”
But our principal visual guide was the painting Mass in a Connemara Cabin, by Aloysius O’Kelly. Although painted some years after the Famine, in 1883, the picture captures a custom which began in the seventeenth century – the ‘Stations’ – in which Mass was said and confession heard in private farmhouses in rural Ireland. The custom began as a response to the Penal Laws, which forced Catholics to practise their religion in secrecy. During the following century it became increasingly widespread, particularly in the west and southeast of Ireland, but by the time O’Kelly came to paint this picture in the later nineteenth century the disapproval and active discouragement of the Stations by church authorities was common. For some, the painting presents perhaps an overly sentimental view of life in rural Ireland. But, in a brilliant commentary on the picture, Claudia Kinmonth notes that it is O’Kelly’s “straightforward” and “serious” approach to his subject matter which “enhances its value as an historical document”. Among other fascinating details, it is pointed out that “the company are dressed in their best clothes”, and further that:
O’Kelly presents those in attendance as individuals, not as ciphers, and lavishes attention on every detail of the accoutrements associated with their daily lives, which have been carefully prepared to look their best for the event.Claudia Kinmonth, in Brendan Rooney ed., A Time and a Place (Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2006), p. 78.
The pennants themselves carry those inspirations, and the act of tying them to the wooden railing on Mulberry Street involves further references. We thought, for example, of Cross Bones graveyard in Southwark. Formally unconsecrated, this patch of waste ground in London, SE1 is the resting place of thousands. Originally, in the late medieval period, it began as a burial ground for the ‘Winchester Geese’, prostitutes in the local area. As the centuries rolled on, Cross Bones remained the place where many others who were denied a Christian burial were buried, by the eighteenth century it was a paupers’ graveyard, and it finally closed in 1853. In recent years the site has survived plans for redevelopment, and the gates which enclose it are covered in hundreds of ribbons and tokens, left in memory of those the plaque on the site calls “the outcast dead”.