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
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