A Glimpse of Ireland Past

THATCHING FEATURE / Photo by Frank Miller

By Sharon Ni Chonchuir, Contributor
April / May 2011

Sharon Ni Choncuir discovers that ‘Romantic Ireland’ is still alive.

‘Romantic Ireland is dead and gone.  
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.’

This was Yeats’ lament in the Ireland of 1914 and it was often repeated during the Celtic Tiger years. In our frantic quest for materialistic modernity, Ireland and its people were said to have forsaken the traditions of the past. But how true was this assertion? Did those age-old traditions really die away?

I’ve spoken to individuals who are living proof this is not so. These people have kept alive some of the most interesting and unique aspects of life in old, romantic Ireland. When asked to imagine Ireland, people often picture green countryside dotted with whitewashed cottages and thatched roofs.  What they don’t realize is how close the skill of thatching came to being lost.

For centuries, thatch – made from reeds, straw or whatever material grew abundantly in the local area – was the roofing material of choice in Irish homes. It was freely available and provided excellent insulation throughout the tempestuous Irish year. What’s more, there were skilled thatchers. They could be called upon to repair or replace the thatch as needed.  These men trained their sons in the craft and so the skills were passed down the generations.

As Irish society began to change, the young no longer automatically followed in their fathers’ footsteps. This meant thatchers were no longer replaced and the craft appeared to be dying. Brian Simpson met his first thatcher in the early 1990s.  He had just moved to Skerries in Dublin and the encounter was to change his life.

“This man was a fourth-generation thatcher and the last surviving thatcher in the area,” says Brian. “He taught me many traditional skills.”
Inspired by this man, Brian set up his own thatching business in 1998. Since then, he has worked all over the east coast, mostly using the native slice or sketch style of thatching to restore old thatched cottages and build new ones.

In 2004, he was asked to join a committee charged with training a new generation of thatchers. “There was a skills shortage,” explains Brian. “People weren’t passing on the old traditions so we were asked to devise a training course.”

This year-long course was held for the first time in 2006. Twelve trainees enrolled and one of these was Eoin Murphy from County Louth.

Initially, he wasn’t that enthusiastic about thatching. “I was 20 and out of work,” he remembers. “I saw an ad for a thatcher’s apprentice and I liked the idea of working outdoors so I went for it.”

Five years later, he is as passionate as Brian. “There are all sorts of different ways of thatching and materials to work with,” says Eoin. “It makes it very enjoyable. In my area, we work with long wheaten straw and use it in old houses and new homes.”

There has been a decrease in demand for thatchers since the recession started.  However, both Brian and Eoin believe the craft will live on. “Thatching is a sustainable roofing material that looks great,” believes Brian.  “People will always be interested in it.”

“And now there are plenty of young thatchers trained in the skill, there’s no chance of it dying out,” adds Eoin.

Eighteen-year-old Raymond Ryan from Bandon, Co. Cork isn’t as optimistic about road bowling, a sport he loves.

“There aren’t many people my age who play as much as I do,” says the current Under-18 Irish Road Bowling Champion. “There will be very few left in a few years’ time.”

So, what is road bowling? Bowlers (pronounced to rhyme with howl) throw an 800g (28oz) ball, made from iron and steel and the size of a tennis ball, along a narrow country road. The aim is to finish the course/road with the fewest throws.

This sport can be traced back to the seventeenth century and was once played all over Ireland. Today, it can only be found in Counties Cork and Armagh where road bowling events attract large crowds and result in road closures.

“What happens is that people bet on you to win,” says Raymond. “Then follow you along the road, giving you advice on the best way to throw the ball.”

They aren’t the only ones helping him either. The bowler works with a partner who stands ahead with his feet apart to indicate the best target for the throw.

Raymond started at age 14. “I’d seen people playing in the Bandon area and started practicing on my own,” he recalls. “I got help from a few players in their 20s and 40s and got good.” The skill of the game is what first attracted Raymond. “It’s all about your stride, speed and straightness,” he says.  “You can improve these all the time.” He also likes the competitive side of the game. “I usually play every weekend,” he says. “I go all over the country. If they phone me to ask me, I’ll go.”

His neighbors in Bandon follow him at these competitions. Many put money on him to win. “I bet on myself too,” Raymond admits. “And when I win, the people who bet on me give me some of their winnings.”

Despite his passion for the sport, he is pessimistic about its future. “People say it’s dying,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of young people going into it and that’s a pity. I’ll have no one to play it with in another couple of years.”

