In July 2019 at Galway International Arts Festival I presented work-in-progress for a new exhibition - Placing Home: Hidden Stories - a commission from the festival to make work in collaboration with people from the city who have lived experience of Direct Provision. (Direct Provision is Ireland's reception system for asylum seekers). I was due to return to Galway in Spring 2020, but like so many things in that turbulent year, work on the project was abruptly curtailed by the global pandemic.
I made an online exhibition for the festival's 2020 Autumn Edition, for which I re-visited images I had taken in Galway in 2018 and 2019. I placed them alongside photographs that resonate with themes of confinement and freedom, isolation and belonging - of refugee settlements in Europe, and from my London 2020 series, Life in the Time of Corona.
Direct Provision was established in Ireland in 2000 to accommodate people temporarily - in theory for no more than six months - whilst their asylum claim was processed. The reality is that many displaced people have been trapped in the system for far longer - housed in cramped, shared rooms, with very little privacy, their daily lives subject to endless restrictions. Not knowing how long they will have to wait for the outcome of their asylum application adds to the stress of having virtually no autonomy and very limited financial means. In June 2019 there were over 7,000 men, women, and children in Direct Provision across Ireland.
Many of the photographs featured in the online exhibition were taken in Salthill, where the Eglinton Hotel is located. The Eglinton has been a Direct Provision centre since 2000, but it was once a popular seaside resort hotel, with an enviable view across the bay towards the Clare Hills and the Aran Islands. In fine weather the promenade is busy with people heading to the beach, walking their dogs, jogging, cycling, or simply watching the world go by from one of the many seafront cafés or bars. A short walk up the road is the summer fairground, and a little further along, the Blackrock Diving Tower juts out across the water.
There’s a notice on the main door of the Eglinton saying that it is no longer open to the general public. The barred entrance to the car park bears the sign, 'No turning at this point’. Windows on the side of the building reveal details of family life squashed into small spaces: a kettle on the windowsill, washing hung up to dry, a child's drawing taped to the windowpane, a push-chair pressed up against the glass.
In this period of uncertainty, anxiety, and lockdowns, our relationship to home - both the physical place and the emotional heart - has become more acute. COVID 19 has exposed fractured communities and deep social inequality, making life for those who have experienced the trauma of displacement even more difficult.