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Featured SWS23 30 Nov, 2023

Lacemaking to survive the Great Famine

Actor Emma O’Grady with a bobbin lace pillow during a break in recording

In Headford Lace TrailEd Coulson sets off to discover a time when lacemaking wasn’t just a hobby, but a matter of survival for an entire Irish community.

This sound walk is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Sound Walk September Awards 2023. Here, Ed discusses Headford Lace Trail.

Imagine discovering that the place where you live was once home to a huge craft industry, but almost everyone has forgotten about it. Even though it has only just passed out of living memory, there is no museum, no memorial statues – not even an information board.

And even though hundreds of people in your small town were once occupied in this skilled profession, not one person has retained the knowledge of the craft itself. And you would be lucky if you found even one existing example of the work.

And imagine also that for many of those hundreds of craftspeople and their families, maybe even your own ancestors, this particular industry made the difference between living and dying during a devastating famine in which a million died and over a million fled.

These are the discoveries made by a group of women about their town – Headford, in County Galway, Ireland – since 2016; about a bobbin lace industry, initiated by a wealthy family to provide employment and alleviate poverty – an industry that spanned 150 years.

And the main reason this history was almost lost? You may have guessed: lace was women’s work. Women’s occupations were not usually recorded on the census. And the lacemakers’ handiwork, in delicate white linen thread, which was often made between labouring hard at home and rearing children, perished with the passage of time and with changing fashions.

The group that formed in 2016, the Headford Lace Project, was set up to “research, revive and reimagine” that history. It has organised workshops, events, musical collaborations and public art. In the process, its members have boosted town pride, attracted visitors and funding, developed professional skills of their own, and found supportive friendships.

I invite you to listen to one of the radio programmes I made about the group, its discoveries and its friendships – a one-hour programme broadcast on community radio in 2021, or the half-hour version aired on RTÉ national radio in early 2023.

After the second broadcast, I was asked by the chair of Headford Lace Project, Eilís Nic Dhonncha, if I would be interested in creating an audio walk about the lace history. Over the following few weeks, we sought and secured funding from Galway County Arts Office, and started discussing my brief.

The group explained that they were often asked to provide guided tours of the town for visitors interested in seeing places connected to the lace story: cottages built by the St George family to house workers; the ruins of the family’s castle; a farmyard where workers were paid, and where they queued for soup during the Great Hunger.

But the lace group weren’t always able to provide someone to give those tours in person. What if they could direct visitors to a permanent self-guided audio tour?

Eilís had tried a woodland audio walk I’d made in 2020, and she understood that geo-located sound is a playful medium that can stretch beyond the dry format of a museum guide or heritage tour that simply transposes a lecture into audio.

So although it made sense for the walk to follow the route of the in-person tour, to take in the same landmarks, I really wanted it to side-step people’s expectations of a ‘guided heritage walk’.

The group seemed to welcome that idea. They wanted the walk to communicate certain historical facts, yes. But most of all they wanted it to convey something of the lives of the lacemakers themselves, and of the circumstances under which they toiled.

This excited me because it meant we could focus on telling stories, and avoid an overload of facts, figures and dates. It also excited me because it suggested time travel! I had never had the opportunity to represent time travel in sound, and I couldn’t wait to try.

But the whole prospect also slightly terrified me, because it was going to involve scripting fictional scenes, and directing professional actors – two things I had never done before.

I struggled for a long time to think of a plot device for the time-jumps. Then, during the research phase, Eilís happened to recite the words of a simple bobbin lace pattern, repeated by lacemakers to remind them when to cross, twist or pin down pairs of threads: “Cross, twist, pin, cross, twist.” Of course! Like a mantra, this pattern felt powerful enough to bend time; the lace itself could be a portal.

From there I understood we would need a modern-day lacemaker to recite the pattern in the present day, and to take you, the listener, on the adventure. She would already have some knowledge of lace, which would be helpful, but she would also be able to engage in dialogue with other characters on your behalf, ask questions, and make suggestions. This role was played brilliantly by actor Emma O’Grady.

But she couldn’t just be a tour guide. What was the pretext for her being in the story – why was she there at all? This is when I realised she could be someone trying to do the audio walk herself, just like you. Her own phone could be faulty or misbehaving, and react with the lace pattern mantra to transport both of you to the Headford of the past. And when her phone was working ‘properly’, it would be the perfect device for delivering the more traditional audio walk material: contemporary interviews with local residents, a blacksmith, and a historian along the route – as well as important instructions and directions.

