The earliest known baskets were made 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, and were found in Fayim in Egypt. Interestingly, these finds pre-date the more enduring pottery remains — even though the natural materials, such as wood and grasses, that basket-makers use are liable to decay.
Familiar as we are with bags for everything — bags for life, discreet brown bags for your wine, and in countries yet to u pgrade, endless quantities of large plastic bags to carry your shopping home — it’s hard to imagine a time when people struggled with the many vital items that had to be transported.
Little wonder that some enterprising soul got fed up with this, and sat down one day with reed or sally to work out a solution. And since that forward-thinking step, the craft has become universal, with the same basic techniques employed, yet with an impressive variation in local styles and usage.
In Ireland, the weaving of durable sugán bases for chairs and stools, and the sturdy but beautiful creels for transporting turf by donkey, often became valuable and cherished heirlooms.
Baskets are made from any fibrous or pliable material that will bend and form a shape. Pine straw, stems, animal hair, hide, grasses, thread and wood are all used in different parts of the world.
For the many skilled Irish basket-makers, sally or willow has traditionally been one of the most readily available materials, and is widely used by a new generation of artists and basket-makers.
When I lived in Los Angeles — a metropolis surrounded by many tribal peoples — I was fortunate enough to see some amazing basketry.
There were grass receptacles so perfectly formed that they could hold water, beautifully designed coiled baskets, and the amazing work of native American Paiute woman and artist, Lucy Telles. Examples of her work can be seen in the Smithsonian Museum.
I became fascinated by the combination of form and functionality and the ubiquitous nature of basketry, so I welcomed the opportunity to talk to the Bere Island artist and basket-maker, Lynn Kirkham.
>>“Pretty much. I grew up in Lancashire, and I always loved to be playing outside. I suppose, the first things I made were a den and lots of mud pies.”
>>“I made my first basket in school, and my Mum still has it. By the time I was 25, I had decided to go back to college and study basket-making. And I knew that it was for me — love at first basket, you might say. I made a full-sized stag — more from my imagination than anything else, as that’s how I work. Since then, I’ve made dragons, horses, a castle, lots of things, as well as many baskets.”
>>“It was in 1995. I moved to Tipperary and set up a company called Greenmantle. I started working with community arts organisations on public art projects, as well as teaching basketry and creating my own pieces.”
>>“I used to visit West Cork a lot on holidays, and I’ve always loved the area. Bere Island was a particular favourite. So, when the opportunity came up to buy some land here, I took it. I relocated in 2008. Now, we have horses, ducks, chickens and pigs, a veg garden, and we catch lots of fish. At the moment, I have quite a few Woofers camping on the land, helping with all sorts of projects.
>>“No, not really. I do a lot of work in conjunction with the heritage centre here, and I teach courses and classes with groups and schools. Teaching is something I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good at.”
>>No. It’s a five-ton lump of rock and bronze, a public art project that was supported by Kerry County Council. It was a great project to work on, not least because there was so much community involvement. I’ve started working in bronze and other, more enduring materials as well, particularly for projects like this. Apart from the teaching, I only work to order or on commission.
>>Absolutely. It’s a technology which developed world-wide at more or less the same rate, and it’s as old as time itself, with skills and materials that are firmly rooted in tradition. The teaching side of it is all about passing on those skills. I harvest all the willow by hand, here on Bere Island. It’s labour-intensive, but very satisfying.
>>At the moment, I’m working on a big project for the Curragh. It’s called ‘ghost horses from the bog’, and it’s four larger-than-life horses, all made from bog-wood which is, of course, very durable. It’s wood that I harvested here on Bere. And I’ve some classes lined up for the winter months, as well. Apart from that, it’s sorting out the drainage problems on our land, which this terrible summer weather has not helped.
More information: www.bereislandbaskets.com