Whilst at the Museum of English Rural Life a few weeks ago Terrence McSweeney told us the wonderful story of his mother's basketmaking. I asked him to email me details which I am sure others will enjoy as much as I did so here you are in Terence's words.
"The Shanahans managed to remain working full time at baskets even during the time of least demans in the late 1960's. Joe and Mikie Shanahan were grandsons of John Shanahan who set up the business.... The Shanahans were one of the few firms in Ireland to have made the quarter cran herring basket, which was used by the fishing industry until the late 1960's. With the decline in demand the Shanahans enlisted the help of Córas Tráchtála, the Irish Export Board, who put them in contact with the Irish pavillion in New York, through whom they were able to establish a valuable export market for their baskets in the USA. This led to Joe taking part in a promotion at Bloomingdale's Store in New York in the early 1980's. Joe and Mikie also featured in the documentary series Hands, ... As a new generation became interested in basketmaking, Joe and Mikie found that people were looking for apprenticeships, and while they were hesistant at first, believing that basketmaking was a trade with little future, they subsequently trained a number of apprentices... Mikie Shanahan died in 1983 but Joe continued to run the business, sometimes with the help of apprentices, until his own death in 1992."
Of the 4 or 5 people to be apprenticed to the Shanahans Catherine Hayden (my mother) and Barbara Kelly in Co. Wexford are the only ones still weaving. Basketweavers were notoriously secretive about their skills in Ireland and my mother tells of how difficult it was for Joe to teach people from outside his family in the beginning. While there my mother learnt in very much a "production" setting and this resulted in a very high standard of work. Interestingly I have noticed, as I learn from her, that there are numerous stylistic and technical peculiarities in my mothers work which I have never seen anywhere else. Speaking to Joe Hogan (an authority on the craft in Ireland) I have realised that these peculiarities are specific to the part of Ireland where the Shanahans worked, the Suir valley, and may well have been at risk of disappearing.
Finally here is my mothers statement from the crafts council website: "I feel very lucky to have learned my craft of basketweaving, 25 years ago, from Joe Shanahan, Carrick-on-Suir, the last in a long family line of traditional basketweavers. They cut and gathered their willows from cultivated sallie on the islands of the river suir. My main objective is to continue to make solid robust, traditional baskets following the weaves and techniques that were passed on to me. I would also aim to allow some of the traditional designs to evolve and improve, which tends to happen naturally as I try to make every basket better than the last."