Irish Basket Maker Keeping Tradition Alive

By Kimberly Ellingson

According to Vincent Mac Árainn, every basket has a story. 

Vincent has been making traditional Irish baskets professionally for 25 years, but his roots in basket making go back much further. He says he made his very first basket in 1969. 

"I was fishing at the time and we used to make our own lobster pots from willow. When I moved to the Erin Islands 40 years ago, I watched the old people making baskets and kind of took an interest in it but didnít go into it," he says. 

When he finally did decide to go into the basket making business, Vincent wanted to honor the traditional methods which had been passed down to him. This includes harvesting the willow himself, as well as soaking it in order to soften and prepare it for the weaving process. 

"There is a lot involved," Vincent says. "The hardest part of basket making is the November harvesting. You have to cut all the willow individually. Willow needs to be soaked for five to seven days, a lot of times with some of the heavy baskets maybe up to three weeks."

Additionally, because the older folks he learned from never measured the baskets they were weaving, Vincent makes a point of not measuring his, either. His process involves a great deal of time-honored improvisation. 

"I try to invent a few bits and pieces. Even today I made two baskets that I donít normally do," he says."I never know what I am going to do."

Vincentís baskets vary in size. He can weave a small basket, such as a bird feeder, in about a half an hour. Typically, a standard-sized basket takes about an hour or two. He says one particularly large basket took eight hours and stands at over seven feet tall. 

This is Vincentís tenth year at Irish fest. He says he loves meeting all the people, and has built up a loyal customer base in Milwaukee over the past decade. Most of his customers are very interested in the history of basket making in Ireland, which according to Vincent, dates back several centuries. He even owns a basket that dates back before the 1700s.

"They go way back," he says. "There have been baskets discovered from about 5,000 B.C. Baskets have definitely been used in the western world for centuries."

Historically, baskets werenít made to sell, says Vincent. Families wove baskets for their own use, and the typical life span of a basket was only about one year. The size and purpose of a particular basket depended on the size of the house, as well as the location of the family. Families on the coast would have used baskets for fishing, for instance. In addition, baskets were made for carrying turf, for shopping, or for decoration on festivals and feast days. This tradition continues on to the present day.

"The Feast of Our Lady in the month of May is a very big feast in Ireland, and you make a special basket for that to put outside the front door with flowers in it," Vincent says.

While Vincent believes that basket making is a dying trade, he says his career has been an adventure, and he looks for basket makers everywhere he goes so he can learn new techniques and share his expertise.

"Basket making is like an international language," says Vincent. "I make baskets because of the pleasure you have in it. I make them for my own pleasure."


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Milwaukee, WI  53217
Phone: 414-540-6636

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