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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Claire Ryan

'This is happening in plain sight': Telling the story of trafficked people working in Irish growhouses

A new artwork is based on the stories of people affected.

THE EXPERIENCES OF people who have been trafficked to Ireland to work on cannabis farms is being explored in a fascinating new experience at the Cork Midsummer Festival.

The event, The Day-Crossing Farm, has been created by artist Marie Brett, who worked with filmmaker Linda Curtin, composer and sound designer Peter Power, and lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels. 

Using interactive sculpture, moving image, lighting and even plantlife, Brett has put her intense research into people’s experiences together to create a unique experience at a secret site.

Illegal drug manufacture and cultivation offences almost doubled nationally last year, with figures increasing by 98% in 2020 on those recorded in 2019, according to CSO statistics.

The show also opened days after Ireland successfully secured its first convictions under the Human Trafficking Act 2008, and weeks after a new Report on Human Trafficking and Exploitation on the Island of Ireland.

This report stated that the number of adults and children trafficked to the island of Ireland between 2014 – 2019 is at least 30% higher across the island than the figure officially recorded. It said an estimated 800 victims of human trafficking live often ‘hidden in plain sight’ within Irish communities.

‘Deeply informed’

Speaking to The Journal, Brett said that she did a huge amount of research and work in order to put the show together. 

A lot of the work Brett does is socially-orientated. When the Cork Midsummer Festival approached her two years ago, the idea of a piece about cannabis growhouses (building on previous work she had done around trafficking and migration) was hit upon. 

They got funding together, including some seed funding from Cork City Council, and Brett set about making contact with people working in the field. 

She described her work as “deeply informed – it takes lot of work and development”. She met with individuals affected, agencies. people who worked with the gardaí, lawyers and the HSE in order to build up the correct picture. 

Brett wanted to build the event “from the grassroots up”.

“The most important thing for me was to get to actually meet people who had been trafficked themselves,” she said. 

There are a few layers to the piece – there’s the trafficking element, and also forced labour and modern slavery. 

“It was important to think though, are we just going to make a piece of work about cannabis growhouses? I felt that it was very important to look at the three layers and that makes a lot more ambitious piece of work,” explained Brett. The postponement of the event due to Covid gave her even more time “to build a better understanding of how those three things intersect” and gather more support. 


Brett said that the work she did required “a lot of learning and a lot of listening”. Listening and talking to people who had been through the experience gave her an “amazing insight into the world of trafficking and slavery”.

She discovered that some people who have come through the experience call themselves survivors, while others wouldn’t. She took great care around getting support for the people who she spoke to by phone. She didn’t want them to feel “oh my god, I’m relieving this [trauma]“.

I want the true experience, but with that… I don’t want to make it more painful.

“It was very, very long conversations and I’d have a frame of questions but very much let the person unfold their story.”

The Day Crossing Farm Jed Niezgoda / Jed Niezgoda / /

That all said, she said that The Day Crossing Farm is “not a documentary – it’s the embedded truthful lived experience of many people”.

She found while doing the research that some of her ideas about the topic were to be challenged. “My definition of trafficking changed. I thought that perhaps a lot of people are duped and I think a lot of people are, they are misled and think they are going to do one job then end up doing another.”

She discovered though that this is more layered and complex than she realised. 

“As people described it to me, by the time someone has agreed to go in and work, they are already potentially so far on the back foot already, so disadvantaged they feel there’s no choice. It’s been one of the hardest experiences for me, hearing the experiences people were in.

People were saying they were happily at home working, then a family member gets ill. They only want to help, so they go to a loan shark and loan money, then get hospital treatment. Then the loan shark owns them. It’s almost like the loan becomes a noose around the neck. In order to get out of it they think ‘I will do some work to pay it off’.” They can then end up being forced to work in a growhouse.

Some people described being locked into grow houses forcibly, even cufflinked to pipes. 

“Others weren’t locked in but were so terrified they didn’t feel they could leave the house. They could be terrified for family back home. The person who brought them in knew the family, so the threat was not only to them – they would get hurt but the family would also get hurt.”

Some of the materials in the artwork were donated by the gardaí, such as the growhouse equipment. She said gardaí told her that when they get to a growhouse “it is hard for them to work out is this person a criminal or is this person in the hands of mastermind gangs doing an illegal activity – it’s really complicated to make that call”.

Brett described herself as “so shocked to be honest with the layers of it”.

“Most of the other projects I’ve done, there’s one intensely traumatic experience and it has a very clear beginning and middle and end, one encounter, whereas this has been multiple layers. It has been really shocking.”

A further layer is whether the person, if arrested, gets representation in court or advocacy support, or whether they slip through the net and end up in jail, said Brett. 

She had hours and hours of transcribed conversation to work with in the piece. “Some of these would have hundreds of pages that would be testimony from media or criminal justice system or other people speaking about this, whether media, judges, lawyers.”

The piece takes place in a building in Cork city that has four floors, with four rooms being used. “Some are huge, some are quite small and claustrophobic,” said Brett. “We built a shrine in one room, a shrine to the plant – like a god on pedestal.”

Some of the narratives were read out by an actor and are played during the event. One piece necessitates putting your head into a ceiling to listen to it – others “float past”.

She describes the work as “not site specific but site responsive”. While tickets for the live event are sold out, it can be watched online until 27 June. 

Brett hopes her work prompts questions from people. But she also wants it to “debunk any idea this is an exotica, this is happening elsewhere. I had no real sense of quite how massive the numbers are of it happening in Ireland. People kept saying to me this is in plain sight it’s your next door neighbour, you just don’t know. It’s sobering to know that.”

Not to make the assumption that things are as black and white as we can imagine. When you hear a growhouse has been busted and that because it’s a criminal activity, maybe it’s helpful for us all to know there can be a lot of complexity there. There could be someone really suffering in that position through no fault of their own.

She said she did learn that the gardaí are getting more training on the issue, and there are more supports available for people who have been affected. 

“I think it’s really complicated because cannabis is illegal – the project is not getting into whether it should be legalised. If a nailbar was busted people would instantly have more empathy and sympathy and understanding and compassion for people having this terrible experience. That needs to be unpacked a bit more in the country.”

Brett also hopes that, following our Covid-19 experience, “it might get people thinking reflectively about people trapped in growhouses: what must that feel like when you can’t leave and you’re under threat if you do leave.”

Detective Superintendent Sean Healy of Anglesea Garda Station in Cork City said that Covid had an impact on cannabis use too.

“General criminal activity was curtailed heavily due to strict Covid restrictions and the fact there were Garda checkpoints everywhere during lockdowns, but there has been a commensurate increase in cannabis cultivation activity during the pandemic and a corresponding increase in Garda detection,” he said. “This is despite the fact that the pandemic should have limited garda intelligence gathering. Since early 2020, several hundred cannabis growhouses have been uncovered by Gardai and a small number of these are being investigated in relation to human trafficking.”

The Day Crossing Farm can be watched on demand until 27 June – for more information and to book tickets, visit the Cork Midsummer Festival website.

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