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In a league of their own


MEANINGFUL CREATION Artist Nicky Dowd with the Children’s Land League sculpture she made with the pupils of Straide NS pupils. Pic: Lucy Hill

Straide NS pupils create a charming sculpture with deep roots

Ciara Moynihan

In front of Straide National School stands an intriguing sculpture. A multi-branched metal structure, from which objects of all sorts of shapes and colours dangle. Closer inspection reveals their nature – a kettle, driftwood and sea glass, a wellington, a peg and rope, a chain, a railway carriage, a small chair, a spring and coil, a sliotar....
To the uninitiated, it might look like something from a fairytale. A wishing tree, perhaps. And in many ways it is. But this tree is rooted in something far more real than any fable, something far more tangible.
Inspired by the Michael Davitt Museum, which has a long and strong relationship with the school, it represents the Children’s Land League in sculptural form. Each charm represents a social-justice or environmental issue that the school’s young pupils deem important to them, and to children everywhere.    
The sculpture, which was officially launched at the school in December, is the result of sensory workshops facilitated by Westport-based artist Nicky Dowd. The project is part of the Creative Schools programme run by Creative Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland.
School Principal Caithríona Murrihy and Creative Associate with Creative School’s artist Lucy Hill developed a two-year programme of creative workshops and events related to the Children’s Land League. Through that programme, the children participated in a number of events, including contemporary dance with dancer Catherine Donnelly, trips to The Linenhall Arts Centre and The Museum of Country Life, and the creative sensory workshops with Nicky Dowd.
The entire project has been documented in a book, designed by David Moran from Visual Media in Newport, that will be self-published and printed at Books@One in Louisburgh. The children contributed poems, artwork and stories, all related to the Children’s Land League. They also contributed images of their creative and Land League-inspired adventures with their parents and grandparents at home (and on the bog!) during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The workshops
During the workshops, Dowd asked the children to think about social and environmental justice and come up with ways to describe and visualise their ideas.
The children discussed the values that are important to them growing up in Ireland, and the issues they would expect to be respected and heard.
“We collectively decided on three themes that would encompass many of those social rights,” the artist explains. “What practices respect the environment or destroy it? How can we  be kind to others and recognise when we are being selfish? When are we showing racist behaviour and how we can ensure equality?”
Dowd found that discussing feelings, solutions and emotions was a productive way of getting creative. “Using synaesthesia and kinetics as an inspiration, I invited groups of children to relate each of the five ‘senses’ to their theme. We listened to music and spontaneously drew shapes and colours to find a visual language. We felt a variety of textures and discussed how they made them feel, documenting their choices.
“We looked at a collection of old and new buttons and discussed why they did or didn’t like them wondering where they may have come from whose coat, cardigan, what age the person who wore it, lost it, may have been.
“Lastly, I introduced the children to pleasant and offensive smells hidden in pots and related them to their themes.”
The children were then asked to apply their new experiences and bring an object from home that symbolised one of the three themes, explaining why they had chosen it and how it made them feel. The resulting collection and the thinking behind them is truly moving.

The charms
Many children brought in slices and logs of wood, which are piled at the base of the installation to represent fire. Fire sustains us by keeping us warm, and here it illuminates the strength and importance of the rights of children – which, like fire, must be respected and never ignored.
The kettle charm represents the right of every child to have hot water for hygiene and safety. The children also recognised the kettle as a quintessential symbol of the kindness of friendship – ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ instantly an invitation to hospitality and comfort.
By embellishing the sculpture’s wellington with old buttons, the children alluded to the right for every child to be dry and clothed. The shoe was chosen as a representation of children past and future, as a reminder that in the past, shoes were not always affordable and a declaration that that ‘every child should be able to have their own footwear, so they are able to go where they want without infections in their feet’.
A pot, pan and spoon hang to represent the Famine, and every child’s fundamental right to food and water.
The children were keen to represent climate change, and the driftwood and sea glass represents the need for sustainable, responsible, alternative energy resources as well as sustainable, responsible waste disposal. We must look after nature so it can look after us, says the Children’s Land League.
The peg-and-rope charm is also related to our environmental responsibilities, serving as a reminder of the right to outdoor space, clean air and water. The railway carriage represents our freedom to travel, with the future rollout of electric trains offering a fast clean way of transporting food and goods in an environmentally responsible way.
Racism and equality were high on the children’s agenda, and under the umbrella of kindness, they are represented in the sculpture by a chain, a symbol of slavery and being trapped. The Children’s Land League demands that, ‘As children we have the right to never be slaves to anything or anyone. Animals must be respected and free to live in their own environment when they can be’.  The pupils noted that a chain can also symbolise the strength of linking together.
The children chose to underscore the importance of mental health by hanging a spring-and-coil charm, noting: “When we are feeling down it is sometimes difficult to imagine ever feeling happy again but then suddenly the sunshine and time has healed whatever we were upset about. Like a trampoline spring we bounce up and down. It is the roller coaster of life that we must learn to navigate. A spring and coil symbolises the promise of hope.”
A rubber duck, jigsaw, toy car and dolls-house chair are linked together to represent the innocence and necessity of play, and the importance of being included in games.
Poignantly, a sliotar ball has been embellished with ‘spikes’, to represent the shape of that tiny coronavirus molecule that has come to dominate our lives this year. Noting that Covid-19 has paralysed the world, causing illness and death, and reshaping our lives, the children wanted to remember all who have been affected and to use it to symbolise the right of every child be protected in the future with access to free medicine and vaccinations.

When it came to deciding how to turn the objects into a sculpture, inspiration was drawn from the work of Alexander Calder, an American sculptor known for his innovative mobiles.  
A metal structure was fabricated, and a series charms were made reworking the objects the children gifted to the project. They hang on swivel cleats that, like Calder’s mobiles, can rotate in the wind to bring the charms to life.
And as if to further underscore the dynamism of the times in which we live, the charms can be interchangeable, altering as the year progresses, allowing the structure to be used to highlight future projects in the school year.
The school is thrilled with the sculpture, and with the success of the Children’s Land League project in general. It has thanked The Davitt Museum for its encouragement and friendship, and all of the school’s teachers (particularly deputy principal Breege Staunton), staff, parents, and grandparents for their enthusiastic engagement with the project. The whole school is also extremely grateful to Chris Cooney at Ryan Steel Westport for making the beautiful metal sculptural structure, to David Moran at Visual Media for the stunning work on their book, and to Nicky Dowd for the hugely enjoyable workshops and for all her work on the sculpture.
For now, the classrooms of Straide NS, like all others across the country, are silent. As the pandemic continues to turn our world upside down, our schoolchildren have been forced out of the familiar and into new ways. But like many people around the world, the children of Straide NS have seen an opportunity amid the challenges – an opportunity for society to ‘build back better’. And as we rebuild, we would do well to think about their sculpture and pay heed to the values it enshrines: equality, kindness, respect. 

Schools interested in participating in the Creative Schools programme (a two year fully funded programme that puts creativity at the heart of the school) are advised to contact Creative Schools at The Arts Council of Ireland. Primary, post-primary and youthreach are all eligible.