A GROUP of voluntary arts and crafts tutors, most of whom are grannies, are putting their skills to great use, teaching schoolchildren and adults everything from sewing buttons onto clothing to making crochet christening gowns.
The tutors, from the Ballyphehane/Togher Community Arts and Crafts Initiative (BTACI), were recognised for their work recently when they were awarded the Outstanding Volunteers’ Award at the National Volunteer Awards.
Cork City Council has commended “the outstanding contribution” made by the group and has noted “the strongly collaborative approach” that the women take in passing on traditional skills which they learned at their mothers’ knees and at school, many decades ago.
Not that the women have their heads turned by official recognition. As one of the BTACI founder members, Nancy Falvey says: “One of our ladies, Rita Walsh, made a gold crochet dress for her daughter, Eileen Walsh, the actress. Eileen wore it to the BAFTAs some years ago.”
How’s that for recognition?
Nancy became involved with this community development project (CDP) over 20 years ago.
“We were looking at ways of bringing people together. Bridie Casey (Nancy’s sister), Kathleen O’Keeffe Charlotte Meaney and I had been involved in the ICA (Irish Countrywoman’s Association). We had got our certs in crochet, knitting and other crafts. I suggested that we give something back to our own communities.”
Using any local spaces they could in the Ballyphehane area, the women’s arts and crafts classes commenced.
“The classes got bigger. There were skills coming up that were amazing. So we were asked to come into the school here,” Nancy says, sitting in the principal’s office of Maria Assumpta girls’ primary school in Ballyphehane.
The schoolgirls are taught by the women, and some of the girls go on to study textile art in college. For all the rest, they are keen to pick up practical and artistic skills which, as Nancy points out, are life skills “and part of our culture”.
The women tutors are also learning along the way. They have worked with artist, Marie Brett and lace-maker, Veronica Stewart, extending their skills. The women are deeply involved in the Amulet Project with CUMH, making amulets for premature babies. There are plans to roll out this project nationwide.
BTACI was instrumental in a children’s costume-making exhibition for Cork’s Life Long Learning Festival 2016. Working with Maria Assumpta primary school, the aim of this ‘Dress up to Learn’ project involved making costumes, allowing young children to learn about different professions through role play. The exhibition included images of the process and the children’s interpretation of the outfits, depicted in drawings.
Ballyphehane was selected as part of a pilot ‘learning neighbourhoods’ project for Cork City’s UNESCO Learning Cities Initiative.
While sewing and knitting are largely seen as female activities, Bridie Casey says that they have worked once or twice with males in Colaiste Stiofan Naofa when they were making costumes.
For something that was set up “all those years ago because of our love of craft,” Bridie says the arts and crafts initiative has certainly grown beyond the expectations of the women. There are now 20 women working voluntarily as tutors, across the generations, in communities. There are now nine local art groups that have expanded to include five different craft sessions in the community every week. One of the sessions takes place after school in Maria Assumpta school. In all, 300 women of all ages, take part in community arts and crafts activities in Cork thanks to the initiative.
The principal of Maria Assumpta primary school, Maeve Griffin, says the full story of the arts and crafts movement in the area goes back 21 years ago when a home school liaison officer was first introduced.
“At the time, Josephine Brennan was the home school liaison officer. Helen Kelly was in our sister school, Presentation Secondary School. They saw the work the ladies were doing and the benefits of it and they invited them into our school as we have a parents’ room.”
Today, Maeve says proudly that Cork City Library still decorates its two Christmas trees in the foyer with crochet decorations made by children and tutors in Ballyphehane years ago.
“The ladies presented the school with a set of white crochet decorations which can be seen on the Christmas tree in the hall.”
They include glass baubles trimmed with snow white crochet.
Maeve says that the children in the school love to see the women coming in.
“They have endless patience with the girls and they work with two or three girls each.”
Arts and crafts, says Maeve, is “hugely important in the curriculum. It’s great for creativity and manual dexterity. My own daughter, Bronagh, is an art teacher in London. Art is very important to me.”
In our throwaway culture, fashion items, bought cheaply, are often disposed of after one or two wears.
“Learning how to sew gives the children the skill to repair clothes rather than just throw them away when something goes wrong.”
What is reassuring about the BTACI is that it’s intergenerational, proving that the skills taught really are essential life skills.
“There’s a child in sixth class who is a daughter of one of my first pupils here,” says Maeve.
She has asked the women to create an art and crafts object that will be the focal point of the school.
“‘Leave it with us,’ is what they said. It will be a surprise in the new year.”
Community health worker in the area, Teresa McCarthy, supports the BTACI and works with the local community development project.
“I do a lot of administrative work, dealing with proposals and applications. I wouldn’t be very artistic myself but for anything to be successful, you need people to bring different skills to the table.”
Teresa says it’s time the women were recognised for what they do in their community and she welcomes the award.
She points out that as well as being a practical and creative outlet for people, art and craft sessions “tackle isolation by encouraging participation. There is also inter-generational solidarity.”
And, what’s more, the women have had a strong involvement in training community tutors and developing FETAC modules in craft. With the support of a team at Colaiste Stiofáin Naofa, the women have contributed to the recognition of crochet as a craft that comes with accreditation.
More recently, BTACI has conducted a presentation of textile work, promoting the ideal of collaboration between all education providers.
The craft work promotes “positive mental and emotional health,” says Teresa.
“As well as carrying on skills through the generations, some of the adults (attending classes) will tell you that they wouldn’t get out of their beds if it wasn’t for their art class. It’s good too for bereaved people who need support.
“Ladies from the COPE Foundation come in too and we work with Travellers and immigrants so it’s about diversity as well.
“It’s hugely important that art and craft is being passed on and used as a tool for integration and accepting diversity.”
Who’d have thought that crochet, sewing and knitting would play such a vital role in Cork communities? While everyone knows what a stitch in time saves, it seems cherishing traditional art and craft work is the thread that keeps communities creative and healthy.