IT is a love affair that began back in the 1960s when this Dublin teenager was awarded a Gael Linn scholarship for ‘saying a few words of Irish’ in St Stephen’s Green’s, Damer Hall. For Dr Anne O’Dowd, a recently retired curator at the National Museum of Ireland: Country Life, her long relationship with the west of Ireland has been a most fruitful one, which has reaped a rich harvest of the disappearing folkways of the region.
Speaking to The Mayo News, after the launch of her latest book, ‘Straw, Hay & Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition’, she recalls: “I was just in secondary school and was sent off to Coláiste Gan Smól, Inverin [in Connemara] for a term. I loved it so much I didn’t want to come home. My strongest memory is of Nora Folan, who became my friend. They lived in a thatched house just outside the village and their loo was outside in the straw in the barn. Her mother used to boil the potatoes in an old pot on the open fire.
Anne was fascinated by ‘the easiness’ of the way of life.
Born in Clonskeagh and raised from the age of four, with her five siblings, in the leafy suburb of Rathgar, Anne O’Dowd attended UCD where she studied Geography and Folklore. She subsequently joined the National Museum of Ireland as a Curator in 1976.
Her MA, published in book form, and entitled, ‘Meitheal’ examines the cooperative agricultural practice – from reeking the hay to stacking the turf – whose ancient roots are referred to in the Brehon Laws.
In 1977, she undertook her first field-trip out of the museum and came to Louisburgh where she studied the rich folk tradition of knitting and spinning.
“One of the wonderful women I met on that trip was Margaret O’Malley of Aille, and she gave me samples of her knitwear and spinning among which were blankets and a coat she had spun herself,” Anne O’Dowd observes.
Margaret died soon afterwards while Anne was on a two-year scholarship to Finland, but her daughter contacted Anne later and said she could take some of her mother’s traditional furniture – including a beautiful kitchen table painted in ‘Our Lady Blue’ – for the national museum’s collection.
Campbell’s call to Murrisk
BUT back to those early days as a young folklorist and a compelling communication from the late Oweny Campbell, of the iconic Murrisk pub bearing the family’s name.
He told her about an Inishturk man, Michael O’Malley, who because of a disability now lived in Murrisk.
“He was able to make lobster pots out of heather, a traditional way on the island. This was a skill used in places that were so barren they couldn’t grow the sally rods used in other areas for making baskets. It was also a practice in Stonefield on the tip of Belmullet,” she says.
It was around this time she started researching her study, and book, ‘Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers’.
Cabógs, Bogeymen and Cuishemoks are the other other colourful names for these seasonal migrants – many of whom were from Mayo, particularly Achill and Erris. In the early decades of the last century, through economic necessity, they were forced to pick potatoes in the UK.
“I wanted to meet people who had been Tattie Hokers and met many characters with interesting stories in Curraun, Achill and Doohoma.”
These recordings are now a resource for future scholars in UCD’s folklore section.
Opening of Turlough Park museum
O’DOWD’S love affair with County Mayo ultimately led to her to move to Kilmeena, near Westport, in 2003. This was two years after the opening of the National Museum’s Country Life branch at Turlough Park, near Castlebar, where she worked as a curator until her recent retirement.
“It was Des Mahon, former Mayo County Manager, Matt McNulty, then Director General of Bord Fáilte and John Costin, President of the Board of Visitors to the National Museum, who kept the dream alive [for Turlough Park] in the late 1990s.
“At the time, Collins Barracks [on Dublin’s Parkgate Street] had come on-stream [as the location for the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History], and some people didn’t want to see Turlough Park happening at all. They wanted to put the folk collection in Collins Barracks.
“This was during the time that Enda Kenny was Minister for Tourism, and once he came on board and brought the idea [of Turlough Park] to the cabinet table, the ambitious idea became a reality.
“So I moved down in 2003 to become a curator, specialising in straw, hay, rushes and clothing,” she explains.
Dr O’Dowd believes that the future of the museum at Turlough Park, and the other branches, is now secure after last year’s serious concerns about a Government funding shortfall, which were reported in The Mayo News and the national media.
At the time, a source close to the board told The Mayo News that reductions in national government funding for the National Museum has put them under serious financial pressure and one of the options discussed was the closure of the facility at Turlough Park.