Hello again all friends of Mountmellick Museum and Heritage Committee and welcome again to what is our last article in the present series on Mountmellick Museum and related history of our town.
We are taking a break for the summer period, we will be in touch again in the autumn.
Thank you to all our readership who joined us each week as we travelled together on our respective Covid-19 journeys to date, the positive feedback and kind comments received were very welcome.
We are unfortunately unable to open our museum as of yet due to Covid-19 restrictions, we will of course keep you posted on our MDA and social media websites as to progress on this. We hope that you derived some enjoyment from our articles and while they contained elements of sadness and tragedy, they also demonstrate items of beauty and inspiration and bear testament to the ingenuity, creativity, tenacity and talents of so many individuals in Mountmellick both pass and present.
A special thanks is due to my fellow voluntary members of the Mountmellick Development Board and Museum Committee who researched and contributed articles for this series, namely Marie Walsh, Bridie Dunne, Anne Sands, Ger Lynch, Pat Dalton, also our external contributors from both abroad, Lou Walsh, Wendy Johnson, Dennis Morrell, (Australia, New Zealand, and USA) and locals Dick Fitzpatrick and his Granddaughter Dearbhla Dunne, Rev Clodagh Yambasu, Paul Lawlor not forgetting this week’s article by Nina Horan. I would like to thank Dolores Dempsey for her online tutorials on Mountmellick Embroidery, which many enthusiasts I’m sure enjoyed during the lockdown phase. All of these articles and tutorials are available on line should you wish to pass them on to any of your friends who may be interested. A special word of thanks to Ivana Safran, our MDA administrator for her invaluable assistance in managing complex IT issues and even an electricity blackout to ensure our deadline was met each Friday. What all of our contributors have in common is a passion for all things related to Mountmellick, where pride of place continually motivates them to engage voluntarily to make our town a better place for all who live here. No better illustration of this than that contained in this week’s publication with beautiful photographs by Nina Horan on the Yard Bombing, whose beautiful creations adore key sites around Mountmellick at this time every year.
Till we touch base again, stay safe, keep well, over to you Nina.
Ann Dowling - Chairperson Museum & Heritage Committee
The community of Mountmellick is open at all times to whatever makes our town better. This has even been acknowledged by Laois County Council’s most current Local Area Plan: “There is an existing vibrant community and voluntary sector in Mountmellick”. Mountmellick is a hotbed of social entrepreneurship and an extension of that means that our community accepts whatever benefit the town.
Consequently, when our group was founded in 2014, we were instantaneously embraced with open arms and open minds. Thousands of miles of wool later, and our community still values what we do. As a town with a rich heritage of textiles, we believe we just tapped into an innate respect for our industrial past, in a 21st century fashion. Given the acceptance Mountmellick also has for artistic expression, the love for a little piece of madness comes as no surprise to us.
We thrive on singing this song of praise for Mountmellick. Find yourself an Italian dictionary and look up the word ‘campanilismo’. The direct translation has negative connotations: parochialism; that narrow-mindedness of which we shudder to be accused. However, in certain regions it refers colloquially to the love an Italian has for his/her hometown. A derivative of the Italian word for ‘bell tower’ (campanile), it speaks to their pride in what is usually the tallest structure in their respective town. Our bell tower is taller than yours, kind of thing. For us, this rings so true.
The recent series of articles on the history of our town have been fascinating and informative. I speak on behalf of all the members of Yarnbombing Mountmellick when I say that we are honoured to have been asked to contribute. Having said that, our story thus far is a work in progress, a story still unfolding. It is not coloured with the patination of time. Nevertheless, we see what we do as something that directly feeds into the work of our ancestors of 18th century Mountmellick. In what we feel is almost spiritual, we believe that our work is well-received because of Mountmellick’s association with textiles. The threads that bind us, so-to-speak.
The article will look briefly at the history of Irish textiles, where Mountmellick plays into that association, move on to discuss the roots and international phenomenon of yarnbombing, illustrate how Yarnbombing Mountmellick weaves a contemporary chapter into our town’s future history and hopefully inspire people to take up crafting by examining the benefits of crafting.
IRELAND AND TEXTILES
Ireland has a long history of textiles. The oldest surviving piece of woven Irish wool dates from 750 BC and was found in Antrim. The main indigenous textiles, for which we became world-renowned, were linen and wool. Although we have moved towards a service or knowledge-based economy today, that progression from agrarian and through to the industrial age, has left an indelible mark. From Carickmacross lace, to Donegal Tweed, the universal love affair with Irish fibres is not too far from the surface. For example, uniquely Irish textiles such as the Aran jumper have not gone unnoticed by the international design industry. A 2017-2018 fashion exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured our flagship geansaí. This humble pullover was traditionally knitted by the wives of fishermen from the Aran Islands. The untreated wool was rich in lanolin, so protecting their husbands from the lashing saltwater with a layer of natural waterproofing. Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer collection of 2019 made Irish linen and crochet front and central to their work. Magee, a Donegal firm famed for their tweed, has their work showcased every season on the catwalks, in some shape or form. The bottom line is, Ireland is good at textiles.
