Friday, May 24, 2013

In Good Hands / Nostalgia and Traditional Irish Craft

Film-makers David and Sally Shaw-Smith

As a child growing up in the West of Ireland, on the suburbs of a large town, we had the "poverty channels" (how us those of us from outside the Pale would later jokingly refer to a childhood spent watching the basic national TV channels). There were only 2 national television stations, Rte 1 and Network 2, the more obscure TG4 and TV3 were later arrivals in the mid 90s. In the pre-Celtic Tiger years, only the more affluent classmates seemed to have the British channels.

I'm glad my parents refused to budge though, because in the days before our huge, awkward desktop arrived in the early 00s, rainy day television was my only distraction when I'd finished reading all my books. I watched a great many things, my interest in old films and eclectic old documentaries stems from this time (necessity fuels the imagination). By happy coincidence, Hands was one of those iconic documentaries screened repeatedly by RTE over the years, I watched quite a quantity of them, charmed by the almost skill of the craftsman, many who seemed to be kindly old rural bachelors who spoke in indecipherable heavy Cork accents. Now numbering over 37 documentaries focusing on the survival of traditional Irish craft in the Age of the Machine, in all the 32 counties on the island of Ireland.

Hands always stuck with me, especially as I later went on to study History and Art History. The nobility of Ireland's rich arts and craft tradition remained as one of my untapped interests. Happily, Lara Byrne, the film programmer at The Model arts centre in Sligo, arranged for some exclusive screenings of the documentary last weekend, with a Q&A with the directors afterward. The weather was a washout, and unfortunately probably deterred a lot of people from attending, but for those of it who determinedly battled our way through the rain to get there, we were rewarded with an intimate Q&A session with the filmmakers, David and Sally Shaw-Smith.

Lara made her decisions wisely. We were treated to two thirty minute long documentaries, one on Rushwork – In Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, we see the harvesting of rushes on Lough Ree, curing and making traditional rush baskets and other items (1989). The second, 'Of Bees & Bee Skeps' (1983) – winner of the Golden Harp for Ireland and in the museum of Modern Art Collection New York; this arresting and moving documentary records the traditional work of bee-keeping from making a straw skep to catching a swarm, and extracting honey.

(Chairmaker John Surlis, Wool spinning and an Irish tailor, Images via David Shaw-Smith)

I can happily report that after watching these documentaries for the first time in many years on a big screen, the authenticity and intimacy of this series has not dated, even though the fashions have! There are 37 documentaries in all, recorded between 1969 and the late 1980s. I love the easy pace of the documentary, reflecting the pace of life in the countryside in which it was filmed. There were a couple of narrators as far as I remember, but the easy, familiar tone of hs voice still is most comforting. I decided to save up to buy the 15 disk complete Hands series at Christmas, but I did purchase a copy of David's beautifully illustrated compilation Traditional Crafts of Ireland. David and Sally kindly signed it for me, and it is now resting on my beside locker, for me to look through before bed each night!

'Imbued by a sense of urgency to record crafts in their natural surroundings before they disappeared completely, David and his wife Sally, under contract to RTÉ, travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and it’s islands to assemble this important collection of 37 films on traditional Irish crafts and lifestyles, where the emphasis is on the skills of human hands rather than on machines.'

While I would urge people to purchase the DVDs from their official website, while searching Google for images I found a few episodes of 'Hands' available to watch online (and I believe in sharing culture wherever you find it):
1. Rushwork
2. Of Bees & Bee Skeps
3. Currach Makers
4. Chairmaker John Surlis

PS. 'In Good Hands' will be a six-part series revisiting some of the families of craftspeople featured in the original 'Hands' series, I believe it is screening on Rte this Sunday.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rails, Records and Retro Bakes / The Frivolous Fare

The Sligo Flea started out as the Frivolous Fare. I had a rail at the Christmas fare, and fell in love with the vibe. So when I was asked to carry it on, as the original founder was moving away, I leaped at the opportunity! It's been rebranded as the Sligo Flea, and our first flea is on June 22nd.

It was a great day, the sun was shining, the atmosphere was great. I got a little too caught up in it as I got distracted and someone stole one of my vintage dresses. Besides that hiccup there was records, retro bakes, rails of vintage dresses and plenty of banter!

When we'd all packed up, I went for a well deserved glass of wine in Source wine bar with my pal Jenny. The wine bar is on the first floor, and affords a great view down O'Connell street, perfect venue for people watching. When you "go for one", it's never just one ... and so we ambled along on the sunny evening to one of my favourite pubs in Sligo for another.

I wore a 1960s Dollyrockers full length pinafore dress with a plain People Tree cotton tunic underneath. It's not something I'd wear on a typical day, but as I was selling some of my vintage clothing at the fare, I thought I may as well adopt an alter ego. I'm a bit afeared of maxi dresses but I felt the hippie vibes in this.

The Sligo Flea will be on June 22nd, check out our facebook page for all the latest info.


Thanks to @LadyDotty for taking the pics and giving me permission to share them! The instagram ones are my own.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Sligo Flea Market

Despite all my good intentions I haven't been diligently updating the blog, even though I have lots of things I want to share!

For the moment I'm working on an exciting project in Sligo. The Sligo Flea Market is happening on June 22nd, July 13th and August 3rd. It's going to be a bustling day at The Model Sligo, with all sorts of eclectic stalls selling vintage clothes, local crafts and rare vinyl.

We are now taking bookings for spots. Visit our facebook page to find out more.

Monday, May 6, 2013

SeaTrails / Strandhill, Co. Sligo

SeaTrails is a new initative that has recently begun in Sligo, founded by a Sligo-based maritime archaeologist, Auriel Robinson. Seatrails offer a range of guided tours throughout Sligo, focusing on the history, geology and archaeology of the landscape we are so familiar with.

