The National Museum of Country Life digs beneath the dewy-eyed nostalgia that besets popular images of rural Ireland to reveal the harsh realities of country life from 1850 to 1950. Even the scenic approach, 8km east of Castlebar off the N5, fits into the picture, with the museum’s sleek, modern lines reflected in the beautiful lake of Turlough Park
The exhibition is on three levels: Level -1 includes a brief but worthwhile history of the period from an ordinary person’s point of view, with examples of the ingenious uses of twisted straw rope – baskets, hens’ nests, mattresses, stools and horse collars. Level -2 chronicles the unremitting work of farming and fishing, of housewives, craftsmen and tradesmen, including a recording of a poignant letter home from an emigrant to America, and footage of men making a coracle on the River Boyne. Probably the most interesting section deals with the seasons and festivals: churning butter on May Day to ward off evil, leaving food and drink out for dead relatives on Halloween, and grainy footage of Wren Boys, who would knock on doors on St Stephen’s Day (Dec 26) with the corpse of a wren, asking for money to bury it while singing songs and telling jokes – the money, of course, would be spent on a party. Level -3 presents personal reminis- cences of the changes in rural life. You can also look inside the adjacent “Big House” of the landowners, the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival Turlough Park House, designed by Thomas Newenham Deane, architect of the National Museum in Dublin. As well as a good café and shop, there are guided tours of the museum and a range of workshops, demonstrations and performances.