Made in Ireland

Made in Ireland


In Stone, 1981, a mason works on a Dublin cathedral.

Produced between 1978 and 1991, Hands is a reminder of the richness of Ireland's traditional crafts.

One of Daniel Shaw-Smith's earliest memories is the intense smell of willow rods in a basketmaker's studio, where he was accompanying his parents, David and Sally, as they worked on a television series about traditional Irish crafts. Daniel, now 32, also remembers a model lighthouse, made by the keepers of an actual lighthouse and set in a rock pool. "It looked very authentic," he says. "I remember feeling like a giant wading out to it in my shorts." There are many other memories, for the 37 documentaries in the series took the family all over Ireland in a Volkswagen van crammed with filmmaking gear.

Produced between 1978 and 1991, Hands is a reminder of the richness of Ireland's traditional crafts. The films, now available as a DVD box set, include all manner of subjects, from embroidery to stonecarving, from bookbinding to harp making, with a few unusual inclusions such as "Lighthouse Crafts" and "Dublin's Viking Longship," a chronicle of the vessel built in celebration of the city's millennium.

David Shaw-Smith trained in agriculture before joining the Irish government broadcasting corporation, where he worked on a weekly wildlife program that gave him a taste for out-of-studio documentary filmmaking and a familiarity with Irish locales. The first film the couple (now in their early 70s) made on their own was on Connemara ponies and, in their son's words, "the landscape and lifestyles of the people and places associated with them." That approach continued when they turned their attention to their country's traditional crafts, which they were concerned would disappear without being documented.

David was director and cinematographer for all the programs, and Sally recorded the sound for most of them. The filmmaking is excellent, with narration that can be formal or folksy, but is always full of historical and technical information; lively music, often with fiddle, tin whistle, and the like; outstanding cinematography and editing; and an artful use of their subjects. The craftspeople repeatedly dazzle with their skills, whether that means making a simple wooden chair from scratch with hand tools or - secrets revealed! - getting a miniature ship inside a bottle.

Long before the Celtic Tiger boom and the current Irish bust, the series acknowledges the economic vulnerability of crafts, as in the episode on hand-printed silks - the single episode filmed in England - which ends with the magnificent printing blocks auctioned off at Christie's. The lighthouse keepers were being automated out of their jobs even as they were being filmed, and many of the older crafters have passed on since being filmed, often leaving no one to continue the tradition. But the saddlery, candlemaker, potteries, and a few other firms in the series are still in business. Hands even inspired some individuals to enter the crafts world, and a later series by the Shaw-Smiths, Patterns, features a younger generation that participated in the crafts revival of the 1980s. In Ireland there has been a steady core of craftspeople, Daniel Shaw-Smith says, who have continued working through thick and thin; he notes a recent surge of interest in things homemade and handcrafted.

Members of the Irish diaspora with a personal connection to the auld sod may feel a special fascination, but all Americans involved in craft should be interested in the abundance of material to be found in these films. I enjoyed all 20 hours, even if I'm not about to put a thatched roof on my house. And although I was not in that basketmaker's studio or on that lighthouse island, the series provided me with more than a few moments I'll remember for a long time.

Robert Silberman is a member of the department of art history at the University of Minnesota.