(Excuse my unashamed use of phone photos throughout this post).

On Saturday, we assembled at 8.15am, by the canon on the Strandhill promenade. The wind coming in from the ocean certainly banished the sleep from our eyes, and we were eager to get moving to warm ourselves up! Auriel began with a brief history of Strandhill village. Where the popular Shells café and Voya seaweed baths now stand, there was once nothing but sand dunes here, until the close of the 18th century.

We made our way down to the main beach. Along the way we heard about the coastal erosion of the beach, and spied for fossils amongst the rocks on the shore, relics of the 350 million year old sea bed from which they came. Auriel then guided us into the dunes of Strandhill, down to the Shelly 'valley', a large area amongst the dunes, sheltered from the wind, with millions of shells underfoot, blown down from the grasses of the dunes, that serve as a rich food source for all sorts of wildlife.

Auriel transported us back to the Ice Age, where in the shadow of Knocknarea, we learnt about how the landscape was forever altered by the path of glaciers. Our (Paleolithic) hunter-gatherer ancestors settled here for the rich sources of trout and shellfish. As they lived in huts, little evidence of how they lived day-to-day survives. Dotted along the mountains that surround Sligo, are the highest concentration of megalithic tombs in the world, and the second oldest megalithic tomb in Europe. There's was so much to take in that I couldn't repeat it all verbatim, you'd have to be there!

Photo via Shells Cafe

At 9.30am we returned for a 'walkers' breakfast at Shells Cafe, there was home made scones, jams, muesli, and orange juice served with freshly brewed coffee.

SeaTrails offers locals and tourists the opportunity to lean more about the nature and archaeology of the environment which we co-habit with hundreds of wildlife. Learning why certain things are the way they are in our landscape, from such an educated and enthusiastic guide was a great start to the long weekend. SeaTrails have a whole range of tours around Sligo, and also take group bookings. Visit their website to find out more.

Afterward we popped into the Sligo Farmer's Market, which also runs on Saturday, selling fresh and organic produce for your Saturday and Sunday lunches!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Open Door Sligo / The Masonic Lodge

A new initative has recently begun in Sligo. Open Door Sligo appears quite covert, mainly because their facebook page is updated sporadically. The idea is similar to the Open Doors weekend, building of historical significance are opened to the public for an afternoon.

Advance booking is necessary, as space can be limited in some of these buildings. Open Door Sligo had co-ordinated a tour of Sligo's Masonic Lodge last year, and I was disappointed to have missed out, but now I had my chance! Masonic Lodges have always been a source of fascination to most people. Unlike churches and places of worship they remain closed places, accessible only to those who are members of the mysterious brotherhood. Some famous (and unexpected) Freemasons include Oscar Wilde, Clark Gable, Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Peter Sellers.

When we were all seated in the meeting room (where certain decorative features are modelled after the Temple of Solomon), we were given an overview of the Freemasons, and its history in Ireland, by Morgan McCreadie. Morgan is the assistant to the grand secretary of the Irish Freemasons. I had encountered Morgan before, when he spoke at the last Trailblaze event at Dublin's Masonic Temple. He is a most engaging and charismatic individual, and he did succeed in dispelling some popular myth around the Freemasons. In fact just yesterday he was featured in an Irish Times article on the subject of Freemasonry.

The house itself is in a state of disrepair, and relies on donations from members to fund repairs. You could say that the house was lacking a "woman's touch", as a few odds and ends were scattered untidily among the photos and paraphernalia. Freemasons meetings are first recorded in Sligo as far back as December 1760, but it wasn't until 1895, after years of tireless fundraising, that a purpose built meeting place was built in Sligo town. Jack and William Butler Yeats maternal grandfather, William Pollexfen was a member of the Sligo Freemasons Guild.

The Masonic Square and Compass, seen here on the front gate, and the clock on the mantlepiece, are recognisable as architect's tools and are used in Masonic ritual as emblems to teach symbolic lessons. No hierarchy exists in the guild, Morgan assured us, these are working men, and these tools allude to that, to the honesty and morality of their work. Freemason's meetings are ritualistic, which sounds somewhat hocus pocus, but really means that they follow a format that has changed since the formation of the brotherhood, which has become ritual.

There are currently 25,000 Freemasons in Ireland today. The Masonic Temple on Molesworth Street is open to the public, within working hours. The Freemasons discretely donate sums of money to various charities, something that is neglected to be mentioned in the press, further enveloping these societies in secrecy.

The elephant in the room, was the question of why women were still excluded from membership. Morgan gave us a simple, straight forward answer, the subtleties of which escape me now. Essentially, men need a place to gather with their fellow man, in an all male environment, men interact differently than in a mixed environment. Women behave differently together, they are multi-taskers, they make plans, men prefer to relax, knowing what to expect, or something to that effect. I was satisfied with his explanation, I have no desire to become part of the organisation, though now some of the secrecy has been removed, it's not as elusive to me as it once was.

Elements of their ritual still fascinate me, as the 'Freemasonry' wiki states "Freemasons use signs (gestures), grips or tokens (handshakes), and words to gain admission to meetings and identify legitimate visitors.", well this myth does hold true, as confirmed by Morgan.

All in all, an afternoon well spent! I'm thrilled to see initiatives like this taking place (this one was hosted by the Sligo Peace and Reconciliation Partnership, which aims to strengthen cross-border relations), arts and culture are underappreciated at local government level, are usually under funded if at all, if the turnout for this event is anything to go by, its doing something worthwhile.

Find out about future Open Door Sligo events via their facebook page.


Read more: Deconstructing a few secrets of the Freemasons (The Irish Times, April 30th 2013)