Friday, February 4, 1994

Quinns - Basket Makers

Quinn is a family name synonymous with basketmaking in Athy. To Michael Quinn of Geraldine Road, now 63 years of age, has passed the unenviable distinction of being the last member of his family to practise the skill once handed down over the generations from father to son. Today Michael occasionally puts his hand to producing a basket but only as an exercise of the ancient skill with no commercial intent at all.

His father, Jerry Quinn, who died in 1965, was with his father-in-law Michael "Pop" Quinn, his brother-in-law Martin "Murt" Quinn and the great Jim O'Neill the last of the basket makers of Athy. Jim O'Neill, father of that superb musician Joe O'Neill, was regarded as the most skilful man of his time to weave sally or hazel rod to produce baskets, baby cribs or whatever you fancied. The other basket makers always deferred to Jim O'Neill and any difficult job requiring the hand of a master craftsman was sent to him. In his latter years he lived in St. Joseph's Terrace where he continued working despite losing his sight in old age.

Jerry Quinn, like his father also called Jerry who died in 1932, spent a lifetime working at basketmaking. In his younger days he had spent 13 years in the British Army serving with the 8th Hussars in India and in France during the Great War. Living in St. John's Lane at a time when the entire area was a thriving community Jerry Quinn worked in a small alcove off his kitchen except during the warm summer months when he was to be found outside his front door. Perched on a low stool with a sack across his knees he worked from early morning until late at night making potato baskets for farmers.

He worked with sally rods in summer and with hazel rods in winter. While sally was pliable all the year round hazel was not usable in the summer when the sap was up. Spending two or three days a week gathering in the raw materials for his craft, Jerry Quinn was a familiar figure with his donkey and cart. He generally worked in the area of Vicarstown, Cloney and Booleigh where the boggy land was ideal for growing the pliable rods and where farmers allowed him to cut what he required. The rest of the week was spent making potato baskets at the rate of approximately 24 a week.

Surprisingly enough Jerry Quinn only made potato baskets which he then sold to shop keepers in Athy, Dunlavin, Baltinglass, Carlow and Portlaoise. The donkey and cart was employed to bring the finished product to the out-lying towns where the price obtainable in 1944 was one shilling to one shilling and three pence a basket. Immediately after the War the price in common with everything else increased to 2/6 a basket. Before he died in 1965 Jerry Quinn sold his last baskets for ten shillings each.

No measuring rods were used in the craft, rather the craftsman used the measurements from the tip of his fingers to his elbow as the diameter of the hoop or ring which he made first. Large thick hazel rods were split down the centre to be used as ribs for the basket and these were wedged into the sides of the hoop. A couple of rods were then plaited in and as the side of the basket was built up further ribs were put in as required. An old cut throat razer with a homemade handle on it was used to trim off the rough edges of the finished basket.

When Jerry Quinn died in 1965 the basketmakers craft ceased to be practised in Athy. The soldier who had survived the Great War had timed his leaving well as the centuries old skill was about to be made redundant by the then emerging plastic industry.

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