Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Hands, horses and the Portlaoise hotel

David Shaw-Smith, 73, was producer/ director of ‘Hands’, the award-winning documentary series of 37 films about Ireland’s traditional crafts, made for RTÉ between 1978 and 1991. While working with the Dublin historian and staunch republican Éamonn MacThomáis, on the episode ‘Dublin Work Horses’, the pair struck up an unlikely friendship across the social divide.

“Éamonn was an incredibly intelligent man. His father had died when he was young and he was brought up by his mother in great poverty in Dublin. [Éamonn’s and my backgrounds were] complete poles apart but we got on terribly well.

“My parents were well off but my grandparents were very wealthy. We had a very big estate called Ballawley Park, between Dundrum and Sandyford, which is now Balally and it’s all housing. We had five gate lodges on this estate. My father turned the place into a commercial nursery and I was great pals with all the people in the gate lodges, who were working in the nursery.

“I went to a very unusual school in Scotland called Gordonstoun (a fee-paying school where members of the British royal family, including The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales, were educated). It was multi-cultural, multi-denominational; we had people from all over the world. The boys who could afford to pay the fees subsidised the local lads; fishermen’s sons and the like who also attended the school.

“Then I went on and studied agriculture in Aberdeen. That sort of fitted me out so that when I was talking to people like farmers [for ‘Hands’] and so on, we had something in common. Because of the way I was brought up and all the travelling I’d done, I’d met people from all walks of life.

“I picked narrators for ‘Hands’ who I felt knew about the subject or would bring something to the programme. [When I was making ‘Dublin Work Horses’] I was looking for a real Dub, somebody who was one of the lads, one of the inner city people. Éamonn had written this book called ‘Gur Cake & Coal Blocks’ (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1976) about his childhood in Dublin, a wonderful book.

“I had to get permission to use him because he had been in Portlaoise Gaol (serving sentences following convictions of IRA membership by the Special Criminal Court in 1973 and again in 1974). RTÉ made me promise that he wouldn’t use the programme as a platform for any subversion.

“The funny thing was you’d be filming in say Stephen’s Green and this guy would come up to you and there’d be a long conversation with Éamonn: ‘Ah howya Éamonn, I haven’t seen you for a long time’. And at the end of the conversation I’d say, ‘Who the hell was that, Éamonn?’ And he’d say: “Ah, that was [so-and-so]. He and I were down in Portlaoise in the hotel there for a while.’ In other words, the jail.

“I got to know Éamonn and we got on like a house on fire. We were always slagging each other. Our kids used to love when he came out and told them stories. After ‘Hands’, Éamonn and I went on to make a 12-part series, called ‘Dublin: A Personal View’, where he was on camera talking to all these people.

“I’d joined RTÉ before the station even opened. I’d been on various research farms in Norway and France and then I’d emigrated to America where I was working for the Virginia Polytechnic Institute on a grassland pasture research station.

“I spent five years in RTÉ as a floor manager and then went into lighting. At that time Éamon de Buitléar and Gerrit van Gelderen used to come in when making ‘Amuigh Faoin Spéir’ and I was very friendly with them. I was sitting at lunch with Gerrit one day and he said he was looking for an assistant. I applied for the job with a whole rake of other people but it so happened I got it. I took a hell of a risk. I had a job for life but I just walked out of RTÉ. People said I was mad. I had two children and another on the way.

“I used to head off in the summer with my wife Sally when the children got their summer holidays. We would camp and I would go off filming and they’d come with us. The first programme we made was ‘Connemara and its Ponies’ in 1969, which I filmed on 16mm Eastman Colour Negative, while Sally recorded the audio. We managed to capture the birth of a foal in the open at night, and later documented its development as it grew up.

“We also recorded the use of the ponies as working animals in different areas of Connemara, transporting seaweed from the beach and turf from the bog in hand-woven creels. The programme remains our best seller. It has sold all over the world and been translated into lots of languages. It’s as fresh today as it ever was.

“From an archive point of view, [the ‘Hands’ films] are really very valuable. The programmes captured a lifestyle which was disappearing. We always had original music in the programmes. We had very fine musicians who composed new music and played for us. They would have been relatively expensive programmes to make at the time. We didn’t make a hell of a lot of money out of them.

“Sally and I were always very dedicated to making them. You’d sacrifice time and money to make it right and also to try and draw out the characters of the individuals. I think that’s part of their success. We made stars out of a lot of the people who were before the cameras, people who were doing maybe ordinary jobs. I always call them extraordinary people doing ordinary work. It was the individuals that made it.”

David Shaw-Smith was in conversation with Jan Battles

A clip from the episode 'Dublin Working Horses', narrated by Éamonn MacThomáis, can be viewed from tomorrow (Friday) on our Clip of the Week page here.

You can watch a full-length episode of 'Hands' from 1980 on the RTÉ Player at TV50 Classics here.

A DVD box-set of 'Hands' is available to buy in shops and online here