IT is ‘all about the small objects telling the big story’. It is ‘the tangibility’ and ‘sense of connectedness’ to the galleries of artefacts at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life that is ‘so powerful’ for visitors. So whilst work continued behind the scenes during the pandemic closures and there were online events, the building really only comes alive when it is open to visitors.
This is the passionate perspective of Keeper of the Irish Folklife Division, Clodagh Doyle, who emphasises the evolving role of the museum as the demography and culture of the country changes.
She is chatting to The Mayo News in the old courtyard of Turlough Park House, once home to the infamous Fighting Fitzgerald and his descendants.
A Vagabond tour bus had landed just as I arrived earlier and has spilled out a gaggle of Americans. It was so interesting to observe their absorption in the stories told by the various exhibits on its terraced floors. Looking for a past, for their roots through the stories of a peasant Ireland: its seasons and meithleacha, rituals and religious services.
It is all there in this wonderful museum and its permanent exhibition, depicting Ireland’s traditional peasant life.
However, Doyle is determined that the narrative of this museum must be inclusive of the ‘new Irish’, the changing cultural landscape, the impact on social mores due to the pandemic.
Indeed, she and the team at the museum are already examining ways of collecting an array of face masks – the most visible symbol of recent life – whilst the craze for sea-swimming means she is pondering on the various styles of dry-robes.
“When we opened 20 years ago [this month] our collection was focused on showing the objects from a disappearing Ireland. It is important to say that the artefacts displayed had a direct connection with the wonderful work of the Folklore Commission of the 1930s.
“However, as society became more sophisticated and wealthy during the 1970s, people began discarding a lot of these hand-crafted objects in favour of machine-made goods,” Doyle explains.
She says that whilst this permanent exhibition underpins the essence of the museum, the institution is dedicated to representing a constantly evolving culture. This, she argues, is reflected in three temporary exhibitions now on show that explore disparate aspects of Polish life.
“There is a new wave of Irish people like the Poles, for example, who can relate to our traditional rural way of life because parts of their country are still reminiscent of the Ireland represented here. But they also have their own unique culture,” she says.
Polish folk art
THE exhibition ‘Polish Folk Art – Belief, Colour and Symbols’ is part of a nationwide educational campaign called Integration through Culture, which uses ‘selected motifs of Polish culture as starting points for conversation and reflection’.
Curated by the Bardzo Ladnie Foundation, the miniature artefacts on display show tiny wooden statues of saints and the devil, as well as delicate embroidered cloths and pisanki, painted Polish Easter eggs.
The curators explain that a fundamental characteristic of folk art is ‘the simplicity of both the materials and form, the recurrence of which results from traditions and patterns that are recognised in the local environment’. Moreover, the ‘artists themselves are not educated in the arts’, their creations instead ‘satisfy emotional and religious needs’.
“That is also the nature of foundational patterns in Polish folk art, which are tied closely to religion and surviving in the world. Therefore, art is also tied to the ritual calendar, feast days and nature,” the exhibition statement explains.
The story board for the little wooden sculptures of the saints, for example, explains how certain saints and patrons could mediate between man and the metaphysical world.
Saint John Neumann guarded against floods and hailstorms, whilst St Florian protected people from fire. It is reminiscent of the Irish Catholic belief that the weather on a wedding day will be good if the statue of the Child of Prague is put outside. Interestingly, its origins are Czech.
THE Polish theme continues in a very different vein with another exhibition, ‘Wooden Architecture Świdermajer Style’, curated also by the Bardzo Ladnie Foundation for the Integration through Culture programme. It comprises photographs of the villas by Tomasz Brzostek and information panels explaining the style.
Called Świdermajer villas, these unique 19th-century houses were designed by famous painter and illustrator Elwiro Michał Andriolli. They were built at a popular summer destination of Otwock, near Warsaw, already a seasonal retreat area for the literary and scientific elite. Named after the picturesque Świder river, these ‘light wooden constructions with rich ornamental detail fit perfectly into the landscape of forested banks and sandy beaches’.
The exhibition reveals that Andriolli bought 202 hectares of land on the banks of the River Świder in 1880 and designed and built 14 wooden houses – one for himself and the rest as rentals for summer visitors. The architectural design he developed has been described as ‘a very skilful mixture of three different styles: a local Masovian style, the Swiss Alps chalets, and the cottages of Tsarist Russia’. However, experts define it as a distinctive style of its own.
CONCURRENTLY, the museum is hosting a temporary exhibition entitled, ‘A Forgotten Polish Hero of the Great Irish Famine: Paul Strzelecki’s Struggle to Save Thousands’.
This Polish humanitarian helped the British Relief Association (BRA) support over 200,000 Irish children during the Great Famine. Curated by Nikola Sękowska-Moroney of the Polish Embassy in Dublin, this moving exhibition is on tour nationwide.
Strzelecki, a world-renowned Polish explorer and scientist, volunteered to support famine relief in Ireland from 1847 to 1849 through the BRA. His visionary strategy involved feeding the starving children, whilst distributing clothes and promoting hygiene practices, through their schools. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these children were living in the famine-stricken west of Ireland.