A new piece of public art to celebrate the contribution of female mill workers to Belfast’s growth, prosperity and success, is being unveiled in north Belfast this week.
The cast bronze statue, ‘The Mill Worker’, commissioned by Belfast City Council and created by accomplished Northern Ireland sculptor Ross Wilson, was inspired by Belfast artist William Conor’s loving depiction of the ‘shawlies’.
Councillor William Humphrey, chairman of Belfast City Council’s Development Committee — who will join Baroness May Blood to officially unveil the new sculpture, at the junction of Cambrai Street and the Crumlin Road on Thursday, May 27 — said: “The sculpture, already affectionately known as ‘Millie’, is a beautiful tribute to those women from north Belfast who worked so hard in the mills, in the most appalling conditions, to provide for their families.
“This is a representation of the highly skilled artisans who played such a hugely important part in Northern Ireland’s industrial history.
“Their work in producing a world class product, Irish linen, must never be forgotten.”
It is hoped that the sculpture, with its interpretative signage, will also help to raise awareness of Belfast’s position as one of the fastest growing urban centres in 19th century Europe, with the linen industry a major driver.
In 1896, 96,000 Belfast people worked in linen, making it the biggest employer.
Linen profits in Belfast enabled the establishment of other world leading industrial growth in engineering, shipbuilding, tobacco, whiskey and rope making.
Sculptor Ross Wilson explained the background to the creative process behind developing the finished artwork: “I was delighted to have the opportunity to work closely with both Malvern and Edenbrooke Primary Schools to create murals based on the work of William Conor.
“It was inspiring to hear these young people’s responses to learning more about how the women of the area really were the backbone of the community and how their work allowed Belfast to prosper as a trading centre.
“I hope that ‘Millie’ will help foster a greater sense of pride in this area — and help explain the significance of the Greater Shankill area to Belfast’s history to local people and visitors alike.”
Located on the corner of Cambrai Street and the Crumlin Road, ‘Millie’ is adjacent to Brookfield Mill, which was one of the largest mills in the world. Three other major spinning mills — Edenderry, Flax Street and Ewarts — were located |close by.
‘Millie’ is one of five public art pieces funded by Belfast City Council’s Brighter Belfast initiative, aimed at celebrating the cultural identity, diversity and rich heritage neighbourhoods in north, south, east and west Belfast.
The overall theme of this public art project is ‘Belfast and Beyond’, celebrating the industries and social and cultural activities with which the people of Belfast have been associated, and how these activities have influenced the rest of the world.
The other four key pieces are ‘Let’s Twist Again’ by Malcolm Robertson on the Newtownards Road, ‘Sweet Water Arch’ by Denis O’Connor and Bernie Rutter at Stranmillis, ‘Winding the Warp’ by Jason Mulligan marking the entrance to the Oldpark, and ‘Spirit of Hedge and Hound’ by Martin Heron at Falls Park.
A publication documenting this public art project, ‘Creative Communities: Turning Spaces into Places’, and a searchable online database of public art works across the city is available at www.belfastcity.gov.uk/publicart.