MOUNTMELLICK AND TEXTILES
Fred Hamond’s report of The Mills of Laois outlines that “a total of 28 textile-related sites have been identified in Co Laois, encompassing 33 separate site components.” Hamond goes on to detail the processes involved such as carding, spinning, weaving and fulling. He notes that twenty sites engaged in one or more of these processes. “They are widely dispersed through the county, but with a small concentration around Mountmellick.” The thriving textiles industries did not stop at wool. Hamond illustrates the extent of the industriousness with a citation from Lewis from his ‘A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, vol.1’, who wrote of Mountmellick in 1837 that “the weaving of cotton is carried on very extensively and affords employment to about 2000 persons in the town and neighbourhood”.
With the passing of time, and not discounting the devastating effects of what is referred to as “The Great Famine” (a misnomer of massive proportions but not for discussion here), Mountmellick’s love affair with textiles continued. The Bat Leathergoods factory was occupied by Allied Textiles in 1967. In 1971, it manifested as “Mountmellick Textiles” (which closed only relatively recently). Factoring in the resurgence of Mountmellick Work (also known as Mountmellick Embroidery) and the activities of Mountmellick Sewing Guild in the meantime, it is no surprise to see how Yarnbombing Mountmellick weaves its way into the scene.
THE PHENOMENON OF YARNBOMBING
Much like many modern curiosities, how this form of guerrilla art found its way into the modern psyche is disputed. However, from our research, the concept was a happy accident from Houston, Texas. Magda Sayeg was inspired to cover her doorknob with knitting. This is a motivation with which we as a group can empathise! However, 15 years ago, when it was not a usual pursuit, it nevertheless got Magda some growing notice.
According to an article by David Charles Fox: “The “bombs” began slowly. A few poles, and then some trees, and a few other “normal” objects started to get this new “look”, providing them with a positive vibe that people maybe did not see before. Knitta Please grew and grew, and together with Magda’s growing passion, her curiosity what else could be “bombed” grew as well.”
Much like the notion of things ‘going viral’ digitally these days, yarnbombing spread across the world. It is not without its critics, however. For some it is seen as just a textile version of graffiti. Jason Eppink is an American designer and curator. In a 2012 article entitled ‘Yarn bombing: You can’t sit with us’ on street art blog Vandalog, he is quoted as saying that “Yarn bombing exemplifies the ‘do it for the photo’ method of street art. There isa disingenuousness. … It’s bright and colourful [sic] for a day, then it looks gross and someone else has to clean it up.” Eh, not us, Mr Eppink. Not us.
Think surprise, think urban, think yarny street art and that is Yarnbombing Mountmellick. In a peaceful guerrilla fashion, we knit and crochet pieces to temporarily cover items in the public domain. However, we do not ‘do it for the photo’ as he so cynically opines. Annually, we reclaim Mountmellick, to proclaim its wonderfully rich textiles heritage. We tap into an innate respect for our industrial past, in a 21st century fashion. Simply put, Mountmellick is at the heart of everything we do. All of us in Yarnbombing Mountmellick have a deep love and respect for our native place. It is through the medium of yarn that we choose to express that. Where Eppink is also mistaken is his observation that it ‘looks gross and someone else has to clean it up’. One again, his speculative and assumptive mindset is erroneous when it comes to us. We never allow our work to reach its ‘sell by date’ and we always clean up after ourselves. Why? The answer is simple. At the risk of repeating ourselves, Mountmellick is at the heart of everything we do.
We commenced action in June 2014. Borne out of a passing comment made by one of our members on Facebook, it caught the imagination of some like-minded people in the community. It grew organically from there. Over the years, we have received many plaudits, prizes, and media coverage. Chief amongst them was an adventure that began in March of 2018, Yarnbombing Mountmellick was shortlisted for The Peoples’ Choice Epic Award. Voluntary Arts (an organisation that works across the UK and Republic of Ireland to promote participation in creative cultural activities) established the awards in 2010. They work with local creative cultural groups, voluntary sector organisations, arts councils, and local and national government, to help increase opportunities for creative participation. The Epic Awards celebrate the achievement of voluntary arts by recognising the skill, innovation and hard work that goes into their activities. This opportunity provided widespread exposure for our group, across Ireland, the U.K. and further afield.
From February 28th until April 11th of 2018, we engaged in a huge Facebook campaign to become “The People’s Choice”. It called for major endeavour for us as a small group representing a little town in Ireland. Bearing in mind that we were amongst 32 other groups (some from cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, and Derry), ours was an uphill struggle. However, with much tenacity and consequent community support, our perseverance was rewarded. We were informed on April 13th, that out of over 10,000 votes, we were the winner of The People’s Choice. We were invited to showcase our work on the day of the awards at The Richmond Barracks, Dublin. We had many interested visitors throughout and gave them all a handmade brooch and sticker with our name on it so they would never again be prompted to say, “Oh, where is Mountmellick? I’ve never heard of it.” There were over 50 attendees at the ceremony from amongst the arts community and various state agencies. We ensured that not one of them went home without knowing about our town. As well as the accolade of The People’s Choice at the Epic Awards, we were overjoyed to hear it announced that we had also won the overall Ireland and U.K. prize for 2018.
