Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on folklife - from 6 July 2008

Further musings, from a holiday in Ireland.

Today I visited the National Museum of Ireland’s Country Life museum at Turlough. The setting for this is odd – parkland next to a major road, with a Victorian house, Turlough Park House (from 1865) in restored parkland. Next to this is a modern building set into a hillside, designed by the Architectural Services of the Office of Public Works, and a credit to them. This, and the museum, opened in 2001, many years after the first collecting of artefacts began; a large building, not accessible to the public, houses much of the collections. We attended a guided tour, and our guide stressed that only a small part of the collection was on display.

Before the tour, Sara and I watched a video made in 2001. The commentary was thoughtful and careful, and stressed the hard conditions that used crafts and processes that may be described as “folk”. The worst example was that of men working to convert mud to turf for burning. There was, however, a comment that viewing the artefacts left by these processes link us to the people and their way of life. Sara was sceptical about this; it did seem to suggest some sort of spiritual or sentimental connection.

This link did reflect a distinction made about the NMI’s work. Collecting had accelerated after 1949, with a stress on the disappearance of traditional methods of work, but less upon the preservation of historic artefacts. One display demonstrated this, in that new items were made to order, by established craftsmen, rather than the donation or procurement of items that had been in regular everyday use. Another made a careful distinction between the artefacts and the collecting of evidence about the ways of life. It is stressed that most of these ways of life have disappeared, outside areas, like Muckross House Traditional Farms, in which these are conserved. Another is the continuation of practices like thatching, using reeds harvested alongside the Suir, partly encouraged by the conservation of listed buildings that are thatched.

I drew several conclusions from the Museum. One is the idea of “folk” and the small-scale, rural-based, work that it involves. This excludes industrial and transport work – thus millers, brewers and canal and rail transport, significant to Irish rural development, are not included. It refers to “the popular traditional way of life”, but this does not, it seems, include politics and class (and indeed religion). There are references to the conflicts during the period in which rural life in Ireland is considered (1850-1950), but this is not related to people’s lives, techniques and developments. We were conducted around two rooms in the “Big House”, with some reference to land reform and the declining support for the estates which supported Turlough Park, but again this was not reflected in the changes in agriculture, power development and techniques that form the subject of an small exhibition on the lowest level. It seems that the poverty depicted and the techniques used grew out of the land and the hardships that working it brought. And, apparently, it was technical change, rather than developments within capitalism, that brought about the decline of some practices. One might assume from this that the end of some quaint practices indicate a loss of connections with the land, a loss of collective and co-operative support, and even a loss of some essential Irishness. This could articulate ideologies similar to that of the English rural idyll (and its Scottish and Welsh variants), with some of the contradictions that such perspectives embody.

An excellent exhibition demonstrated the gap between the idyllic depiction of rural life in such films as The Quiet Man, and the harsh realities, shown mostly in photographs. Yet it is recording, through photography and tape, has perhaps reinforced some of the nostalgic view. It is easy to forget that photographs were posed, showing people proud of heir appearance or of techniques that they developed, or bemused, unaware that their appearance was being recorded and would be displayed on the walls of a museum in 2001. Taping, sometimes video recording, also involves selectivity, in the subject’s account (and their practice of story-telling) and the editing of that account. Elderly people may well be proud of memory, keen to reminisce, pleased that their memories and opinions count in a world that has changed so much and passed them by.

This brings me to my final concern, one that is rarely discussed explicitly. What are we (and who are we?) to make of all this loss, the ending of techniques, the loss of meaning of objects, the disappearance of whole ways of life? Is it to be regretted, and, if so, why? Is it, like John Seymour’s book on Ireland that I am reading, over the loss of self-sufficiency, of simpler ways of life? Or is it that these lives now have no meaning, indeed had no part to play in the construction of modern Ireland? One thing that is certain is that at least some of the artefacts have survived, that some memories have been expounded and retained, that much of the infrastructure of story-telling has also been carefully collected and kept (although, perhaps, out of context), and that much is understood about techniques and their relation to artefacts.

Without the artefacts, and the histories that set them in context, much would be lost. Whether that would be the source of grief – with lives led but forgotten – if they had been allowed to vanish, is unclear. Maybe there is a need for judicious forgetting, for an end to the romanticisation that some elements in the built environment can now bring about. Maybe the realisation of what the lives of distant relatives (even, possibly, my own) involved, might lead today’s peoples of Ireland people to re-appraise themselves. And maybe, like the Famine, which was not the stuff of conscious memory 50-60 years later, it is best not to allow forgetting to take place. For what is not celebrated is the victimhood of the people depicted, trapped in a world of unremitting poverty. Did any fight back and seek to change some part of their world? There is much evidence of this, even if this was primitive rebellion. Beyond the man-trap, there is little to indicate much about opposition. Maybe that may lead the observer to consider their own world passively.

I could have written much more about Yeats, Joyce and other representations, but left it there.

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