All of this plot-wrangling was a new challenge for me. But once the meta-audio-walk idea was in place, I was able to tackle the script. I sent drafts to the Headford Lace Project committee, who provided a huge amount of helpful feedback and fact-checking – and helped me, an immigrant to Ireland, make the language sound more authentically Irish, and of the time period in which it is spoken.

We do not know very much about individual historical lacemakers themselves, or even about the aristocratic women who aided them – and what we do know has been hard won. The researchers of Headford Lace Project have dedicated months of their lives just trying to establish basic biographical details such as names, addresses, family details and dates of birth.

But, as best I could, I wanted to bring those real historical people back to life in the story. So you meet two real Headford lacemakers who were alive in 1847 – Honor and Mary, played brilliantly by Mary McHugh and Sophie Morrow respectively. Little details in the script hint at the things we know about their lives, for example that Honor will live to 108, or that Mary will go on to win a prize for her lacemaking, 50 years after you meet her.

And you also meet Julia de Villiers, friend of the St George family, working in the soup kitchen. Many of her words describing the dire situation of the famine are taken verbatim from letters written not by her, but by the head of the family at the time, Stepney St George. The story of Headford lace is a lot about women’s words and experiences going unrecorded, or being told by the men who write history. In this case we turned the tables just a little, with Stepney’s words being spoken through Julia, brought to life by Mary McHugh.

Being true to historical fact would mean many characters speaking Irish more than English. It would have been wonderful to produce a parallel version of the walk completely in Irish, but this was just not within our budget, given the aim of the walk to cater to visitors potentially from anywhere in the world. However, there are lines of Irish throughout the piece, included without translation, providing reminders of the real linguistic environment of the time.

As much as possible, I wanted to record the scenes, and the music, in the exact location where they would be heard, and binaurally if possible. I have done this previously, and love the effect of recorded audio blending naturally and convincingly with the surrounding soundscape and acoustics.

This proved very tricky for the historical scenes, as Headford is busy with motor traffic, day and night. For some scenes I had to accept it was impossible, and we recorded at stand-in locations with similar acoustics. For others, we managed it by meeting our actors on location at 5.30 or 6 a.m., recording in the gaps between passing cars, in darkness!

For the sound of the time travel sequences, I was inspired by the ‘Discovery – Flashback’ tape of the late 1980s (produced by Joa Reinelt and engineered by André Jacquemin), which I loved as a child. The time jumps in that story are accompanied by a long, phasey, filter-swept whooshing sound, which used to make me feel like I was being lifted from Earth and flung through space-time, or like I was taking a huge inward breath, bracing myself for a big leap. So I tried to recreate that feeling in the sound design for our time jumps.

Eilís provided constant support and consultation on this project, across all aspects of it, and so I could think of no one better than her to be the steady and instructive ‘guide voice’ playing from your companion’s phone throughout the walk.

And while trying to resist or twist common audio guide tropes, I also wanted to do something unexpected with the music.

There is a song associated, tangentially, with Headford lace, called ‘Molly St George’, set to a very old harp tune. I wanted to incorporate it, but was determined not to use a harp, or any other traditional Irish instrument. For good and obvious reasons, traditional Irish music is used a lot in historical documentaries and heritage audio walks here. But in this case, I felt it would sound too obvious, and hold too many fixed connotations for listeners about what they were listening to.

So we asked musician and composer Matthew Berrill – a Headford native – to create a new arrangement for clarinet and bass clarinet. His sensitive and warm performance rounds off the walk, and provides a kind of end-goal for your quest as a listener.

While I wanted to avoid traditional instruments, I did want to include the song with its (Irish) lyrics. So you hear it sung beautifully by Sophie Morrow in her role as lacemaker Mary Connell, as she accompanies you from the farmyard to the Protestant church.

I began this project with no clue about where it would lead. But two things came to my rescue. First, the Headford Lace Project committee gave me all the support and trust and encouragement a producer could wish for, and more.

And second, that insistent lace mantra just kept going round my head! Cross, twist, pin, cross, twist. So I just kept twisting things and trying them, crossing and uncrossing them, and pinning what worked – and thread by thread, word by word, we got there.

To have the walk shortlisted for the SWS23 Awards is beyond our wildest expectations. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and we hope you will come and walk in the lacemakers’ footsteps yourself one day. And if you’re curious for more, you can read up on a more technical and production angle, over at SonicMaps.

The winners and honourable mentions of the SWS Awards 2023 will be announced in January 2024.

APA style reference

Coulson, E. (2023). Lacemaking to survive the Great Famine. walk · listen · create.


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