Factory Girls artwork tender ‘as soon as is practical’

Shirt factory workers in Bishop Street in the 1960s.
Shirt factory workers in Bishop Street in the 1960s.

A new tender for an artwork celebrating the contribution of the women who powered Derry’s economy for generations will be issued “as soon as is practical”, the local council has said.

The council said that bringing the long-awaited Factory Girls project to tender was being treated as a priority.

A shirt factory in Derry in the 1920s.

A shirt factory in Derry in the 1920s.

The search for a new commemorative artwork was first revealed last October, after it was confirmed that the previously chosen and partially completed project by artist Louise Walsh was not be installed at Harbour Square, as had been planned.

Ms. Walsh’s work was commissioned by the old Department of Social Development (DSD) in 2006 for the King Street roundabout, but the location was later changed to Harbour Square.

At a council meeting last October, however, councillors were advised that the Department for Communities was to “discontinue with the current process on the grounds of value for money.”

Councillors backed the new plans to seek a new £90k commission and expressed the hope that the artwork would be in place within a year.

A spokesperson for Derry City & Strabane District Council confirmed to the ‘Journal’ that work “had commenced, in partnership with the Department for Communities, to progress the public realm scheme and ‘Factory Girls’ sculpture at Harbour Square.”

“The priority for the project is to progress as soon as is practical a new tender for the art piece. This work is ongoing,” the council spokesperson said.

Following the confirmation of the decision back in October, Louise Walsh wrote about how the project had been beset by problems, which, she said, included the artwork being commissioned and being told to start its creation despite no planning permission having been secured beforehand and much of the original artwork then being unsuitable for a new site.

Ms. Walsh said at the time: “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.”

the ultimate tribute to Derry’s Factory Girls

They have been commemorated in song, on stage and even on tea towels during the City of Culture year, but the long-awaited Factory Girls sculpture was, and is, expected to be the ultimate tribute, a prominent and public expression of pride in the generations of local women whose shirts were exported all over the world and who, in many cases, were the breadwinners in their homes.

The project was born out of a grassroots desire to see the important roles mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts working inside those factories in Derry or in the cottage industries in towns and villages across the region properly recognised.

Many have previously pointed out that to a visitor or young person casually strolling around Derry, there is little to no trace of anything honouring the women who played such a vital role in building not just the city’s economy but also, through the bonds of friendship and cameraderie they forged, the close knit communities that characterise the city and region to this day.