A woman of craft and creativity

 

Muriel Gahan was born in October 1897 on the outskirts of Donegal town. Her grandfather, Frederick Gahan, was county engineer for Donegal. Hi smother had been a cork Townsend and he married a Jane Townsend. Their son, Frederick George Townsend Gahan, Muriel's father, followed in his father's footsteps and became a civil engineer, while three of his four brothers became Church of Ireland clergymen. Muriel's father worked first with the Cavan and Leitrim Light Railway Company, but when the Congested Districts Board (CDB) was established in 1891, in an effort by the Government to improve living conditions in the poorest areas of the west of Ireland, he was offered a job there. In 1900 the family moved to Castlebar.The ten years Muriel Gahan spent as a small child in Castlebar played a crucial part in her later development; also, her father's work had a great influence on her. Mayo's extraordinary beauty was imprinted on Muriel Gahan's psyche at an early age, but the poverty that she witnessed there marked her deeply. Muriel's travels began with her father when he set off to visit projects in the far reaches of Mayo. As they travelled, Frederick Gahan talked to her about the CDB's attempt to develop the crafts at the turn of the century. It was no easier at this time than when Muriel tried to revive them forty years later. Her father had passed on the fostering torch to his young daughter at an early age.She had ten magic years in the freedom of Mayo, but that came to an end in 1910 when at thirteen she was sent to St Winfred's school for girls near Bangor in North Wales. Three years later, when her mother and the children moved to Dublin, she was sent to Alexandra College. Muriel always recognised that it was "The Alexandra" that provided her education. "They taught us to be leaders," she would say, adding with a mischievous smile, "leaders of what, I'm not quite sure".Although the college was radical and progressive in educational matters, its politics were conservative and unionist. Here she made many friends including Livie Crookshank who even at this early stage was sensitive to social issues and interested in co-operation as a way of encouraging people to help themselves toward a better life.Muriel started work as a painter with a decorating firm, and it was her skills as an interior decorator that led her to Miss Lucy Franks, to the society of United Irishwomen (UI), and to the RDS, and those meetings in turn determined a life-long dedication to the people of rural Ireland. The RDS had a long tradition of supporting rural industry and traditional crafts going back to its foundation in 1731. The 1929 Spring Show was an eye opener for Muriel. There she got to know people like Mainie Jellett, the Modernist artist, and Vida Lentaigne, an active United Irishwoman who lived in the house at Termonfeckin which twenty five years on would become An Grianan.Muriel became a member of the UI and at the request of Lucy Franks searched Mayo to find a weaver willing to demonstrate the weaving of homespun tweed for the 1930 Spring Show. This search, and her eventual discovery of Patrick Madden in Ballycroy, Co Mayo, led directly to the idea of setting up a draft depot in Dublin to provide an outlet for isolated craftworkers. That in turn developed into the creation of The Country Shop, for years the nerve centre of so much that was being achieved in the country, both for the crafts and for women.As I read this book I regretted that I never had the pleasure of visiting The Country Shop in St Stephen's Green or meeting this wonderful woman who did so much for the crafts of Ireland, and was instrumental in the setting up of Country Markets, the ICA and An Grianan. She died in 1955. Her life spanned a century which saw great changes, and during which she worked tirelessly to preserve the old rural crafts. This book is a social history of Ireland from the perspective of a well-to-do Protestant lady who could have engaged herself in many ways but chose to promote the culture of her less well off fellow countrywomen, who were mostly of a different religious persuasion. She was also surrounded by a group of determined women, and Geraldine Mitchell paints a very vivid picture of them and their time.I hope that this well written book finds its way into every rural home. WE owe Geraldine Mitchell a debt of gratitude for recording the interesting life of this great women with such loving detail.