Making Art and Making Place: Reflecting on the story of the Carlow Sugar Factory

This post discusses ‘Ex-Machina’, a film by Frances Hegarty and Andrew Stones, and ‘Carlow Sugar Factory’, a collection of photography by P.L. Curran, both of which are currently being exhibited at VISUAL Centre for the Contemporary Arts in Carlow until 22 October 2016. Below, Aoife Kavanagh explores the stories these art works convey, and how they capture processes of place-making and remembering.

I had the immense good fortune of stumbling across some inspiring and moving art pieces recently, while walking through the VISUAL Centre for the Contemporary Arts, in Carlow. I made my way through the various galleries, stopping finally at the main gallery. I could hear loud sounds coming from this vast, high-ceilinged room, and I wondered if construction work of some kind was being carried out inside. The curtains were drawn across the entrance to the gallery, and, because this is practically an invitation to peek (and I’m not one to read signs anyway, really), I looked inside. I saw a huge screen in the centre of the room, a number of speakers positioned throughout, and a long bench lined up in front of the screen. Intrigued, I stepped inside and sat down.

I think the film was at about halfway through when I first began to watch, and so it took a little while to realise what was being shown. I first saw steps and stairways made of steel, with small pieces of rubble scattered about and a view to a lower concrete floor and machinery below. My viewpoint (or I think of it as “the camera”, though the camera could not be seen) was making its way across these pathways as if hovering above them. The sounds that filled the room were loud, what I would describe as the sound of machines. The ground below was littered with rubble too, and, when the hovering camera reached the end of its trail, it suddenly dropped, and a loud banging noise was heard. I was taken aback by this, and even a little frightened. The sounds could still be heard, but the screen was black.

A scene similar to this subsequently emerged, and played out in a similar way. The dropping of the hovering camera had the same effect again, despite the fact that I expected it. I came to realise that this represented a dropping deeper into a building, as the view became darker and darker, and the sounds changed. The final scene of this first viewing saw an image emerge very slowly of a large accumulation of something white, what turned out to be waste sugar. It was at this point that I was sure that it was the sugar factory site that was being shown. The camera moved rapidly forward into this, and blurring, rapidly moving black and white shapes appeared across the screen. Then, suddenly, the camera retreated quickly, and I was taken backwards along the camera’s route, out of the factory building and far away, so that it was lost from view. The final shot was a still of building works, with the now obsolete factory far away, an indistinct blurred image in the background, with the soft sound of wind blowing being all that can be heard. The film began again soon after, and I saw what I had first missed (the camera zooming toward the factory site and inside the main building; it then picked up from where I began). I stayed and watched the entire film through again.

After the film, I was struck by so many thoughts and memories. There were no people in the film, and no sound other than that of machinery, which I later learned was the sound of the camera equipment used to film as well as parts of the natural soundscape of the building. I didn’t feel that a story had been told per se. More strikingly and thought-provokingly for me, a sort of illustration had been given and an exploration had been facilitated, in the literal sense of a building, but also of an institution, and, I would venture, a place-making force, which has been changed and dismantled.

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Figure 1: The now vacant Greencore Irish Sugar plant site, Carlow, 1 August 2016 (author’s own)

I have some recollection of the closing of the Greencore Irish Sugar plant (with whose title I am not wholly familiar, it being more readily referred to locally as ‘the sugar factory’ or just ‘the factory’) in Carlow, in 2005. I was going into secondary school nearby, and it was quite a talking point in the town. There had been protests, and it had been discussed in newspapers and on the radio and television. The reasons for the plant’s closure, described at the time to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food by David Dilger, the chief executive of Greencore PLC, included impending EU reforms on sugar quotas and prices which would require rationalisation of the industry in Ireland, increasing competition from European producers, and the need to lengthen the ‘campaign’ duration (the period during which sugar beet is harvested and processed) to maximise production (Houses of the Oirceachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food Debate, 23 February 2005). 189 full-time and 137 campaign employees lost their jobs (ibid.), and the beet farmers from surrounding areas and counties affected significantly by the redirection of their produce to the only remaining plant at Mallow. This plant too was subsequently closed (MacConnell 2006).

