September 2014

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I spent last Thursday to Sunday in Killarney, Co. Kerry, at the annual conference of the Society for Folk Life Studies. Having just assumed that, in Ireland in September, it would probably be raining, I turned up with waterproof and boots, only to find the entire weekend was hot and sunny! The conference was held at the beautiful Lake Hotel in Killarney and Muckross House, a heritage site which includes a stately home, traditional farm and working craftspeople. (And two adorable Irish wolfhounds called Sadhbh and Saoirse – alas, too big for Ryanair hand-luggage).

The conference's beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse!

The conference’s beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse! (Images by the author)

The conference proper began on Friday morning with papers covering such topics as the impact of people on landscape, Kerry calendar customs and the 1930s Irish Schools’ Folklore Collection Scheme. I was also particularly interested to hear Brian Coakley and Deidre McCarthy’s paper The folklore and folklife of a section of the Kerry Way. Their project used mobile technology to make folklore/life content available to tourists walking the Kerry Way trail and I found it interesting to compare their experiences with MERL’s A Sense of Place project and our similar experiments with mapping and mobile technology.

Friday afternoon saw us on a tour of Muckross House and Traditional Farms. The farms contain a number of authentically re-created buildings such as a labourer’s cottage and a strong farmer’s house and barn, as well as traditionally grown crops and reared livestock. We saw a number of demonstrations including blacksmithing and straw-rope making, and were able to try soda bread made in the cottages with unpasteurised milk from the farms’ cows.

The after-dinner entertainment on Friday included a surprise performance from a local ‘Biddy Group’, a St. Brigid’s Day custom we had heard about from Patricia O’Hare in the morning session which involves local group rivalry, dressing up and disguise, music and dance, and the collection of funds from well-wishers (traditionally used for a feast but now more commonly collected for charity).

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a performance from a local Biddy Group.

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a local Biddy Group. (Images by the author)

Saturday morning’ papers informed us about the conservation of the Kerry bog pony, the archaeology of Irish bog butter and understanding nineteenth century Irish marriage traditions through art. Our afternoon excursion took us to Ross Castle, the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan on the shores of Lough Leane, as well as Aghadoe ecclesiastical remains, Ogham stones at Beaufort and the scenic Gap of Dunloe. In the evening we were treated to a wonderful dinner and night of Irish folk music, dance and storytelling in the strong farmer’s house at Muckross.

The weekend’s final papers covered the history of the creamery in rural Ireland, farming and the landscape and the traditional music of North Kerry. The conference was action-packed from start to end and by the end I felt ready for a holiday just to recover, but the varied papers, fascinating excursions, stimulating conversations and beautiful setting made the exhaustion well worth-it! Next year’s conference will be held at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and based on this year’s experience, I will definitely be attending.

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year - the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied!

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year – the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied! (Image by the author; BCLM photograph reproduced courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/424167)

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Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

I just wanted to say an enormous thank you to Marshall Scheetz, historian and journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, for coming to MERL and giving us such a wonderful introduction to coopers and cooperage.

We began the day with a visit to the Museum stores, where we looked at the various coopering objects in the collection, from an array of tools to various coopered items such as buckets, butter churns and measures. Marshall then gave a fascinating talk about his work at Colonial Williamsburg, the history of coopering, the process of making a barrel , and the different trades and industries that coopering has been associated with ­– including whaling, tobacco and gunpowder. The day ended with Marshall talking us through the coopering video on display in the galleries and pointing out the tools used in each process. The highlight for me was the way that Marshall used the part-made cask, truss hoops and cresset that we have at MERL to illustrate his talk – it really showed how you make a cask, the movements and actions involved etc.

Colonial Williamsburg sounds like a truly amazing place, and I’m really grateful to Marshall for taking the time to visit us here in Reading and tell us more about it. It’s a ‘living history’ museum set in the time period of the 1770s, but what makes it so exciting for me is that the museum has twenty trade and craft workshops (e.g. basket-makers, coopers, dyers, wig-makers etc.) where the trades/crafts are practised as they were in the late-eighteenth century. Craftspeople undergo apprenticeships to learn their craft, and make items primarily for use within the historic areas of the museum. Most of the workshops have about four full time staff, who take turns talking to the public and carrying out their work. The drawback to this system, however, is that production rates are really low – in fact, just enough to keep the skills alive. Colonial Williamsburg is now firmly on my list of places to visit!

We had a great turn out on the day, so thank you to everyone for coming.

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