An Irishwoman's Diary
I FIND it uplifting, even poignant, that every time I visit the National Museum of Country Life, in Turlough Park, outside Castlebar, the past becomes palpable. It is as if some of the exhibits breathe and pulsate with familiar rhythms: whether that is the swish of the scythe, the click of the knitting needle or the splash of the oar.
It is as if one can touch the world of the Irish peasant whose work practices for simple survival were part of a seasonal mosaic that reaches deeply into the furrows of our history.
I often reflect on observations made by the then minister for arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht, Síle de Valera, at the museum’s official opening in 2001. Noting that the museum was “no sanitised theme park”, she said “as far as possible it is a true reflection of the common people of Ireland”. She said that many of the implements on display would have been used up to 50 years ago, within the living memory of people.
The minister was wrong. Even in 2001 some of the implements on display – the scythe, the sléan, the churn, the loom – were still being used in remote pockets in the west of Ireland. And I do not mean by the new organic farmers who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had fled the industrialised greyness of Berlin or Bonn, Manchester or Birmingham, in search of rustic idylls in west Cork and Connemara.
The ancient practices of sowing and reaping, footing and stacking, weaving and knitting, churning and baking were continued by native farmers right into this century, on small holdings from Erris to Achill, Burtonport to Bantry, Inishturk to Tory.
And, of course, the wonderful irony now is that the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has led to a return to many of these simple crafts and methods of husbandry by a new generation of Irish people. Indeed, the only salutary real reminder of the culture of the Celtic Tiger, at
Turlough Park, is the screech of lorries on the nearby N5 – known locally as Pádraig Flynn’s Highway and a monument to the former minister and EU commissioner.
The only national museum outside the capital city, the Museum of Country Life owes its genesis in Co Mayo to “a visionary move” by Mayo County Council, which bought the derelict stately house and 36 acres in 1991, and then invested £3 million in its renovation.
Originally the site of a medieval de Burgo castle, Turlough House was built in 1865 and owned by the Fitzgerald family of Waterford. It was designed by the celebrated Victorian architects, Woodward and Deane, who also designed the National Museum in Kildare Street.
Its tree-lined avenue weaves and winds towards manicured gardens and rolling green terraces. Despite their 19th-century formality, the terraces soften the grey, Gothic facade of the house. They lead to the still waters of the turlough, and its subterranean secrets, while also perfectly framing the extension – a modern four-storeyed, curved stone-clad gallery, designed by Office of Public Works architects.
The two buildings merge the cosseted and pompous world of master and mistress with the simple life of the farmer and fisherman, thatcher and cooper, carpenter and cobbler, blacksmith and baker.
In the museum, an epic drama unfolds about the folkways of a century – 1850 to 1950 – that hurtled a rural society out of the medieval world of landlordism and colonialism, ascendancy autocracy and land agitation. Originally, the Turlough Park estate stretched over 8,500 acres, with hundreds of servants and tenants eking out subservient lives in its many nooks and crannies.
At the museum’s 10th birthday celebrations last year, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke passionately about its appropriate setting, in an unspoiled landscape filled with artefacts that reflect an ancient culture. He said there was a real sense of “bringing it all back home” since the many exhibits reflected a once indigenous way of life.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that this evocative collection relied on a positive and active relationship between the National Museum and the Irish Folklore Commission, established in 1935. The important work of the commission was invaluable because its members not only recorded stories and folklore, they also acquired a considerable number of objects underpinning this way of life, that now contribute to the collection.
You do not need to stray far off Mayo’s main thoroughfares to discover the resonance of this life. Every side road provides a gallery of stone walls and tumbled cottage gables. Every boreen opens on to patchwork fields that are rutted with the undulant furrows of lazy-beds – a pervading monument to the repeated potato famines of the 1800s. Every lonely beach displays the remnants of small eroded piers, once the refuge of fleets of currachs and yawls chasing elusive shoals of herring or mackerel, as storms brewed on the horizon.
The National Museum of Country Life offers a microscopic lens into the minutiae of this world.