Going Back for the Future

CROCHET, Knitting and Workhouses don’t appear to have much in common.

However, a group from Ballinrobe compiled both topics into free, easy-to-use online modules as part of a ground-breaking project aimed at capturing and preserving local knowledge for future generations.

The project is spearheaded by Silver Thread, an Intergenerational learning project whose mission is to ‘gather memories and celebrate stories with older people in communities and groups in Ireland’.

For the past three months, members of Ballinrobe Active Retirement have been involved in SenGuide, an Erasmus+ project led by the University of Nuremberg in Germany, which trains older people to design and create online micro and macro modules to pass on their knowledge and expertise.

The benefits are two-fold; older people get up to speed with technology, the younger folk get to learn priceless local knowledge through online modules.

Cathy Fowley, a founder of Silver Thread, explained the value of this knowledge at an event in Ballinrobe library last Friday.

“We think that there is in our seniors – and I’m one of them as well – a wealth of knowledge of skills, an experience, that we risk losing”.

“The way knowledge used to be transmitted locally in families was very simple. It was transmitted from generation to generation,” she elaborated.

“But now that generations have sort of exploded, that our children and grandchildren are scattered, it’s much harder to get a skill passed on”.

“So with technology we wanted to see if there was a way for technology to help pass on those skills. Certainly when I think about the Active Retirement there is a wealth of knowledge of skills in the area that really screams our for being kept and passed on to other generations. So this is our goal.”

Since founding Silver Thread in 2017, Cathy has worked with groups from Wexford to Stoneybatter to capture their priceless knowledge and memories.

She became involved with the Ballinrobe Active Retirement Group in February 2023 after settling in Ballinrobe in 2020.

From there, the group got involved with SenGuide to create modules on two particular topics – topics which are very close to their hearts.

The first was crochet knitting, a skill that is fast becoming alien in the era of fast fashion.

“I don’t know if it’s dying put there are lots of people that would like to learn about the crochet,” said Leo Gannon, sporting a snood scarf that she knitted herself.”

“It’s a gift, I’ve realised, and you can start from a young kid to an older child and continue on to our age.”

Ballinrobe is a town that straddles the Dhúiche Sheoighe Gaeltacht, with people from Clonbur and Corr na Móna known to venture there for messages over the years.

Thanks largely to Connemara native Mairéad Sheoige, this module is also available in Irish, known as as Gaeilge, titled ‘Cróise leis an creacadóir’ (Crochet with the ripper).

Mairéad, who hadn’t used a computer since 2003, said she came on in leaps and bounds with her computer skills.

“It was brilliant,” for me, she said in her native Irish tongue.

“I think that everyone should have a go at doing this, because you can do it.”

The Workhouse

History is a rich, wonderful, fascinating, but also very poignant and uncomfortable subject.

In Ireland, there are periods of our history that we would still rather not talk about.

For the past few years, a group of eleven women from the local writers group have been involved in a project on the history of Ballinrobe workhouse.

Now used as factories and warehouses in an industrial estate, this great complex cast a, long, grey, sorrowful shadow over South Mayo as the last refuge of starving, wretched paupers who had nowhere else to turn to.

From next month, thanks to a mammoth effort led by local historian Averil Staunton, the dark but informative history of Ballinrobe workhouse will become the latest online module to be delivered via the SenGuide programme.

That history is taught through the tales of several characters whose identities are fictional but whose suffering was borne by thousands of our ancestors.

“Even though it’s fiction we wanted the context to be true,” explained Cathy.

Those gathered in Ballinrobe library were not alive when the workhouse was torched in 1921.

However, many of the town’s older generation recall their own parents and grandparents being reluctant to speak about the place.

“I was told ‘the less that is said about that the better’,” recalled Anne Patterson, who grew up in Blessington just outside the town.

“As I got to know more about the workhouse I can understand – and we can understand this when we think about Auschwitz and so on – we were told that survivors rarely, if ever spoke to their children about the horrors bout what happened, so it traumatises generations.”

Averil Staunton – who has been a driving force behind efforts to commemorate those who suffered and died at the workhouse – estimates that 80 percent of the people she encounters knew absolutely nothing about the workhouse complex, which was once occupied by more people than the rest of Ballinrobe put together.

“Because they were poor it’s as if they were expendable, that their lives didn’t matter,” said Imelda Hughes, a fellow member of the Ballinrobe Writers’ Group.

“How would we feel if that was to be our fate? To be dumped into a pit without ceremony, written out of history out of memory, disappear as if we never existed, like melting snowflakes, or autumn leaves scattered in a bit of wind. How would we feel?”

Ballinrobe Active Retirement are determined to ensure that the memories of those who met their end in Ballinrobe workhouse will be preserved forever more.

Because of Silver Thread, those people and their memories will now be studied by future generations, rather than be met with uncomfortable shrugs of indifference.

“This project will keep history alive,” said Anne Patterson.

“We can honour our ancestors, we can learn to be even more fully grateful for the bountiful present in their future lives.”

So whether it’s local history of the art of knitting, the old certainly do have a lot to teach the young.

Pictured at the recent Erasmus+ information event at Ballinrobe Library were Ballinrobe Active Retirement Writers Group (BARWG), Knitting Group and Silver Thread project workers. From left: Mary Tiernan, Ellen Finnerty, Marian Doyle, Kevin Fowley (Silver Thread Project Manager), Cathy Fowley, (Silver Thread Director) , Leo Higgins, Averil Staunton, BARWG Workhouse Project Leader, Anne Patterson and Mairéad Sheoige. Missing from image Bridie McMahon, BARWG.
Photo Trish Forde©
Ms. Bridie McMahon missing from group picture.
Cathy Fowley

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