When Amira the Artist met Elmer the Elephant...

When Amira the Artist met Elmer the Elephant...

How did I come to meet Elmer, well, it’s a bit of a story, just like the rest of his adventures…

Once upon a time in December 2021, my dad forwarded me a link he had seen for an art call out, it was for Elmer’s Big Belfast Trail.

I had never thought about completing or even submitting a design for a piece of public art but something about this project felt different. I thought back to something that had stuck with me; the CowParade in Belfast in 2012, and wondered if I could create a piece that would stay with people, as much as those sculptures did, me.

I hadn’t really much knowledge of the NI Hospice & Children’s Hospice when I was submitting the design, just a few personal stories from people that I knew – I had had the opportunity to work with a gentleman who was a volunteer at the Hospice, after he had lost his partner who had been supported by the Hospice. He was able to tell me a bit about his experiences there and the work he did and he made it seem like a beautiful place.
I also had a good friend who had lost someone very close to them in a very short space of time, and they had passed away in the Hospice. They also spoke highly of the environment created there. Both stories, honoured the people in them and I started to think about what the Hospice was doing for people and families.

During this period, I started to think about people I had lost and people that had passed, before their time. I wanted to honour these people also, even if they hadn’t been cared for by the Hospice – At that time, I had ignorantly lumped other charities in with the work that the Hospice was doing; Macmillian, Marie Curie etc, not in a dismissive way but simply because they had been there in my time of need and offered the same immeasurable support.

And so my design started to form; a library of peoples’ legacies that they had left behind, a field of flowers made from the hospice’s logo; for the hope that comes with every battle, and a starry sky to gaze upon, full of beauty as well as a blanket to comfort those below it. My design would be called ‘Written in the Stars’.

The original design sketch of 'Written in the Stars' Elmer the Elephant sculpture for Elmer's Big Belfast Trail on behalf of Northern Ireland Hospice. Design by Irish Artist Amira McDonagh. An elephant painted in a dark blue star filled sky, in memory of all those who have gone before us.

Image: one of the original design sketches for the 'Written in the Stars' Elmer sculpture for Elmer's Big Belfast Trail.

Once I had the concept in my mind, the design came together quite quickly and so I splashed paint across 4 pieces of paper that made up the design brief template (I think I was maybe the only artist not to digitally design my Elmer) and scanned it into the computer, sending it off the night before the deadline. A month later, I got an email to say my design had been shortlisted to one of 130 and I would hear back soon if it had been chosen.

It seemed like a long wait until I found out that my Elmer design had been chosen by PowerNI and it was only when I met Amy and Colleen from the organisation, that I found out why…

PowerNI wanted to involve their staff in choosing the Elmer that best represented them, so they shortlisted 5 designs of their own (from the 130) and asked their staff to vote. There were 123 votes from the organisation and my Elmer took victory with a big majority. Hearing that made me so happy – every artist wants their work to resonate with people – and the message of my Elmer did. That meant everything. And now the people of Belfast and beyond would get to see my elephant come to life…  I just had to figure out how to paint an elephant sculpture!


Elmer the 'Written in the Stars' elephant sculpture. Progress painting by Northern Irish Artist Amira McDonagh.

Thankfully, there was a huge support network of Wild in Art (the organisation who makes and provides the scupltures) who had painted similar sculptures before and a bunch of fantastic artists based here in NI, that were in the same boat as me. Over 3 and a half weeks, I would spend around 50 hours getting to grips with Elmer and making him into my vision.

Images: Elmer painting in progress (May 2022) Courtesy of Rachel Devlin

Whilst I was painting Elmer, my mum was admitted into hospital. She had been battling secondary cancer since 2020 and it was from this point that my knowledge of the work that the Hospice carried out, would become more intimate.

My mum was assigned a palliative care nurse through Northern Ireland Hospice. I had no idea what that meant but it would soon become clear that rather than making her & us feel like this was to help her towards the end of her life, the team did everything in their power to enable her to live her life to the fullest. If we had trouble with prescriptions or adjusting medications, the palliative care team handled it, if we needed equipment to help mum navigate more easily around the house, they sorted it, if we had a medical emergency and needed to go to the hospital, the team rang ahead for us and told them we were coming. In reality, they were only ever a phone call or text away. And that is priceless in a situation where you feel so helpless.

I cannot describe the relief of knowing the team and two particular palliative care nurses in particular, were there for us whenever we needed and with us, on every step of the journey. From someone who has benefited from their care and support, I can tell you that every donation to the Northern Ireland Hospice and Children’s Hospice, that allows them to operate, is like giving a family and a person battling a life altering illness, a massive hug.


Elmer the 'Written in the Stars' elephant sculpture in situ on the Titanic Slipway, at the back of the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Over the course of 10 weeks, my Elmer took up residence on the Titanic Slipway and I had messages from people who visited, took pictures and were touched by the message of my ‘Written in the Stars’ Elmer. That for me was such a privilege. I visited Elmer many times, at different times of the day and watched people engage with him. I chatted to the people that stopped to have a photo snapped with him and even ended up in some photos myself!

Elmer the 'Written in the Stars' Elephant sculpture, designed by Northern Irish visual artist Amira McDonagh, sits on the Titanic Slipway, overlooked by the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard Cranes.








Images: Elmer the 'Written in the Stars' elephant sculpture, in situ on the Titanic Slipway in Belfast, Northern Ireland as part of Elmer's Big Belfast Trail 2022.


 On 5th October, Elmer’s Big Belfast Auction took place at Crumlin Road Gaol, where all 36 elephants who had been commissioned were auctioned off and found new homes, raising much needed funds for NI Hospice. I sat at home with my parents, watching online and cheering on ‘Written in the Stars’ which sold for a whopping £5,100. I was so proud to be a part of something so special and in total, the auction raised £121,700.

After a night of celebrating, the next day, I took my mum to the hospital for an appointment and sadly a few days later on 8th October, she passed away. Just like all the people whose stories I wanted to document through my design, her story would become the most prominent to me, with her becoming the brightest star in my sky now.

My mum was so proud of my Elmer sculpture, even though she never got to see him in person. Every time she had to stay in hospital, she would tell the nurses, doctors, porters and anyone else she encountered, all about him. She was a person who exuded joy and positivity and she fought her battle with unwavering strength and determination. Her legacy is the immense love she left behind and the example she gave in facing such a huge challenge. I often used the expression when talking about my Elmer sculpture and the people whose lives he immortalised, that an elephant never forgets, and it is true to say that my mum will never be forgotten, not only by our family, but by the many people whose lives she touched.

This blog post is dedicated to her.

Catherine McDonagh 1963 – 2022.

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