I don’t think it would be overly reaching to assert that most families in Carlow had some association with the factory during its lifetime here, and that it played a role in the development of so many aspects of the town. Indeed, my mother, her father, and her sister all worked there, similar to numerous families from across the town. I have enjoyed some very interesting conversations with people who worked in the factory for most of their lives, and members of their family who have recollections of childhood experiences associated with the factory too. A neighbour of my grandad’s tells many rich stories of his involvement in the social club for employees, ‘Cosets’, including putting on plays in which my grandad took part! He also told me of how the home he still inhabits, and each within that housing estate, was built for factory employees. They each drew matches to choose which house within the sixteen they would inhabit, and there were several other similar housing projects. I have spoken to musical colleagues too who have told me about relatives who worked in the factory, and who, as a result, know of my own family. I could never have imagined that such connections would exist to the extent that they do, and I reflect on this shared history, and the important role the factory played and continues to play as a ‘node’ of community and connection building within the town (see for instance Aitken 2009), even though it no longer exists. Further to this, I think it could be argued to some extent that the factory and/or its site could be considered a field of care for some (following Tuan 1979).

I recall my grandad’s retirement from the factory, in 1997, and a glass clock given to him as a gift upon his retirement still stands on my late grandmother’s piano. He is unfortunately too unwell now to tell too many stories of his many years in the factory. In fact, when he suffers particularly with confusion, he imagines that he is again working in the factory, speaking animatedly of ‘the campaign’. My mother recollects very fondly the Christmas parties held by the factory for employees’ children, the ‘Tops of the Town’ competitions it facilitated, and the ‘Cosets’ social club for employees. She tells of how employees’ family members would subsequently seek jobs at the factory, and how there seemed to be a sort of ethos of employing people from the town there. The factory seems from my only vague recollection (I was twelve when it closed) to have dictated a sort of rhythm by which the town lived, with traffic along the Athy Road heavier at certain times, with trucks entering and leaving the factory, tall plumes rising from the factory chimneys (visible from quite a distance away), and with “the campaign” in the autumn months, when the factory would go into sugar production after the beet harvest.

During my explorations of the factory and its history after the Ex Machina film, I was also directed to the work of P.L. Curran, a Carlow man who had captured photographs of the life of the factory spanning back thirty years, some of which presently form the Carlow Sugar Factory exhibit at VISUAL. When Ex Machina was first exhibited in 2006, a selection of these photos also formed an accompanying exhibition, Time Exposure. Curran photographed the dismantling of the factory. As the notes for his present photographic exhibition at VISUAL describe, ‘his work remains a powerful record of the passing of a way of life’. These photographs depict the factory while it functioned, and during the dismantling process, when it was asset-stripped. I think the value of this body of work cannot be easily quantified, especially since the factory site now is practically derelict, with one chimney and a weigh bridge and reception building being all that remains on a now vacant site (above). Such art work, I think, has important place-making value, in that it captures and creates memories of an important place within itself, as well as an important factor in the making of Carlow as a larger place. The art work now serves to help those who view it to remember and reflect, or, if they are younger or unfamiliar with Carlow’s history, to discover and learn.

In terms of my own work, I first began to think about the factory as a sort of place-making actor when I examined Take Me Home to Carlow, a ballad composition by Carlow native Declan Smith, which I included as a case study art work in my M.A. study of music- and place-making in Carlow. This piece speaks both fondly and regretfully of the sugar factory in Carlow, and the effect of its closure. In the opening line of the song, Smith reflects on his childhood memories of ‘the factory at Strawhall’, ‘rock piles [of sugar beet] looming tall’ and the smell of this beet, as it was carried to the factory in large trucks. These vivid sensory recollections struck me when I was analysing the song with Smith, such experiences being central to processes of place-making (Tuan 1977). They seemed to me to form part of the weave of place memories and experiences that made Carlow a place for Smith (Adams et al. 2001), and, of course, for so many others who could tell similar stories. During our conversation, Smith described how composing this ballad had provided a means to reflect on these memories, to remember what has since changed and gone, and, building on this, to think about what has become of Carlow as a place. In this sense, I read the piece of music to work in a nostalgic, reflective and, in some ways, healing sense for the composer.

