In safe hands


LENS OF RECORD  Shaw-Smith’s camera captured the skill and authenticity of crafts like weaving, boatbuilding, masonry, carpentry and tailoring in the ’70s and ’80s

David Shaw-Smith’s family on his timeless and immeasurable contribution to Ireland’s traditional crafts and crafters

Oisín McGovern

“David Shaw-Smith’s camera did for arts and crafts what the other David (Attenborough) did for wildlife.” So said Willie McHugh when summing up the life’s work of ‘Hands’ filmmaker David-Shaw Smith, in a 2012 interview with The Mayo News.
Since David’s passing last weekend, tributes have poured in from far and wide, including from RTÉ and Uachtarán Michael D Higgins.
Yet, it is probably that single sentence from McHugh that best summarises David’s contribution to Irish arts and crafts.
The clarity with which Shaw-Smith’s camera captured the skill and authenticity of crafts like weaving, boatbuilding, masonry, carpentry and tailoring in the ’70s and ’80s is simply un-paralleled.
Including the multi-award-winning series ‘Hands’, David produced over 90 documentaries in total, as well as a book entitled ‘Traditional Crafts of Ireland’.
Just as Sir Attenborough worked into his 90s, Mr Shaw-Smith’s own family reckon that, had his health not declined, he would’ve carried on adding to his vast portfolio.  Indeed, David was busy working on an audio-visual Irish heritage archive up until his final illness.
Sitting physically distanced from The Mayo News in David’s beloved Lough Carra home, his wife Sally and daughters Melissa and Emma fondly recall his days spent travelling and trailing the country documenting old crafts that were quickly disappearing.
From his boyhood in Dundrum in south county Dublin, David was very much at one with nature. At the time, the now-bustling suburb was as rural as any county in Ireland.
“At the time, Dundrum was farmland, so those local kids were out on the farms,” his daughter Melissa explains. “As well as enjoying the kids, he was also fascinated by the machinery of the farms. He writes about it in his memoir, where he can recall the sounds that the thresher would make at harvest time.  
“He was fascinated by that way of life, and that was what he grew up with. It was on his doorstep.”
After working for a while as a floor manager with RTÉ, David soon discovered his true calling behind the lens of a camera. He purchased a Bolex camera and began his career making freelance documentaries.

Disappearing world
The seeds of ‘Hands’ were first sown when David fell in love with the west of Ireland after his parents moved to Oughterard in the 1950s.
However, the seed germinated when the Shaw-Smiths made four films on the Greek island of Corfu – where Sally and David had honeymooned – capturing the island’s unique but vanishing traditions.
“Everything about village life was traditional; from the way they farmed, to the way they made bread and spun wool,” Melissa recalls. “It was a very traditional life. That was the reason why when they came home, they looked on the way of life in the west as being something special.”
A man ahead of his time, David knew that it would not be long before the old crafts and traditions of Ireland and the rest of Europe gave way to modernity.
“That was the real start. At that stage we knew it was disappearing very fast,” says Sally, who worked as his sound assistant for many years.
Never did any of the Shaw-Smiths imagine the legacy that their father would leave over 40 years later. The ‘Hands’ series concluded after 37 episodes in the early 90s, but its popularity continues to endure globally.
“When Mum and Dad set out to make this series, they thought they were doing it purely for archival purposes. They had no idea at the time that people would have such interest it,” Melissa remarks.
“If they knew that 30 or 40 years on that there would still be this interest, they would’ve been gobsmacked. They didn’t know that would become their life’s work.”

100 lifetimes
David passed on his love of arts and crafts in many other ways. The Shaw-Smith’s Lough Carra home is bedecked with splendid paintings and drawings made by their four children, who were often on set while David was filming.  
David was also keen to pass on his wealth of skills to trainee film editors and producers.  Melissa explains: “It was important to him to see a continuation of not only film skills, but of skills and crafts in general. He really understood the importance of apprenticeship.”
He was also instrumental in setting up of Cearta Inneona in Bellmullet – which successfully ran blacksmith apprenticeship courses for five years.
Indeed, his children reckon David would have needed another lifetime to document everyone and everything he wished to record.
“If he had another life to live, he probably would’ve wanted to take the international family that he has and go to India and Nepal and all over the world,” says his eldest daughter Emma.
“In a way what he did in Ireland was happening globally. All over the world these traditions are dying out, and there needs to be people in each of those countries doing what he did…because they’re all going, everywhere.”
Sally agrees: “He would love to have gone on and done that all over the world, but it would’ve taken 100 lifetimes or more.”