Folklife and fairy trails


TIMELESS TREASURES Clodagh Doyle discussing an exhibit at the Museum of Country Life with her daughter, Tuathla, and archaeologist John Sheehan and his daughter Sadhbhin. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Áine Ryan

HER recent appointment as Keeper of the National Folklife Division gives her a unique perspective on the past, but for Clodagh Doyle the job is very much in the present. Here, she talks to Áine Ryan about life at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life at Turlough Park during a pandemic.

AR How have the lockdown restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic affected visitor numbers at the museum?
CD The reduction in international visitors to Ireland has had a huge impact for the entire tourism sector, and the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life has been affected by this. We are very happy, however, with the success to date of our reopening to the public since June 29. We have welcomed over 11,000 visitors to the exhibition galleries since then and this number doesn’t take into account the many visitors who come to enjoy the grounds and café only.
Our visitor profile now is very much domestic visitors – ‘staycationers’ and families enjoying a day out.

AR Was the fact that this museum is situated in a big open space helpful in opening up again?
CD Absolutely. The museum is set in 40 acres of beautiful parkland, gardens and woodland. There is lots to see and do in the grounds with outdoor art, walkways, the lake and river, a Victorian greenhouse and a vinery, to name a few. We also have a greenway cycle path connecting the Museum to Lough Lannagh in Castlebar, and we have introduced a new fairy trail in the gardens for younger visitors. This provides a great opportunity to enjoy open spaces and the outdoors, which we know is very important to many people at this time.
Our exhibition galleries also provide an expansive space due to our open plan design. As we have limited the number of visitors at any one time, this means there is quite a lot of space indoors also, which is very attractive to many visitors.

AR What’s involved in the new fairy trail?
CD ‘Of Fairies and Fairy Folk’ is a new trail in the gardens exploring fairy folklore and the folklore connected with our native and other tree species in Ireland. We did have a fairy trail back in 2015, which was in place for a number of months at that time, but this is a brand new activity, launched for Heritage Week 2020.
The fairy dwellings were created by Carmel Balfe and Tom Meskell of Wandering Lighthouse Artworks and are unique and enchanting interpretations. Each fairy dwelling has been specially located to highlight a particular tree species and there are illustrated panels at the trees along the route detailing the folklore associated with that tree and its uses and importance.

AR Do you expect more interaction with schools on a virtual level?
CD Each year we launch a new schools programme in September and January with a range of free workshops, tours and talks. This year will of course be different, and we are taking a blended approach of ‘in person’, online and virtual events and activities.
We will, in as much as we can while adhering to public health guidelines, provide outreach visits to schools as the academic year progresses and blend these with live and pre-recorded talks, power point presentations, online tours and other such curriculum linked activities …
The online approach is something we had already started to do with our general public programme since lockdown began – offering a new Museum at Home section on our website with online resources and activities and some virtual events.
We are also looking at developing an online classroom at the museum, which would allow our Education and Learning team to connect to classrooms and deliver live activities.
There is certainly lots of scope and opportunities there, and it is all about thinking how we can do things differently but deliver the same vibrant interpretation and engagement with the National Folklife Collections.

AR Do you have any plans for the winter months?
CD We have just opened a new panel-based exhibition about the fascinating life and achievements of Paul Strzelecki – a Polish humanitarian who saved over 200,000 children during the Great Irish Famine … We will be introducing further programming over the winter months to explore this exhibition, looking at the life and work of Paul Strzelecki and exploring Polish folk culture as part of that also. There will be a Polish-Irish folk traditions webinar in the next few months and a celebration of cross-cultural connections near Polish National Independence Day on November 11.
The museum is also currently developing its next major temporary exhibition, which will replace the hugely successful Kitchen Power, which has been on display since 2019 and was extended to January 2021 due to the closure. This new exhibition will launch early next year and will explore the history and design of a vernacular three-legged, straight-backed chair commonly called the ‘Tuam Chair’ or the ‘Sligo Chair’.
We also plan on launching an exhibition entitiled, ‘Crown – Hair and Identity’, which is a project exploring hair as a powerful form of self-expression and of individuality. The way we treat our hair can tell as much about where we come from as our language or accent. Hair often communicates an unspoken expression of identity. The project was conceived by artist Breda Mayock, who met with teenage girls from the Maple Youth Centre in Ballinrobe and women from Mayo Traveller Support Group in Castlebar.
Later this year, we will also be unveiling Onsight 2020, which is an annual installation of art and artworks in partnership with Mayo County Council Arts Office and Mayo Artsquad. This year, Donegal artist Maria McKinney has been commissioned to create a sculptural work exploring the tradition of the Strawboys and Bacach (beggars who wandered the countryside bringing news and stories in Ireland) and the agricultural process of artificial insemination in cattle breeding [which uses brightly coloured synthetic straws].

AR The historic Turlough Park House provides an integral part of the experience too for visitors. Other than its lovely courtyard, café and shop, are there any developments there?  
CD We are working on a project to install new interpretation in Turlough Park House to provide visitors with more information on the beautiful architecture of this Victorian Gothic mansion and the interesting history of the Fitzgerald family who lived on the Turlough Park estate. We hope to have this interpretation designed and installed over the autumn and winter.