Farm Ireland

Friday 27 April 2018

A national treasure that is well worth exploring

Straw is light, flexible and strong
Straw is light, flexible and strong
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Baraka is an Arabic word for a blessedness that begins with God and flows into physical objects, as chosen by God, and onwards into what they create.

I never knew such a word existed but am glad to find out that it does. I discovered the word on a recent visit to Turlough Park House and Museum, near Castlebar, Co Mayo. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I didn't know the museum existed. It is the fourth branch of the National Museum of Ireland and the only one outside of Dublin.

We were out for a drive on the only wet morning of a family break to the west when we came upon a sign for a museum about country life. Failing to recognise the distinctive brown signage, I feared it might just be a few iron wheels lying against a wall. But it turned out to be an absolute gem.

As to it being a well-kept secret, head of the museum Tony Candon later explained that it is publicly funded and currently does not have the budget for much promotion.

The estate was once home to a branch of the Fitzgeralds after they were hunted out of Kilkenny, and the present, Victorian Gothic style, dwelling was built in 1865.

Only two of its rooms were open to the public but any disappointment felt was quickly forgotten when we got to the museum, which is built into the slope at the rear of the house and overlooks the turlach, now lake, after which the estate is named.

Spread out over four floors in modern exhibition galleries, it gives a balanced multi-faceted portrayal of life in rural Ireland from 1850-1950.

Life was often harsh, sometimes joyful, while the sense of family and community was strong. These days, there is a lot of talk about fostering community spirit as if it were something new but really it used to be widespread and was generally unprompted.

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The subject areas covered include working the land, domestic and family life, religion and its rituals, sport and everyday crafts.

Of the many fascinating artefacts on display, the goriest is a man-trap. These were used on estates along riverbanks and other areas to catch would-be poachers. Based on the same principle as a mousetrap, with serrated jaws, this example, from Kingscourt, Co Cavan, is over 2m long and could surely inflict terrible injuries on anyone it caught.

The chief craftsman in Ireland at the time was the blacksmith. He made most of the tools that others used.

Generally, traditional craft workers employed skills and worked from measurements stored only in their minds, which were passed down from one generation to the next.

While many people had a considerable sense of pride in their work, the objects they made were primarily functional. Though, when we look at these objects today we tend to see beauty as well as functionality.

An indication of the nature of information presented is the use in a film commentary of the word Baraka or Barakah. It is used in the context of a display of craftsman tools, such as a handplane, that were obviously well worn and carefully minded over many years.

I love the look and feel of such implements and find uplifting the idea of them taking on a special grace that continues to flow through into the objects they are used to create. I believe that long and loving use can instil a magic which cannot be acquired any other way. The tools that do the making can become just as beautiful as the objects that they make.

Most everyday items were made using whatever materials were available locally.

Straw was a cheap, readily available material and one of my favourite displays was "101 uses for straw".

This ranged from a chair to a complete set of horse tack, including a crupper, a mattress and a hen's nest down to the intricate cailleach, a decorative object woven from the last standing sheaf to mark/celebrate the harvest.

Straw is light, flexible and strong and these properties were variously engaged depending on what was being made. So the craft worker making a stool would focus on the strength of straw while the maker of a hen's nest would take advantage of its insulating quality.

I was both enthralled and shocked by a photo of a group of women, some laughing, from Claddagh, Co Galway wearing their baskets on their heads, so they could knit on the way to market. No wonder the quoted proverb, "A man's work is from sun to sun but a woman's work is never done."

The museum ably navigates the hazardous path between sentimentality and weaving a tale that is both accessible and interesting.

What's more, admission is free, though donations are welcomed.


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