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Irish Folk Furniture: A Sundance-winning short film

The Storeyard Portlaoise

Although closing May 1st, there’s still time to catch the inaugural Irish Folk Furniture exhibition at Kildare Village, which explores the craft and tradition of furniture made in Ireland.

A lovely way to while away an hour or two, you’ll find selected pieces from Portlaoise’s The Store Yard (joint winner of the Irish Times best gifts/crafts/design interiors shop 2015), as well as screenings of the Sundance award-winning short, Irish Folk Furniture. We caught up with the film’s creator Tony Donoghue to talk traditional crafts, family associations and local variations.

Why did you decide to make a film about Irish furniture?

Tony Donoghue: Despite its name, the film isn’t really about furniture at all. It’s about community and the context that facilitated furnitures to exist and continue its daily life. I worked as a curator at a museum in London for five years, and with that time and distance, I was able to identify the merits of certain aspects of my old Irish life. Amongst these were a very strong sense of local community and also of home as a specific location.

How did it feel to win Best Animation at Sundance?

It came as as real shock, especially as they had selected it as a documentary. This film, as with my previous film 6 FARMS, didn’t get into many animation festivals. Although originally commissioned as an animation, it mostly got into documentary, environmental, academic, university and general subject film festivals – 275 to date.

Why do you think it’s so important to keep antique furniture at home, rather than in a museum? 

It is important to have some antique furniture in museums as a representation of cultural changes and style and as a study resource. However, as far as most folk furniture is concerned, it is much better for it to continue as ‘living heritage’ with the family it started its life with. Adapting and changing with a family – it also carries on as a functioning, useful item of daily life.

Have you seen an improvement in heritage at home awareness since the film’s original release in 2012?

We did manage to restore and put back into daily use 18 pieces of furniture that would otherwise have rotted away. Parallel to the ongoing restoration, we ran a furniture exhibition in a local school and many shy farmers came out and travelled up to 50 miles for advice on what to do with the dresser in the barn. The film has also played on RTÉ seven times and I hope that stopped a few people from selling the family dresser, and also allowed at least a few others to feel some pride in their painted family furniture.

Molly Brannigan (then 99 years old and still farming) with her chairs .

Molly Brannigan (then 99 years old and still farming) with her chairs.

Did you see this as an opportune time to collaborate with Só Collective given the surge in interest for up-cycling furniture?

If its rural conservation-related, and whatever the context, I’ll collaborate. Só Collective are a very nice group of people with a real desire to incorporate the history of Irish design into the now, and the future. Any exposure about the merits of incorporating the old, of recycling and reuse is only a good thing. Só Collective includes a number of furniture designers who appreciate and reference the past.

Do any of your own pieces have special significance?   

Yes, I have a settle bed, my great grandfather’s mug rack, my grandfather’s flour bin,  four dressers, a hanging dresser, and a cotton spool clothes rail. Back in 1999, my mum was losing her memory, so I bought her a sweet little Wicklow dresser in Buckleys Auction Rooms of Glasthule for £32. She no longer had to rummage in cupboards for her things… all her necessary breakfast things were now sitting there in front of her every morning.

Tony's mam and her £32 dresser.

Tony’s mother and her dresser.

What would you suggest people do to help restore old furniture – shop more at flea markets, or root out old relics from grandparents?  

Personally, I’d like to see people restore family pieces and then make sure they stay in the family. If people don’t have family pieces of their own, buy something Irish at a local auction and let its family history start there and then.

‘Irish Folk Furniture’ is exhibiting at Só Collective, Kildare Village, until May 1st Kildare Village

Images Courtesy of Tony Donoghue and The Store Yard

 

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