GOOD TO BE BACK Frances Toner, the museum’s marketing executive, is pictured with some of the Country Life collection last week. Pic: Karen Cox
IT’S true what they say about first impressions.
That much is obvious from the moment you drive through the stately gates of the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life in Turlough village, outside Castlebar.
The 19th century estate retains its impressive aura while the manicured gardens glisten beautifully in the early morning sunshine. And as you walk towards the museum entrance, a chorus of birdsong joins you for company.
It’s Thursday morning, and the fourth day this year that the only national museum in the country outside of Dublin has opened to the public after the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.
The first of the day’s visitors have yet to arrive, but some of the museum’s staff are already on site and hard at work. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, if a little different.
“On a normal Friday morning you could have five or six coaches arriving up here, with visitors from America, the UK, France Germany, the Nordic countries,” explains Frances Toner, who has been the museum’s marketing executive for the last four and a half years.
“At least 50% to 60% of our visitors every summer would come from abroad.
“So the day is completely different when it’s domestic visitors only because the majority of them don’t start arriving until maybe 12 o’clock. So the whole atmosphere of the place and the whole shape and pace of the day is different now.
“But I think there’s a huge appetite among people for cultural engagement because they haven’t had that for the best part of the last year. And culture is really important.
“It’s a part of all of our lives that might not seem essential, but it’s only when it’s gone for a year that you realise how essential it is for our enjoyment and our social engagement.”
This September will mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Museum of Country Life, which displays Ireland’s national folk-life collection of objects and materials related to Irish people’s everyday lives from 1850 to 1950.
Around 100,000 visitors came through the gates in its first year in operation and that figure has remained fairly steady over the last two decades.
In fact, prior to Covid’s arrival last March, the graph was on an upward curve.
“2018 and 2019 were the busiest years we had here at the Museum since the year it opened; we had over 120,000 visitors in those years and a number of very successful outdoor events in the grounds,” explains Frances Toner.
“The Wild Atlantic Way was bringing more and more visitors to Mayo and the West, and we were looking at exceeding 120,000 visitors again 2020. Then Covid hit and museums were one of the first places in the country to close.
“We re-opened to visitors at the end of June when domestic tourism opened, and we actually had a very good summer,” continued the Belcarra native.
“We had about 60% to 70% of the numbers we had the year before.
“That reflected the fact that about half our visitors are domestic and half are international, so we recovered the full domestic segment.
“There was great excitement for all the staff on site, and for all the people who came to see and share in the collections. A place like this is only alive when there are visitors here to enjoy it.”
One man who couldn’t agree more is Raymond Gearty, a Leitrim native who has been working as an in-charge attendant at the museum ‘since day one’.
“The visitors make the museum and create a buzz around the place,” smiles the Ballyhaunis resident. “My father was a farmer so I can relate to all the aspects of country life and it’s great to be able to talk to visitors about it when they’re here.”
“It’s been a steady start and it’s great to see people coming in again and using the grounds because the weather has been pretty good,” added James Reynolds, who has been living in Partry since he started working as a visitor services officer at the museum in 2001.
“July and August should be very busy. It’s great to be open again.”
Around 11.30am the first of the day’s visitors arrive, among them a group of service users and staff from the Rehab Centre in Castlebar. “We weren’t sure if the museum was open but we thought it would be a lovely place to visit and explore,” one of them explains.
That’s how Frances Toner sees it too.
“I think people who come to visit will find something that they connect and engage with.
“We also have an absolutely gorgeous 10km Greenway that starts here on the grounds and connects you right to Lough Lannagh in Castlebar. It’s mostly off-road so you’re going through peaceful, farmland alongside the Castlebar river.
“It’s like a dream job,” she smiles. “I drive into a beautiful parkland, woodland estate with formal Victorian gardens and my office is in a 19th century house. You couldn’t ask for a nicer place to work.”
Or to visit.
Some Museum highlights this summer
On Sight 2020/2021
AN annual art installation in partnership with Mayo County Council Arts Office, the Arts Council and Mayo Artsquad. This year’s artwork is ‘Straw Sister’ by Maria McKinney, inspired by farming practices and ancient fertility customs.
The human-sized ‘wearable sculpture’ is crafted from interwoven AI (artificial insemination) straws used in agricultural processes.
Our Irish Chair
Tradition Revisited (opening later this summer) - A new temporary exhibition about the history, design and exceptional crafting tradition of the ‘Tuam’ or ‘Sligo’ chair - a vernacular three-legged chair with a triangular seat, which continues to be made in the town of Tuam,
Co. Galway today.
An exhibition in the Courtyard Gallery featuring photographic portraits which focus on Traveller/Mincéiri women and the subject of how hair is intrinsically linked to identity, ethnicity, culture and gender.
The Museum has a series of small exhibitions dotted throughout the galleries celebrating various aspects of Polish culture and history. One such exhibition is called Paul Strzelecki: A Forgotten Polish Hero of the Great Irish Famine.
It shares the fascinating life and achievements of Paul Strzelecki - a Polish humanitarian
who helped over 200,000 children during the Great Irish Famine.