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Trainee thatchers in action at the FAS thatching course in Portumna Co Galway. Photo by: Frank Miller

A Glimpse of Ireland Past

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Trainee thatchers in action at the FAS thatching course in Portumna Co Galway. Photo by: Frank Miller

The shows are popular. “There’s a huge interest from audiences,” says Jonathan.  “Last summer, tourism numbers were down in Ireland overall but ours were up.  We had 122 performances with more than 85 percent occupancy.”

The young people of Kerry seem to be just as interested in learning traditional music, song and dance too, although their focus often changes.  

“Five years ago, the success of Riverdance meant there was a renewed interest in dancing,” says Jonathan. “It’s music that’s popular at the moment. It really varies with trends and fashions.”
Whatever the changing fashion, Siamsa Tíre will continue to celebrate the richness of Irish dance, music and song.

“We want to bring our old traditions to new audiences in fresh ways,” says Jonathan. “We’ll never let them become stale.”

Massachusetts-born Beth Moran is not someone you’d expect to be a flag bearer for traditional Irish weavers. But since arriving in Ireland 29 years ago, this is what she has become.  

“I was a photographer then,” she says.  “I came to the west taking pictures and as soon as I set foot on Clare Island off the coast of Mayo, I knew I would never leave.”

This decision caused her to abandon her photography. “There wasn’t any water or electricity where I was staying so photography was impossible,” says Beth, laughing.

She decided to try weaving instead. “It seemed obvious,” she says. “There were sheep whose wool I could spin. There were natural dyes. And when a woman came from the mainland to teach the locals how to weave, I grabbed my chance.”

Almost three decades later, Beth is married to one of the island’s sheep farmers.  She has raised a family. And she has her own cottage industry – The Ballytoughey Loom – creating natural woven products which she spins, dyes and weaves by hand.

It’s been quite a journey getting here.  At one stage, Beth’s loom was in her bedroom, next to her child’s cot. At another, she shared tips with the only remaining old lady on the island to still have a spinning wheel.

“I was also lucky local people knew about natural dyes,” she says. “They showed me this lichen that grows on the rocks and gives a wonderful rusty red color. I love using it to this day.”

Beth now passes this hard-won knowledge on to others in regular workshops on the island. “People come from all over,” she says. “It seems there will always be people interested in the old traditional ways.”

In fact, she thinks the current economic crisis is making people reassess the value of traditional crafts. “People are returning to the old ways and rediscovering the value of things,” she says. “Weaving offers a way of making an income and it’s an enjoyable skill to master. In some ways, I think the recession may just enhance the craft industry.”

If I’ve reached any conclusion from my conversations with weavers, performers, road bowlers, bone players and thatchers, it’s this: Mr Yeats, you appear to have been mistaken. Romantic Ireland and her traditions live on. Make a little effort and you’ll soon find them.

Following the Tradition
You too can travel the country and see some of these old traditions in practice.  

For those of you interested in thatching, Ballina Heritage Day – which takes place on the 13th of July – will celebrate a wide variety of crafts, including thatching, that are indigenous to County Mayo. More information is available at www.ballinasalmonfestival.ie.

Alternatively, you could visit Skerries on the 12th of April. On this day, the Skerries Historical Society is using the 1911 census to recreate life in the North County Dublin fishing village of that era. A series of talks and demonstrations (including one on thatching) will be given. See www.oldskerries.ie for more details.

A demonstration may not be enough for some of you. You may want to experience the romance of staying in a thatched cottage in the Irish countryside. You’ll find just what you are looking for at www.hogansirishcottages.com, www.irishcottageholidays.com and www.rentacottage.ie.

Having read about Raymond Ryan’s passion for road bowling, some of you may be eager to witness the sport for yourselves. All Ireland Finals Dunmanway, Co. Cork: July 9-10, 2011 and in Armagh, July 30-31, 2011. You’ll find details about upcoming fixtures at www.irishroadbowling.ie.

There are three organized leagues in the United States, and the sport is gaining rapid popularity throughout the country. Contact the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association for more information. Tel. 202 387-1680. Web: www.wvirishroadbowling.com.

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