Mayo handcrafts that span the centuries

The craft tradition dates back centuries in County Mayo, with clothing, household goods, food and much more produced by skilled practitioners.  These craftsmen and craftswomen keep the old traditions alive and pass them on to the next generations, and are always keen to talk about them and demonstrate their skills to visitors.

Currachs

These traditional rowing boats were widely used for fishing, ferrying and transporting livestock right up to the 1980s; nowadays they are mostly for racing. Their wooden frame with tarred canvas skin (originally made from animal hides) make them phenomenally light, buoyant and nimble – able to surf large waves in the hands of skilled rowers and capable of carrying surprisingly heavy loads.

The construction and design of the currach is unique to the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland with each region having its own variant.

Watch out for currach racing regattas during the summer, or evening practice sessions where you will see currachs being carried by three-man crews to remote piers. The boats are generally transported on the shoulders with the rowers’ heads inside, making them look like giant, six-legged beetles. 

Baskets

There has been a basket-making tradition in Mayo which dates back 12,000 years.

It takes five to six hours to make a willow basket compared to mere seconds to make a plastic one. Unless the work of the dwindling number of full-time basket-makers is supported the art will die out.

  • Kathleen McNea is a fourth generation basket weaver, having learnt the craft from her father. Upon returning from England to Achill in 1992 she encountered the first stirring of interest among people to relearn the old crafts, and ever since Kathleen has taught courses for local women’s groups throughout Mayo and for tourists who wish to immerse themselves in the pardógs, cliabhs, and many other traditional baskets native to the county.
  • Joe Hogan is one of the most esteemed basket makers in Ireland, tending his sally rods at Loch na Fooey on the Galway/Mayo border. His work encompasses traditional potato-straining skibs and turf creels to cutting-edge contemporary art pieces.

Handicrafts/Arts

Mayo’s endless open spaces and luminous skies make it a natural base for artists; from major international figures to occasional dabblers.

The Great Western Greenway Trail has a strong art element to it, as does the tiny coastal town of Ballycastle where the Ballinaglen Arts Foundation  provides residencies to both Irish and international artists.

There are fine private galleries in Westport, Castlebar and Ballina, while regular exhibitions are also held at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, Ballina Arts Centre, Áras Inis Gluaire in Belmullet and the Custom House Studios Gallery in Westport.

Claremorris

Perhaps, though,  the real centre of Mayo art is the often-overlooked town of Claremorris, which holds one of Ireland’s landmark annual art events, the Claremorris Open Exhibition  each September. Since 1978, its three week extravaganza sees galleries pop up like buddleia bushes, displaying the work of artists chosen from hundreds of entries by a different major international curator each year.

It is a treat to enter a quiet rural town and be confronted by a range of unapologetically arty shops and flamboyant façades that wouldn’t look out of place in the most bohemian stretches of California.

The window of Mindful Productivity glistens with luscious glass beads, handmade jewellery and vibrant items bearing declamatory statements such as “I grá [love] meaningfulness.”

Next door is an emporium of patchwork pieces and multi-coloured woven fabrics: Stitched In, and a few doors up is the Claremorris Gallery, a suave by-appointment venue.

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