‘Factory Girls’ have been insulted, claims artist

Louise Walsh.
Louise Walsh.

Back in 2005, a public art commission was advertised, seeking an artwork that would celebrate the enormous contribution of shirt factory workers to the city’s history.

Artists were invited to choose an appropriate location. I was thrilled, in January 2006, to be awarded the commission and I chose, as the location, the King Street roundabout in the Waterside. This would have provided a clear and striking view of the work from the Walled City.

Unfortunately, those who commissioned me failed to obtain planning permission for the location. This is the single fact that has caused so much difficulty and delay ever since.

The artwork itself was to have been a large sculpture that represented a sewing machine, with a shirt collar and fabric shaped into the hill. I was instructed to begin the fabrication of the sculpture despite the absence of planning permission.

Halfway through the construction, I was told that the location had been ruled out on road safety grounds and planning permission had been refused.

This was devastating news as the artwork was substantially constructed and had been designed specifically for a site that I was told, late in the day, it was not possible to use. The design, and the size, was only appropriate for the location that had now become unavailable.

In late 2007, I was asked by the former Department for Social Development and the then Derry City Council, to re-design the artwork for a possible new location - at the Harbour Square - close to the Guildhall.

Much of the original design and the specially-built constructed artwork were inappropriate for the new location. Yet, neither planning approval, nor finance, were available for the new site.

Sadly, I decided in April 2013, that I had to withdraw from the project. There had been repeated obstructions to the progress of the artwork.

After eight years of dedicated commitment to the project – involving an enormous amount of time, substantially beyond that for which I was paid – I decided that I had to give up. I was no longer confident that the bodies that had commissioned the artwork were genuinely determined to see the project through.

Later that year, I was persuaded, despite my reservations, that I should re-engage with the project. This was because I was given undertakings about a new location that would support the artwork.

It was now to be part of a planned redevelopment of the area at Harbour Square. This was to include new road crossings from the Peace Bridge on the city side and provide an appropriate and attractive setting for the sculptural artwork, involving landscape design, pathways, seating and other features.

It seemed as if planning approval would be given for this new site. But, then, yet another obstacle arose and I was advised that planning approval was now unlikely.

By the end of 2015, I was given assurances that there was continued support for the construction of the artwork – yet no clear decision was given and the project was left hanging in the air.

On International Women’s Day 2017, Derry City & Strabane Council voted unanimously to provide planning permission for the sculpture for the new design in the new location. However, that dealt only with the planning issues.

There was no financial budget to cover all the additional work required. All my work to date – including much time spent trying to find solutions - has come out of the original budget from 2005.

I was told that, without the Northern Ireland Executive being in place, there was no immediate prospect of the necessary funds being made available from government.

It has now been decided by the Department for Communities to “discontinue with the current process on the grounds of value for money.” An entirely new process to commission a Factory Girls Sculpture is to begin.

During my preparations for drawing-up the artwork proposal, I spoke at length to former shirt workers. Those women gave their time for free, shared their stories of their experience and left me with a vast amount of research material.

It makes me enormously sad that their time and effort, as well as mine, has been wasted over these last, long, 13 years.

It is obvious that my role is at an end. I hope that a different and newly commissioned sculpture project does proceed and that it properly honours the important role of Derry women in the economic fabric of the city and in the industrial history of Northern Ireland.

Anything less would be an insult to them. But I am left with the feeling that the last 13 years has been an insult to me as an artist, as well as to them as the Factory Girls.

Sculptor, Louise Walsh, pictured with a minature model of her proposed artwork to celebrate the historical contribution of Derry’s shirt workers.