Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

A Visit to the Folklife Museum in Castlebar

I came away from my first visit to the National Museum of Country Life, in Castlebar, entranced by a beautiful 8th Century belt shrine, the belt it had protected having once, it seems, encircled the 34-inch waist of a saint. The delicacy of its decoration – similar in style to the bosses on the side of the Ardagh Chalice but much smaller – were beautifully preserved, as were the abstract designs on the buckle. But what stayed longer in my mind were two photographs of children.

The first of these, reproduced against a wall, was of a classroom of Achill boys, sitting with intense and serious faces waiting to see if the Master would call on them to answer a question. One boy at the back is standing up. He wears what looks like an army jerkin. The others all have jackets or jumpers . In the front some have stockings and shoes, others are bare-legged. The intensity of their collective gaze is compelling. This is the meaning of life, the learning about life, and such images have a primal compulsion.

There are thirty-three boys. Where are they now? How many are alive and what did they do with their lives? Almost certainly a good number emigrated. The country life which the museum tells us about, and which has changed for ever since they sat at their studies – was it richer then than it is now and what do they remember of it?

The second photograph dates from an earlier period and shows six girls wearing hawthorn flowers in their hats on May Day in Westmeath, around the year 1910. The contrast between the six of them is enchanting and provokes the same kinds of questions as with the boys. They stare out with a remarkable mixture of expressions,
and look so pretty in their white smocks, examples of which are also on display.

This is a most human and friendly museum, full of the precious ordinariness of life, the kitchen and farm utensils, the furniture and clothing. Sean Keating, some time in the 1930s, did a series of drawings of the men and women of the Aran Islands. The drawings were used by Pádraig Ó Síocháin in the 1960s and 1970s to promote Aran knitwear worldwide. Ironically, there is not a baínín in any of the drawings. On Aran when Keating visited to paint, flannel was worn and, as John Synge tells us, it was woven on the mainland for the islanders for fourpence a yard. The pictures hang beside a display of Aran knitwear showing the various patterns which were once a form of identity and almost of language; again, as Synge tells us in Riders to the Sea, they sadly gave details of where drowned fishermen came from. The museum has in its collection a baínín jersey in black knitted half a century ago for Pat Scott, the painter, and given to the collection.

The Moylough Belt Shrine was found in Moylough, Co. Sligo in the 1940s by a local man there called John Towey. He was cutting turf and there is film to show him being interviewed. This wonderful artefact is the only known surviving belt reliquary from that early period in Celtic Irish art.

There is a curious contrast between the museum and the estate of some thirty acres, with the original family house of the FitzGeralds who lived at Turlough Park. This was bought by the Mayo County Council and was opened by Síle de Valera when she was Minister for the Arts, in September 2001. It set itself a target of 100,000 visitors a year and has achieved that each year since it started, quite a remarkable outcome, given the relatively remote setting, on the road from Castlebar to Foxford.

The house, once owned by the FitzGeralds, related back to Strongbow, was designed by Thomas Newenham Deane. He also designed the National Museum building in Kildare Street, Dublin, and the very different Kildare Street Club on the corner of Kildare Street and Nassau Street. Part of the house is as it once was, when the family occupied it, and more rooms will be added to the two that can be seen, giving the other side of social life which is so vividly depicted in the photographs of boys and girls.

The estate once occupied 6,000 acres – small by Mayo standards, since the Martin family had more than a million acres in the county – and the family were reasonably well regarded, even the more eccentric members. They occupied the house until the 1990s and Patrick Butler has written a colourful account of the family and the Turlough estate. The museum is a joy to visit, well-designed, full of interest, with wonderful grounds and gardens.

Further along the road to Foxford there is the little village of Straide when Michael Davitt was born. He and his family were evicted, and they went off to live and work in Lancashire where Davitt, as a youth, lost his left arm in a mill accident and went on to write and campaign for Irish land reform, first with militancy then more peacefully and more effectively through one of the stormier periods in Irish history.

The collection, which is housed in a restored, pre-penal church, gives a vivid picture of his remarkable life and can include a showing of a short and very moving video account of his single-minded dedication to resolving the land question.

He was drawn and painted by William Orpen who admired him greatly. The portrait is presently on show in the Hugh Lane Gallery as part of the exhibition of the Lane Bequest. It was one of several portraits Orpen did for his friend, Hugh Lane, as a contribution to the gallery’s collection.

Orpen wrote of Davitt: ‘He fought a great fight with all the energy of his soul, this God-fearing lover of nature’. And Davitt told Orpen; “Take my advice, don’t take any side, just live, and try to understand the beauties of this world that God has been good enough to give us to live in. There is nothing that spoils its beauty more than party politics and intrigues, or taking sides in any way against your fellow-men These things have ruined life for me for years and years.” A few weeks after I painted him, this great man, who had gone through so much for love of his country, died.’