Old hands at film-making

David and Sally Shaw-Smith, who made RTÉ’s acclaimed Hands films, documenting Ireland’s waning craft and farming traditions from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, are retracing their steps for a new series


In the late 1970s David and Sally Shaw-Smith began driving around Ireland in a Volkswagen camper van, children in the back, documenting the nation’s waning craft traditions for RTÉ. David was the film-maker and Sally his sound person. “I didn’t have film-making experience, but I was cheap,” she says, sitting with her husband in Dublin.

For more than a decade the couple painstakingly captured Ireland’s handicraft practices and farming traditions in a long-running documentary series they called Hands. They filmed blacksmiths, beekeepers, metalworkers, fishermen, weavers, patchworkers and many more, overlaid the footage with writerly voiceovers from the likes of Benedict Kiely and Ray McAnally and interspersed it with unfussily beautiful shots of the countryside.

The 37 Hands films are now a key part of RTÉ’s public-service legacy, and this week the broadcaster starts a six-part series called In Good Hands, in which David revisits craftspeople he profiled years before.

People at the station weren’t always so enthusiastic. “When David first suggested [Hands] the attitude at RTÉ was ‘that old rubbish? What do you want to be doing that for? It’s all modern now,’ ” says Sally. “For about four years we kept at them with this. But they were all about looking to the future and being modern – computers and that sort of thing.”

David had worked at RTÉ, first as a floor manager and later alongside the wildlife broadcaster and illustrator Gerrit van Gelderen. His own interest in dying ways of life came from a period in his youth when his family moved west.

“I was born between Dundrum and Sandyford. My parents had built a sort of 1930s house in my grandparents’ estate, a big estate with five gate lodges on it. My grandparents’ house was quite Upstairs, Downstairs. But then we moved west, to the edge of Lough Corrib . . . It was a completely different community there.”

He recalls the home of a neighbour, “a ‘visiting house’, where people would just walk in, sit down beside the turf fire and the talk would start. Years later I realised that all of this was disappearing in Ireland, along with the crafts and the traditional farming I witnessed down there.”

In the 1970s David left RTÉ to make documentaries on the subjects that interested him. “I was still working on a freelance basis for RTÉ, doing mart reports,” he says, before adding with a chuckle, “Filming cows’ arses, basically.”

Dublin: A Personal View
The first documentary he and Sally made was an acclaimed film about Connemara ponies. They also made Dublin: A Personal View, a look at the city through the eyes of the local historian and former IRA member Éamonn Mac Thomáis. “He had to promise not to use the programme for subversive purposes,” says David. “He didn’t. He was great fun. He’d meet people on the street when we filmed and say, ‘Ah, that’s someone I spent a bit of time with down in that hotel in Portlaoise.’ ” When David rang Mac Thomáis to tell him about his new baby, “he turned to his wife and shouted, ‘Another f***ing Protestant!’ ”

The early days of freelancing weren’t always easy, but the Shaw-Smiths made the most of it. “One year there was a dreadful winter here,” says Sally. “We didn’t have a film coming up, so we took the VW van and went off in March in filthy weather and drove through the snow and ice in Europe down to the toe of Italy and across to Corfu. We rented a tiny house in a little village up a mountain and lived there for six months – and it was absolutely gorgeous. We made three films there. It was wonderful.”

This set the template for the Hands documentaries. “We would arrive with the family in a VW van, and we’d say, ‘Look, we’re fascinated by what you’re doing, and we want to make this film about you. Can you tell me a little bit about your craft?’ ” says David. “Then I would literally sit down and record the person, asking them questions about their crafts before going to the old van to make my shot list. When the filming was finished I would then do another interview with them, and their tone and their performance would be completely different, because they were relaxed with me. They realised that I was completely genuine and that I wasn’t trying to hoodwink them and make a quirky film like an American might make. I had great respect for them.”

“You’d spend time with these people, with the children running around, and you’d get to know them very well,” says Sally. “You’d camp there and live there, and they’d be totally natural with you.”

The series ran until the early 1990s, when it came to an end for a number of reasons. “It was partly because the type of people we were filming became harder to find,” says David. But consistent work with RTÉ also ended, according to Sally, after David made a series for Channel 4.

Joyously ramshackle
Afterwards they bought an old house on Lough Corrib that they turned into a guest house – something they make sound joyously ramshackle if financially ill advised. “It was great fun,” says Sally. “We’d get shooting parties featuring some well-known people, some crooks – who will remain nameless . . . We had a very interesting guest book, but we can’t speak a word.” She mimes zipping her lip.

“It was an old falling-down place with an enormous amount of character . . . Chickens would walk in under the table. I remember once lifting up the cover of a big platter and it was full of ducklings.”

They have been married for 51 years. They met at a dance at Wesley College when they were both in their teens. David had “heard there were a lot of Scandinavian girls there for the summer”, says Sally, laughing.

“I saw this blond creature,” says David. “And I went up to her and said, ‘Kan du snakke norsk?’ which means, ‘Can you speak Norwegian?’ and she looked at me sort of blankly.”

They still live on Lough Corrib, in a house they designed themselves. Sally paints and makes things – the beautiful embroidered coat she’s wearing the day we meet was one she made herself – and David was until recently on the board of the Crafts Council of Ireland. “I know a huge number of craftspeople,” he says. “There isn’t a county in Ireland I can’t drop in for a cup of tea.”

They greatly enjoyed retreading their steps for the new series, seeing what has survived of the world they documented. “It was lovely,” says Sally. “There are people in it who were just children kicking a ball against a wall in the original film. It was a bit sad, too, at times when some of the older people had died or weren’t in good health.”

The world has certainly changed since they were out on the road, filming. “Now craft is something different entirely,” says Sally. “Then it was a traditional thing that was done because it was needed. It was a necessity, probably passed from father to son. Now it’s often something you go to art school to learn.”

Given their contribution to the craft of documentarymaking, it’s nice to see someone else documenting their work. Meticulously filmed, ungimmicky documentaries have to fight for space on television these days, but David is ever optimistic.

“There’s still room for the type of films Sally and I made,” he says. “It’s up to individual programmemakers and directors how to handle it, but those human stories are still out there.”

In Good Hands starts on RTÉ One on Friday. You can buy DVD collections of Hands from hands.ie

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