- Are there regional differences in trades and crafts objects?
Household objects of similar function can show marked regional variations in both material and design. It is not unusual to find different styles of chairs, butter churns or thatched roofs associated with different parts of the country. These differences resulted from the use of local materials, a variation in the skills of the makers, and because of personal preferences and traditions.
- Do types of thatched roof also differ from place to place?
Thatched roofs were made from natural materials such as straw, flax, marram or rushes. Different techniques were used in different areas to attach them into a series of bound layers to form the thatch.
Thrust thatching was particularly common in the east of the country. In this method small bundles of straw with knotted ears were thrust into the old thatch using a small fork known as a spurtle. This method was not as common nationally as scallop thatching, by which the straw was attached to the roof with straight willow or hazel rods, which were in turn secured by hairpin-shaped ‘scollops’ – pointed, slender, pliable twigs.
Along the windy western seaboard thatched roofs were often kept in place by a network of ropes weighted or tied down.
- What were the different types of baskets used for?
Baskets were used throughout the countryside, and were made in a variety of shapes and sizes for all sorts of uses in the home and on the farm. Uses ranged from storage to sowing seeds and feeding and keeping animals. Wickerwork baskets were generally constructed of willow rods, sally rods and osiers. Many farmers grew sally rods to make their own baskets. Baskets were also made of straw, rushes, heather and briar.
- What was the blacksmith’s role in the community?
The blacksmith was regarded as the chief craftsman and was respected and recognised for his important role in the community. He made and repaired a very large range of objects, from gates to domestic cooking utensils, as well as agricultural and craftsmen’s tools. He was also the farrier, responsible for shoeing horses and donkeys.
- How did people furnish their homes?
Wooden furniture such as chairs, dressers, tables and frame beds became commonplace in even the most humble of rural homes from the second half of the 19th Century as a result of increasing prosperity and the availability of cheaper types of wood. Carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights constructed furniture to take advantage of both the available wall space and the relative lack of floor space within the house.
- What did the wood turner use to make his wares?
The specialised woodworker – the wood turner – used a lathe to shape solid pieces of wood into a range of round or cylindrical objects, such as bowls and eggcups, or handles for spades and tradesmen’s tools. In its simplest form the lathe consists of horizontal beams with fastening points upon which the piece of wood being worked is revolved. The pole lathe, a development of the basic style, works on the principle of turning the piece of wood by means of a cord passing around it, with one end of the cord being fastened to the treadle (a lever that is operated with the foot), and the other to a flexible pole above. Unlike the modern wood turning lathe, which has a continuous rotary motion, the pole lathe allowed the craftsman to work on just one side of the wood at any time. This meant that he could leave a projection on the wood that could be subsequently carved to form a handle. James Loftus of Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary (1851 - 1933), was one of the last traditional pole lathe turners.
- What did the country cooper make?
The cooper made staved wooden vessels for use in the home and on the farm; they included churns, barrels and buckets as well as vessels for eating, drinking and storing liquid. The larger of these vessels were generally known as piggins and the smaller as noggins. The wooden staves were carefully shaped on four sides to fit tightly together, and were held in place by hoops of iron or by lengths of split willow or hazel. The cooper’s work was essential to most rural families who needed a variety of containers to process milk, wash clothes and store foodstuffs.
- Why was the saddler and harness maker so important in rural Ireland?
As working horses were common in Ireland, harness makers were much in demand. The strength and durability of a set of harness was important because of the farmer’s dependence upon the power of horses to perform so many everyday tasks. A harness maker could take up to seven years to learn his trade.
- What kind of objects did the tinsmith make?
The tinsmith, or ‘tinker’, made tin items such as containers and lamps, and repaired damaged wares such as saucepans and buckets. Travelling from area to area in order to find enough work, his family would sell his goods from door to door along with other items rural households might need, such as almanacs, needles, scrubbing brushes and wooden pegs.
- Why did these trades and crafts go into decline?
The role of craft workers was reduced in the mid 20th Century, with the increasing availability of mass-produced goods, distributed nationally and internationally by new transport methods and networks. As the tractor replaced the horse, the work of the local blacksmith and harness maker was reduced. The importance of baskets diminished with the introduction of newly available plastic and cardboard packaged goods. Factory-made furniture, sometimes using new materials such as plywood, soon replaced the vernacular style.
- Are these skills recorded anywhere?
The Irish Folklife division of the National Museum of Ireland was established in the 1930s to record the practice of these trades and crafts and to preserve the objects produced by the craftsmen. The division holds a comprehensive research archive of photographs and some film, which capture these craftsmen at work. There are also records in the archives of the Folklore Department, University College Dublin.