While holidaying with the extended clan in Connemara back in July, we made an emergency pit-stop at the Sheep and Wool Centre. Intrigued by the museum and plagued by requests to see the sheep dog demonstrations, we returned on Wednesday last.
The Sheep and Wool Centre is in situated in pretty village of Leenane, on the shores of Killary Harbour nestled between Mweelrea, Maumturk and Partry mountains. Picturesque Leenane has been used as locations in many Hollywood productions; you might recognise it from the film The Field starring Sean Bean and the magnificent Richard Harris.
The mission of the Sheep and Wool Centre is to foster an awareness of the traditional sheep and wool industry in Connemara and to preserve the history of sheep farming and wool craft in the west of Ireland. The Sheep and Wool Museum was established by Michael and Kathleen O’Toole in 1992, with a wish to protecting and preserving the traditions and skills of the local sheep and woollen industry in Connemara.
We arrived just in time for the 12 0′ clock demonstration. Going through the gap in the wall, we were met by the farmer, Joe of Joyce Country Sheepdogs and his dogs, Roy, Dan and ten week old puppy Rob. All the children and some of the adults fell in love instantly with the little border collie pup but while accepting all the adoration, he was more interested in the business at hand; rounding up the Sheep.
On the mountains of Connemara, the importance of a well-trained dog cannot be underestimated; there is no replacement for a competent sheepdog. Dogs are used by Joe when rounding sheep as they offer the safest and most efficient means of deftly moving sheep from one place to another. A skilled handler, Joe with the aid of his dogs can move sheep steadily causing no upset. We watched as Roy went quickly to work, instinctively knowing what to do but following his masters commands and whistles. Eager to round up the sheep and restrain them in the pen, he seemed a bit perplexed as he drove them round and round the field in demonstration of his talents. According to Joe, border collies have a natural instinct to herd and group animals together. Little Rob joined in, mimicking the movements of the older dog although he won’t be formally trained until he is one year old.
Sheepdog at work
With the sheep safely in his pen, Joe selected one for shearing. A young Jacob sheep was quickly sheared by hand as Dan and Rob played round his feet. The sheared sheep was sprayed with Joe’s distinctive mark, red and blue, to distinguish the sheep from his neighbours as sheep roam freely on the mountains of Joyce Country, and the fleece gathered up to give to a neighbour who will clean, card and spin the wool.
Shearing the Sheep
Happy to answer any questions, Joe was full of insight into sheep farming in Ireland today. He keeps mainly Connemara Blackface sheep and some Jacob sheep. While the Jacob sheep’s fleece is used by a neighbour, the Connemara Blackface sheep gets thirty to forty cent a kilo. If he needed to hire a professional shearer he would expect to pay him one euro fifty to two euro per sheep. An economical nightmare, a farmer would actually lose money. For two hundred sheep, he received approximately ninety euro for their fleece this year. The fleece is exported to China or other places and used in carpets or insulation.
Next we went in to Sheep and Wool museum, where we were treated to a carding and spinning demonstration surrounded by vintage looms, spinning wheels and traditional farming equipment. The oldest minion even got a go at spinning wool.
The second minion, aka the scientist, was fascinated by the process of spinning and was full of questions. He was also enthralled by the displays, especially the charts on the varieties of sheep and exhibits of farming equipment and looms. Samples of fleece from a variety of sheep are available to feel as well as examples of naturally hand dyed yarns. The curator was very knowledgeable and personable, happy to answer any questions. A small amount of wool is spun and dyed on the premises. The museum was hugely informative and well worth a visit. At twenty euro for a family of five, it didn’t break the bank either.
Pictures from The sheep and Wool Centre
A variety of Irish wool is for sale in the gift shop including Soft Donegal, Studio Donegal and some Tivoli. They also have more excitingly, a small amount of their own wool, including báinín from Galway sheep and naturally dyed wool from a mixture of Connemara Blackface, Galway and Texel sheep. They also have bags of fleece from Jacob Sheep and others from Galway sheep as well as a variety of patterns, books, needles, samples and kits. Unfortunately or fortunately, the laser machine was not working at the time of our visit, and scraping the pennies together, I was only able to purchase a small sample.