Here MacEgan shows, in an impressionistic yet recognisable way, one of several educational exhibits arranged in the Art Industries Hall at the RDS. It was organised by the government’s Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (in May 1920), together with other exhibits showing for example fruit-growing, beekeeping or dairying. Comparison with Hincks’ famous prints of the laborious stages required to manufacture linen from flax (of 1783), helps explain MacEgan’s colourful, painterly composition. After harvesting the flax, then soaking it, the seed heads were removed, before kiln drying. Bundles of flax known as ‘beets’ were then beaten over stones, before the next stage, shown here, where each beet is rested on top of a tall scutching stock, and beaten with a wooden scutching blade. So the two women sitting on Thonet bentwood chairs, working high on the platform, each have their scutching blades held aloft, with the beets hanging down, held in the left hand. Downward strokes from their long knife-like implements removed the unwanted refuse called ‘shous’, which MacEgan shows littering the steps in the foreground. On the far left three women draw the beets through their hands, while a young red headed girl looks on, dressed in blue and white. The public are lined up, presumably behind a barrier, to watch, in the background. To the right women are seated to spin the prepared flax, which by this stage would have been further prepared by hackling (drawing it through spiked combs). R.D.S. records tell how this ‘camp of scutchers’ in traditional dress, came from Killoe, north Longford. They did their work of ‘Scutching hackling and spinning…to the accompaniments of music, song and dancing. The camp was a merry gathering, but – the work was done’. Flax spinners, with their sophisticated treadle-driven wheels, came from county Antrim. Wool spinning on the larger ‘walking wheel’, was also demonstrated by a group from Corrundulla, county Galway, at the same event. There appears to be a painted backdrop complete with an iconic round tower, at the end of the hall, and the high cross is probably one of several cast in plaster.
The open chest, shown lower right, may symbolise the way country women stored up linen in preparation for marriage, and which was kept in a dowry chest or ‘bottom drawer’. Their work and their dowry largely determined their future, so it seems appropriate that this is where MacEgan chose to inscribe the date with his signature.
Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA (Research Fellow RDS Library & Archives 2018)
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