Early in 2017, we were approached by a young Traveller man living in Finglas. Michael Collins of Avila Park, Finglas was just finishing his own studies and was looking at some business ideas. What could be done to reintroduce tinsmithing skills to the Traveller community? And in what way could the craft be made a sustainable craft for the future?
We decided to try and organise tinsmithing classes for Traveller men. We are aware from the All Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010 that mental health is a major issue for Traveller men and having a physical activity can be very positive. Our mental health worker Patrick Reilly came on board with the project.
Our next step was to approach Collins Barracks – part of the National Museum of Ireland. We knew that they had worked with minority groups in the past and Collins Barracks is the centre for Decorative Arts and History. The Barracks already has some Traveller tinsmith work on display.
Helen Beaumont, Education and Outreach Worker, worked with us in organising a structure, co-funding and a venue for the classes and we started our ten week course in May 2017 – based in the Learning Resource Room at Collins Barracks.
This was a great boost for the project as it gave great acknowledgement for the skills being taught and also provided a space dedicated to learning.
Seven men began the workshops. There was a good buzz about what was being undertaken.
The lack of tools became the biggest challenge to the project. Tools that were once so plentiful are now difficult to get. This slowed the whole learning process down and we lost some participants along the way.
James Collins, tinsmith, however managed to hand on a good selection of skills from measuring out, doing the seams, making a handle and other essential steps in tinsmithing. The participants remained positive and interested and the James’ was patient and encouraging.
The participants’ confidence increased and what had at first been shaky attempts at quite detailed work became confident hammering as the noise of tinsmithing rang out over Clarke Square.
Michael Collins, who had first approached Pavee Point, was also a participant and the first Michael Collins to make a tinsmith item in the Barracks of his own name. Tinsmith James Collins donated the items he made on the museum site to the museum collection.
Three Traveller men succeeded in making their first tinsmithing items – the poncher/saucepan. One young man was able to rescue his family tools based on what he learned through the course. The piece of wood vital to the craft – the scutcher – nearly got thrown on the fire only for his intervention.
Another branch of the National Museum, the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life at Turlough Park, Castlebar has a permanent Traveller Culture exhibition. In partnership with West of Ireland Traveller groups it is also planning a larger exhibition in 2018. Mr. Bernard Mongan, tinsmith, kindly donated his tools to the Museum in 1965. These tools can be used as measures for new tin smith tools.
A short film of Bernard Mongan, tinsmith, at work on the side of the road in the 1965 can be found on the Museum’s website: the tinsmith.
We hope to continue our work with the National Museum to help preserve and progress the craft of tinsmithing and to seek a sustainable future for the trade.