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Fireflies Project for teenagers in hospital: Stories and images from Year One

Fireflies is a three year (2015-2018) artist-in-residence project for teenagers in hospital which investigates how the arts can support transition to adult care by promoting independence, decision making skills, communication skills and improved self-esteem. Artist Rachel Tynan and the teenagers work together as equals to develop new work that focuses on the teenagers’ interests rather than on their illness and encourages the teenager to become an expert, whilst also encouraging them to take control of the creative process.

Phase 1 of the Fireflies Project took place in Temple Street Children’s University Hospital between February and June 2016 and acted as a research and development phase where the artist and teenagers began to explore the theme of transition.

Artist at work

Fireflies Year 1 _ lower res 1Fireflies Year 1 _ lower res












Artist Rachel Tynan made 15 visits to Temple Street between February and June. Each visit lasted an entire day. Rachel worked in consultation with Temple Street’s Play Department to identify teenagers who would most benefit from the project. She then worked at the bedside with patients to develop stories from which work could then be created. For each day in the hospital Rachel also spent a day in her studio to further research and to develop the ideas.

Fireflies project

For each visit, Rachel brought a suitcase with a wide variety of materials and tools that the teenagers could choose from. She firstly explained about her own practice, showed them other artists’ work and work made by previous participants on the project (with the consent of the participant). She then presented the teenagers with a box containing a tiny rope bridge which acted as a prompt for discussion. The stories that the teenagers and artist created could be written or presented in a visual, video or photo format.



Helium works with artists who have a strong interest in collaboration and working within unusual contexts. An essential element of the project is the teenagers’ choice to take part or not. It is often the case that the artist is the only person within the hospital who the teenager can say no to and this is a very powerful indication of the control they can have over their own projects. Exploration is a key component and often the artist and teenager are exploring a new subject together giving the teenagers a strong sense of control.

Partnership with the Play Department in Temple Street has been an essential element of the project’s success and the Play Team liaised with the artist each day both before and after she engaged with the teenagers.

Aims and methods

The Fireflies project aims to support the National Model of Care for Paediatric Healthcare Services in Ireland (December 2015) and specifically the section on structured transition by investigating how the arts can support transition to adult care by promoting independence, decision making skills, communication skills and improved self esteem. Here are some observations on how these were addressed in Phase 1:

1. Giving young people a voice and space to explore their identity
The project opened up the conversation with young people about the changes that are happening to them in an informal way, providing an opportunity for young people to take the lead and to discuss the positives and negatives of their situation with an external listener (the artist).

“I’ve kind of learnt you don’t have to be just one person. You could be anything.” – Teenager 

2. Promoting autonomy/independence and decision-making skills
The open-ended methods used on this project promote the teenagers’ autonomy and decision-making skills. Once the artist has given them some initial prompts, they are free to decide where they take their project, offering them a situation which they can take control of (in contrast to the medical aspects of their treatment).

3. Communication skills
Phase 1 has shown some evidence of complementing the teenagers’ communication skills. Working on a collaborative project gives them something to talk to their caregivers about apart from their illness and treatment. The artist reported that one teenager invited the nurses and other parents on the ward to see her work.

Hollie_Dolan_worldIMG_5918 IMG_5920






“As a healthcare professional when your role is often to establish a relationship with very unwell teenagers and older children, often they do put up barriers to you because you go in as someone who is trying to take care of them and help them and yet you’re doing things they don’t like; putting in lines, taking bloods off them, doing procedures and examining them, even the process of examining a child/teenager can be very uncomfortable and distressing for them whereas for us, we see it as almost routine. Something which really opened my eyes during the Helium project was the sense of identity that it gave as well as control and the ability to explore themselves in what is a very unnatural and surreal scenario that no one expects to find themselves in. A hidden aspect of this project when you know these teenagers for such a long time, to actually see their work gives you a real insight into people who may not show that side of themselves to you to maintain the control that they have, but that they’ll show it to people like Rachel. It’s really touching and a really important part of the overall care in hospital. It’s something I’d love to see continued. I’m really interested in transition and giving teenagers an opportunity to express themselves during such a difficult phase is fantastic.” – Dr. Aoibhinn Walsh, Paediatric SpR

4. Building Self Esteem
Phase 1 demonstrates potential for the project to improve self-esteem: Parents have commented on how positive their children appear when engaging in the project.

Impact: Who took part? 

– For every teenager who engaged with the project, the artist also connected with parents, siblings, friends, neighbouring patients/parents, clinical staff etc.
– Rachel undertook 2 trips to Tullamore Hospital to work with a teenager who had recently transitioned and who acted as an advisor on the project.
– The artist worked with 17 patients in total over 99 contact hours. The teenagers had a range of conditions including Cystic Fibrosis, renal disease, mental illness, diabetes and neurological illness.

Emerging artistic themes 

Transition-related themes which emerged from this phase of the project included:
– escape
– transformation of the space or of the body
– time (how it passes and how it is divided up in the hospital).

Artist's studio - Mood barometer

Artist’s studio – Mood barometer

Theme in action! 

TIME: Some of the teenagers explored the idea of measuring time and measuring pain – one teenager suggested sharing pain so everyone gets a turn. A boy made a barometer of his day using coloured circles to show how his hours were spent – red representing pain, grey representing boredom, green representing sleep and yellow representing enjoyable things. This idea was further explored by two other teenagers who made spherical ice cubes with colours/items trapped inside to more accurately capture the passing of time and what can be hidden within an hour.


Fireflies Artist in Residence Rachel Tynan

Fireflies Artist in Residence Rachel Tynan. Photo Brian Farrell.

Derek Kehoe, CEO of BNP Paribas Ireland with Rachel Tynan, Fireflies Artist in Residence. Photo Brian Farrell.

Derek Kehoe, CEO of BNP Paribas Ireland with Rachel Tynan. Photo Brian Farrell.

The Fireflies Project has received three year funding from BNP Paribas Foundation’s ‘Dream Up Programme’. The purpose of the fund is to support children and teenagers who are marginalized through the provision of arts and cultural projects. The ‘Dream Up Programme’ supports projects across 30 European countries and Helium has been the recipient of funding over the last four years. Additional funding for Phase 1 came through the Arts Council, from which Helium receives an annual programming grant, from Dublin City Council, from HSE Lottery funds and other sources. BNP Paribas has confirmed that it will continue funding the next two phases of the project. Thanks to our partner Temple Street Children’s University Hospital and the staff there for making this project possible.

Comments from participants

  • This project made a huge difference to my day. It cheered me up and kept me busy which I loved.”
  • I learned how to be more creative and think outside the box which I enjoyed.
  • It made me forget I was in hospital and it made time fly…time flies when you’re having fun.”


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