Monday 16 September 2019

Bringing the days of yore back to life

Jessica de Burca in action with Montague Heritage Services in Athenry.
Jessica de Burca in action with Montague Heritage Services in Athenry.
Jessica's late husband Alan Montague.
Ella. Photo: Liam Hogan.
Jessica at the Today FM studio.

Colm Lambert

Jessica de Búrca is looking to the future by continuing to look to the past.

Viking and Norman times are her particular area of expertise, but she is equally at home ripping a deerskin apart to make a Stone Age cloak, or recreating jewellery from medieval times. It's an unusual business she runs, but in the seventeen years since Montague Heritage Services was first founded by her late husband Alan Montague, it's one that has given her great joy and which she is now throwing herself at whole-heartedly again after a period of transition that followed Alan's passing in harrowing circumstances in 2009.

The business provides 'living history' in all manner of ways - including supplying costumes, weapons, and more to TV dramas and feature films, to rolling up to festivals and other events in historical garb to give displays of combat, crafts, and more. Major credits include the television series 'Vikings' (filmed at Ashford Studios in Wicklow), the Disney feature film 'King Arthur', and the acclaimed RTE documentary 'Blood of the Irish'. Everything they do is done as authentically as possible, based on verified historical and archaeological research, and overall, Jessica says it's a 'weird and wonderful' world to inhabit.

The story begins with Alan and Jessica meeting while both were studying Radio Broadcasting at the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design back in the 1990s. Alan was already passionate about 'living history' and re-enactment, and he introduced Jessica to it. She quickly found she had a great grá for it too.

'To me, it just had everything,' she says. 'I had come from a dramatic background - there's acting in the family, for example my brother Maclean Burke is in 'Fair City' - and I'd always had a keen interest in history too. This had all the paraphanelia and costumes and opportunities to dress up and make believe, so it was something I loved right from the start.'

What was a hobby became a business as the couple were living in County Mayo, and things really got off the ground after they moved to Gorey in 2000. There were certain challenges at first, Jessica admits, but nothing too different in essence from what most new start-ups face. Before long, Montague Heritage Services were becoming the go-to people for anybody seeking such historical re-enactment for any reason.

A growing reputation for authenticity was central to this. 'There are basically two routes you can go in something like this,' says Jessica. 'There's the fantastical, and the archaeological. We've always tried to stick as much as possible to what we can reference and what we can find historical evidence for, basically trying at all times to be as authentic as possible while educating and entertaining. There's a huge amount of ongoing research, and keeping up with it as much as possible allowed us to develop and improve on what we do too.'

She has found over the years that people have most interest in the Viking and Norman periods - 'it seems to be a huge part of the Irish psyche,' she remarks - but there have been regular requests for information and items from earlier and later periods too.

'One of the most interesting for me was being asked to take part in what became an award-winning documentary, 'Blood of the Irish',' she says. 'It was about Neolithic people and basically tracing the DNA of Irish people back through time. We had to produce flint tools and various bronze age instruments, and costumes too. That's how I found myself spending hours on the kitchen floor, pulling at a deerskin and trying to stitch it all together by hand!'

But while Montague Heritage Services was going great guns, a tragic tale was unfolding behind the scenes. Alan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2002 - just before the first of the couple's two children was born. While initial surgery had the desired effect, the tumour returned a few years later, and so began a personal battle that ended in the saddest way possible as he passed away at the young age of 36.

Jessica's whole world was turned upside down, and she admits she considered whether or not to continue with the heritage business at all, before deciding to do so as a form of tribute to her late husband by keeping his passion alive.

'But things naturally slowed down around that time, and even now, I'm still coming out of the fog,' she says. 'I had to focus on our children more than my career for a while, before I began looking at the business again and looking at the future. I have something here that I can give to the children and say yes, it was their father's, but it has my stamp on it too. I can't give in - I have to do it for myself, and for them too.'

The Gathering of 2013 provided a great opportunity for a return to what she does best, as Jessica and others were central to displays at the spectacularly successful medieval weekend held in Ferns in June of that year. More recently, she has given a series of costumed talks on medieval foodstuffs and food preparation at the National Museum in Dublin, while the latest job was to create Celtic costumes for friends who form the 'folk metal' band Celtachór ('think Planxty, with heavy metal in the background!' Jessica says).

'It's a question of scale, so I'm now focusing on smaller scale creative projects, like reproducing clothing, jewellery, and other artefacts, and getting right back into the swing of it bit by bit as time goes on,' Jessica says. There are a few projects on the horizon, and she is also continuing to be part of the National Heritage Council's 'Heritage in Schools' scheme, whereby she and another - usually her dad, Des - will take over a classroom for an hour or so and give the children the chance to see people in costume and get their hands on swords and chainmail and the like.

'Things are going well again and I'm looking forward to what the future brings,' she says.

Jessica is remarkably forthright in describing the circumstances of the sad loss at a young age of her husband Alan, following the chance discovery of a malignant brain tumour in 2002.

'I was eight months pregnant with our first child at the time, and we were due to travel down from Dublin,' she recalls. 'Luckily - as it turned out - I went with my mother in her car, because it was more comfortable, and Alan went alone in his. He was driven off the road by a drunk driver at what used to be The Tap pub in Wicklow. He was treated and let out of hospital in 24 hours, but about a week later had what turned out to be a seizure, and the tumour was discovered.'

He was operated upon almost immediately, and the beginning of his recuperation coincided with Jessica giving birth - so much so, that as she was in one bed of the labour ward at Wexford General Hospital, Alan was in another bed there, giving as much support as he could in the circumstances.

'There was a difficult adjustment period, as we dealt with having a new little person to look after as well, but after a while his medication had things under control and he was back working and driving and everything again,' she says. 'However, by the time I was pregnant again a few years later, they found that the tumour had come back.'

This time, tragically, it was to prove terminal. Alan fought his illness bravely, but eventually succumbed in June 2009.

His last days were spent with his family at their home in Gorey, and Jessica remains eternally grateful to the many who helped them through that difficult time: the Palliative Care unit at Wexford General Hospital; the Hope Cancer Support Centre in Enniscorthy; the Irish Cancer Society; both her own family and Alan's too; all their friends; and Dr Michael O'Doherty and his wife Margaret in Gorey, who, as chance had it, Alan and Jessica had rented a house from when they first came to Gorey.

'The world works in mysterious ways,' reflects Jessica. 'My house went from being a nursery to being a nursing home. But Alan has left me with two beautiful children, and so I have a lot to be thankful for.'

Jessica de Búrca

Mother of two: Tadhg (12) and Ella (8)

Operator of Montague Heritage Services. Major TV and film credits include: 'Vikings' (The History Channel); 'Blood of the Irish' (RTE); 'King Arthur' (Disney); 'The Lost Gods' (TG4/S4C/Vision TV Canada); 'Strongbow' (TG4/S4C).

Also a radio presenter. Supplies Monday to Friday 'Creid é nó na Creid é' ('Believe it or Not) slot to Today FM, and occasional presenter of weekend programmes

Wexford People

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