The first time I experienced this piece in performance was as part of a collaborative choral music project with members of Aspiro, a Carlow based community choral organisation, and the Carlow Active Retired Association, in St. Mary’s Church, Carlow in June 2013. Together, these groups formed a 250 strong choir, of young people and older adults of all ages, providing a vibrant intergenerational illustration of the story of the song. Though I did not consider it at the time, I have since come to think of those very performances of the song as a sort of collective remembering and reflection, contributing to such processes on an even larger level than merely that of the performers. What is striking, thinking back, is that many of the younger choristers within those performances could have very little personal recollection of the factory, yet were learning about, conveying and perpetuating its story through their performance. This, too, I would argue, suggests the value of this sort of locally driven and community based musical artistic practice in processes of place-making and knowing. Indeed, the potential of art in capturing such place experiences is underlined in the geographic context (Tuan 1977, 2004).

It is difficult to tell a positive story out of the closure of the sugar factory, for the site itself or for the town as a whole, and this is a point not only raised by Smith during our conversations, but by others with whom I have spoken about the factory closure. Greencore subsequently sought to rezone the plant site (Beesley 2006) to develop a mixed-use business, commercial and residential area (Healy and Parsons 2006). This development never took place, and, though the site has been cleared and fenced off, it remained vacant. The town also saw the downsizing or closure of other industrial plants in subsequent years, including Braun, Läpple and Celtic Linen (McDonald 2010). While some new developments have been made, the magnitude of these industrial losses is significant, and the effect of their redundancy on the landscape is plain, providing a visible reminder of these losses. However, I would argue that artworks such as Ex Machina, Carlow Sugar Factory, Take Me Home to Carlow and others which have sought to remember and reflect on the factory’s story and history, can, to some extent, help in reflecting on and moving forward from these experiences. The value of this locally oriented and inspired art work, compounded by its exhibition in the very place on which they reflect, for an audience whose place is so shaped by their subject, is significant. The art continues to contribute to place-making, even if the physical object and institution which inspires it has now gone. How fortunate we are to be able to enjoy such art, and let us hope that curators and funders will continue to recognise its potential and value.

Aoife Kavanagh is a PhD candidate and John and Pat Hume Scholar in the Department of Geography at Maynooth. A professional musician and Carlow native, her project, ‘Making Music and Making Place: Mapping Musical Practice and Metaphor in Ireland’ explores the co-constitutive processes of music- and place-making in Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford.

 

References

Adams, P.C., Hoelscher, S. and Till, K.E. (eds.) (2001) Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Aitken, S.C. (2009) Community. In: Kitchin, R. and Thrift, N. (eds.)

(2009) International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 221-225.

Beesley, A. (2006) Greencore seeks site rezoning in Carlow. The Irish Times, 13 March 2006, 18.

Healey, A. and Parsons, M. (2006) Greencore unveils plans for Carlow site. The Irish Times, 22 November 2006, 2.

Houses of the Oireachtas (2005) Houses of the Oirceachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food Debate: Carlow Sugar Factory Presentations, 23 February 2005. Available at: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/Debates%20Authoring/DebatesWebPack.nsf/committeetakes/AGJ2005022300004?opendocument (accessed 8 August 2016).

MacConnell, S. (2006) Many sweet years before all turned sour. The Irish Times, 16 March 2006, 8.

McDonald, F. (2010) Carlow feels crash keenly as jobs are cut and development stops. The Irish Times, 24 June 2010, 12.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (1977) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (1979) Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective. In: S. Gale and G. Olsson eds. (1979) Philosophy in Geography. Netherlands: Springer. 387-427.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (2004) Place, Art and Self. Sante Fe, New Mexico: Center for American Places.

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