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.

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