The Sheep & Wool Centre was founded in 1992 by Michael and Kathleen O’Toole with a view to preserving and protecting the traditions and skills of the sheep and wool industry in Connemara. Michael O'Toole had vast experience of the subject over a long career as an agriculturist scientist specialising in sheep. The centre is a family run business managed by Áine O' Toole, Michael and Kathleen’s daughter. The centre was set up to demonstrate the making of quality wool to visitors and locals alike the various stages of the wool handcraft industry as it was practised in the past.
There was a thriving wool craft industry locally, producing fine hand-woven tweed. This operated from the Leenane Hotel, and was originally established by the Congested Districts Board in the late 1880’s. The role of the Congested Districts Board was to provide education and employment in impoverished areas by developing indigenous craft skills.
They also marketed products such as wool jumpers, cardigans and other clothing items abroad. Weaving was developed locally, and the project was supported by the owner of the Leenane Hotel, Robert McKeown. He provided workshops for preparing and weaving the wool and sold the finished product at a wool shop from the Hotel store. The work of the CDB ended with Independence, but l and cal weavers continued to work producing for the local community.
In the 1950’s the trading of wool provided seasonal employment on a large scale. John M. Joyce was the predominant wool merchant in Ireland at this time, buying the best quality wool from farmers all along the west coast of Ireland. His operation was run from the purpose-built Wool Store on the Westport Road. He lived in Bayview House, across from the Woolstore.
At the Leenane Sheep and Wool Centre traditional looms and spinning wheels used in the wool industry are reactivated. There is an increasing awareness of the value of the handmade materials and environmentally friendly production systems.
We hope that visitors to the centre will obtain an insight into the history and important role of sheep and wool in Ireland, both past and present.