I’m in a farmhouse near Abbeyfeale in County Limerick, holding the ribs of a heifer in my right hand. Don’t panic.  This isn’t a macabre Irish ritual. I’m actually being given a crash course in playing the bones.

“Hold them like this,” instructs David Murphy as he places the ribs on either side of my middle finger so they curve away from each other. He then tells me to click the bones together in time to the jig playing on the stereo.

Awkwardly, I try to do as I’m told but the sound that emerges is neither rhythmic nor musical. “Don’t worry,” David reassures me. “Everyone finds it difficult at the beginning.”

He then takes the bones and starts to play. He clicks in time to each note and soon the rhythmic clicks are echoing off the kitchen walls and I can’t help but tap my feet.

I’ve only recently heard of bone playing, an ancient Irish tradition now only to be found in small pockets of North Kerry and West Limerick. Here, bone players join music sessions in the pubs and compete in the annual All Ireland Bone Playing Championship in Abbeyfeale.

David Murphy first became interested in the bones when he was twelve. “A friend of mine invited me to a session in Abbeyfeale where I saw Patrick Sport Murphy playing the bones,” he says. “He’s a local man whom I still consider to be the best player I’ve ever heard. We were both so impressed we got our own bones the following day.”

David was determined to master the bones and spent every spare moment practicing. When Patrick – who lived down the road – heard of his enthusiasm, he offered to give him lessons.

“There’s a lot you can figure out for yourself but it’s good to be shown some techniques,” says David. “Patrick had wonderful moves and shapes when playing.  I was lucky to learn from him.”
David eventually improved so much that he went on to win the All Ireland Championship in 2007 and 2009, just as Patrick had done before him. These days, he no longer has as much time to practice. “I work.  I farm part time and I’ve got two children,” he says. “It’s hard to find time for the bones.”

He has started to teach his young children to play. He hopes they will continue the tradition but is doubtful.

“It’s not cool as it was when I was young,” he says. “But if I teach them to play now, they might come back to it in the future.”

Irish dance, music, songs and stories are popular with audiences all over the world. With the success of Riverdance and The Chieftains, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when people feared they might be lost forever.

In the early 1970s, Fr. Pat Ahern founded Siamsa Tíre (pronounced She-am-sa Tee-ra), the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, with the aim of keeping Irish performing arts alive and bringing them to new audiences.

“He wanted children to be immersed in the old traditions,” says Jonathan Kelliher, the current Artistic Director of Siamsa Tíre. “He wanted to ensure the traditions carried on into the future.”

To make this happen, he set up two training centers in tradition-rich parts of rural County Kerry. Jonathan grew up four miles away from the centre in North Kerry. “My brother and sister went there to learn music, song and dance, and when I was seven, I started to go there too,” he recalls. “I spent the next three years attending classes there once a week.”

That was more than 30 years ago and children still attend the centers today. Auditions are held annually to spot children with talent, and approximately 20 children join each center each year. They are then taught music, song and dance on a weekly basis for the next three years.

Those students who show significant promise then graduate to advanced classes in Tralee, where they work with Siamsa Tíre’s permanent performance troupe.

This is what Jonathan did. “I trained with Siamsa Tíre to the end of my teens and developed a huge interest in traditional performing arts, especially in dance,” he says. “I became a professional performer and continued performing with Siamsa Tíre until I became Artistic Director four years ago.”

Siamsa Tíre employs five professional performers and they are kept very busy.  Not only do they teach youngsters coming up through the ranks but they also create shows which run at the theater and others which tour nationally and internationally.

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.

Others among you may want to hear the bones being played. If so, the Limerick town of Abbeyfeale hosts the annual Fleadh by the Feale from April 28 to May 2. The All Ireland Bone Playing Championship is one of the highlights of this music festival and attracts bone players from all over Ireland and beyond. See www.fleadhbythefeale.com.

If you’d like to catch a performance by the dancers, musicians and singers of Siamsa Tíre, you can find information about their upcoming shows at www.siamsatire.com. Or telephone: 353 (0)66 7123055

And finally, if you want to follow in Beth Moran’s footsteps and learn the traditional crafts of spinning, dying and weaving, she gives classes from her home on Clare Island. Find out more at www.clareisland.info/loom.

The Weavers’ Guild of Ireland also organizes regular workshops and courses.  For information, visit www.weavers.ie.

One Response to “A Glimpse of Ireland Past”

  1. Jeff Freeman says:

    Irish road bowling is alive and doing very well in Ireland West Virginia USA.

Leave a Reply to Jeff Freeman


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