This is exactly what drives us forward. From the day we started in 2014, it has been our motivation. We applied the same spirit when we were invited to design a garden for Bloom, 2016. When RTÉ’s Nationwide featured us on their show, we ensured that Mountmellick was front and centre. Added to those platforms, the many articles about us in the press and on radio, and when we were nominated as Club of the Month by the U.K. publication called “Simply Knitting” Magazine” (with a worldwide readership of 10 million), being asked to collaborate with the architects of the Free Market design from their exhibition at The Venice Biennale, to being commissioned to design and create a piece for Creative Ireland. At every given opportunity we promote Mountmellick. We are aware at all times from the feedback that we receive, that today, with 3,785 Facebook followers from over 40 countries, in certain circles we have managed to feed into the respect for Mountmellick Work (now listed on the National Inventory of Ireland’s Intangible Cultural Heritage). We have managed to continue the connection between Mountmellick and textiles.
Due to its colour and whimsy, our work brings happiness to people. It speaks to the inner child in all of us. We harnessed this concept when in March of this year, it became apparent to us that our regular meetings may not continue. The apprehension of the unknown was beginning to unfold due to Covid-19. Our consensus was that, particularly for children, a sense of playfulness and light-hearted jovial diversion would detract from the fearful anticipation of the unknown. We took the opportunity to plan via our WhatsApp group and design a series of monthly stand-alone installations instead. It required planning of a military nature. We went from Mandalas, to a ‘Decorate Your Door’ competition, to a rainbow tree at St Vincent’s Community Nursing Unit, to our Maypole Project, to our cherry tree, culminating in our display of bicycles in O’Connell Square at present. We describe it as a feast of “diet yarn bombs” for 2020.
The reception to our work over these past few months has been exceptional. The many nights when we each sat up into the wee hours crocheting mandalas and rainbows, making endless pompoms and even yarnbombing the bikes in our kitchens, have been so rewarding. The funny and sometimes rude WhatsApp texts that circulate in our group chat also helped to keep us motivated! We have grown our page followers by over 500, had an all-time record reach of 32,678 on our bicycles post (where 5,892 people acted by engaging), and been inundated with heartfelt comments and messages:
“I have to say Ladies that this is the most beautiful tribute I have even seen. Fair play to you all for your thoughtful gesture to everyone that has lost a loved one during this awful pandemic. Very well done- take a bow.”
“This would bring a tear to many people's eyes well done ladies. Once again, you have put a smile on everyone's face. Amazing ladies.”
“Beautiful idea ... thanks so much for brightening up our little town and a fantastic idea to compile stories, memories and moments of a very strange time in all our lives .... well done to all involved.”
The sentiments expressed above are entirely reflective of all the feedback we receive. This is what keeps our hearts racing and our imaginations humming. For us, it is akin to giving a present to our community and the old adage “the gift is in the giving” rings true. The joy of crafting is the added personal benefit for each of us, individually. It is well-documented in academic circles that participation in leisure pursuits increases health and well-being. (Iso- Ahola and Mannell, 2004). Indeed, given the times we now live in, how we enjoy leisure activities often bears more significance during times of stress. (Verbakel,2013). Fundamentally, whether it is sewing, woodcarving or pottery, crafting is the pursuit of a goal. As individuals, we envisage an end result, toiling many hours to achieve this. Consequently, we invest much of ourselves into the end product. Makers engage their bodily kinaesthetic intelligence, abstract thinking skills, motor skills, intuition and more into their pieces. They may be channeling skills they learned from their ancestors. Therefore, the pieces are embodiments of the self, and rich with meaning. You may never look at the humble pompom in the same way again!
The social nature of what we do, and the bonds we have formed amongst ourselves as a group, are how we further benefit from this yarny pursuit. Safe to say that many of us would not have known each other were it not for our little ‘herd of a different colour’. Over the years, each and every one of us has faced personal challenges. The slings and arrows that life throws at us all. From flat tyres to sick family members and everything in between. Central to how we manage are the friendships we have forged. Studies have shown that we are not alone in finding that the ability to form social connections and to express creativity, are afforded by taking part in leisurely pastimes. (Gabriel and Bowling, 2004; Iwasaki, 2007). All of these intangible concepts and notions are no different for us. Crafting alone is an opportunity for mindfulness and intentionality whereas, the synergy of a group dynamic forms a certain energy that takes the pastime to a new level. Thus far, 2020 has seen us have a little more of the former but manage nonetheless, to work remotely and remain on the same trains of thought. This has come about by knowing each other so well at this juncture.
In conclusion, knowing you appreciate the results of our crafting hours, we would like to thank you all for your encouragement and support. Without all of our followers and those who appreciate what we do, it is meaningless. We will leave you with the words of poet Séamus Heaney who wrote so beautifully about “The Harvest Bow”. The poet’s father crafted a love knot for his wife at the end of harvest-time every year. Heaney kept one of these, pinned up on his dresser. He turned a simple little piece of craft into a symbol of both love and durability. Such is the simple rustic value of the handmade:
The Harvest Bow
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks.
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.