West Cork weaves


Though a bit of me is left behind in Connemara and I’ve been feeling very lost (like, what the hell am I doing with my life?), time and Cork are doing their job, thanks to good people and good music.

My host is cheerful, thoughtful, generous, unimposing and kind, and parked up by her chicken run in a farmyard that is cared for but not manicured, all my practical and many of my social needs are met, for a modest pitch fee that I’ve had to insist upon paying. Striking and Goidelic, she also models my work beautifully.


She invites me on walks with her great friends, and we sometimes go into town on errands together (‘town’ being any one of the many small, colourful, lively, harbour hubs that are within striking distance of this hill). I buy not one, but TWO new Donegal wool jumpers. They are both green (though different shades), and for a proper good Irish look I am given a daringly-orange beanie by the lady in the jumper shop because she’s our neighbour and she likes my dog.

On one such trip to town we stroll along a pebbly beach, watch dolphin fins in the bay and hear a birdlaugh from a nearby island that we don’t recognise. My host’s son works the mussel boats and, cherubian and yellow sou’westerlyed, he gives us a wave and a large sack of shellfish. Meeting the boat (by happy accident) as it docks, it feels as if we’re receiving smugglers’ treasure or cocaine (have you seen the Cornish film Ondine?). We also receive a bag of dirty laundry (mother makes a good mule). Later, well feasted (onion, garlic, parsley, cream and cider), despite curses at extending his working day, the mussel cherub answers my questions about mussel farming:

– How do you breed them?

– We don’t, they’re wild; we just provide the breeding ground.

– Oh?

– Beneath the floating black barrels you see there are hundreds of metres of looped rope; they cling to that.

– So they believe that they’re free and they choose to live on your farm. Poor buggers. Do you feed them?

– [Laughs.] Nope, they feed themselves.

– Do you medicate them? Antibiotics?

– No way, that’d ruin the water!

– Yes, but that’s what industry does, isn’t it? Well, good, I’m glad you don’t! How long do they live? When do you harvest them?

– We separate the smaller ones from the larger ones for harvesting between one to three years’ old. You can come on the boat if you like.

– I’d love to [she says, a little nervously; how many hairy arsed men?]!

I conclude that mussels may be reasonably sustainable, as well as healthy, fare and resolve to eat them more often.

In the Irish farmhouse kitchen by the warm range, some music: his melodeon (only it’s called an accordion here); my accordion; various guitars, voices and congas. Just as an Irish kitchen is supposed to be.

And then top-of-the-trad-canon fiddler Martin Hayes comes to town, with astoundingly good Waterford piper I haven’t heard of (apart from on Radio Na Gaeltacht in the car on the way there), David Power. I take the lovely French WOOFA and though she may not have been into Irish traditional music before, she loves it and says that a gig this good is truly the stuff of memories, and my heart is warmed. It is a fabulous gig, by great masters, and the venue has an excellent upcoming programme including many of my heroes and heroines – another pot of gold.

I’ve co-designed a weaving with a wonderfully engaged, artistic and sympathetic customer who cites Rothko, Klee and Matisse as possible influences on our shawl design. I see the colours she chooses in my much-photographed Connemara-autumn-birch-in-front-of-bracken-hill-and-purple-mountain-snowy landscape and wind a warp I hope she’ll like. I spend January working on various iterations of this.

The first iteration is a washing machine casualty (as you may have seen me rant about on my other platforms): with wools that are still ‘in the oil’, i.e. ‘greasy’ from the oil put in by the mill to aid the spinning process, I have to wash them. I can either soak them overnight in a large, bendy tub I carry on board, which is risk-free, or I can put them in a washing machine on a 30º wash where a delicates cycle will turn them over in both directions for a little agitation that will ‘full’ the cloth, i.e. rough up the fibres for a softer, woollier cloth with less stitch definition. If I get this wrong, I can shrink, distort or otherwise ruin my work. In this case, the drum has had its aelerons removed (I’ve no idea what the proper name is for the plastic ‘sleeping policemen’ inside that move the washload? Fins?), exposing sharp metal tabs, which I fail to spot. In future I will check every new machine I ever use outside and in: these sharp tabs cause disaster by pulling a hundred threads in my loose weave.

I list it as a second when a genius weaving friend admires the ‘hawthorn snagged chic’. To my delight, it sells within minutes to a good woman who says upon receipt that she is gladdened by its dose of landscape medicine in her currently-urban life. I’ve been gladdened by the making of it, too, if not the ruining of it.

The second iteration, despite double-checked calculations, comes out smaller than requested, and I do not get away with the liberties I have taken in representing closely the particular view from my autumn home when some colours and details deviate from my customer’s requests. I’m attached to the highlights of gold leaves against the red birch twigs, and pleased with how they capture the scene I have in mind, and I hope someone will love this one modelled by a Massey…


However, for the third iteration, she asks me to remove the dark red section with its tiny stripes and make a couple of other little tweaks. I am lenient with her and happy to make a third attempt because, whilst we have very amicably discussed my creative freedom, I know I have stretched the spec too far according to my whim. Finally this third one touches her heart, and I am content.

The Connemara autumn series of weavings has left some lovely offcuts that are in my shop’s ‘Sale and miscellany’ section for you creatives who wish to do something clever with them (do get in touch if you’d like me to combine lots at better rates).


I take my bike for a second tyre replacement in the snow and go for a long bike ride the next day (only getting off to push it up *two* of the many hills). The 27 year old water pump in my van dies, but I order a replacement and fit it myself and feel smug. Then I forget to replace the oil filler cap and the van cries black tears and I have to order another filler cap and I feel less smug. However three different men get involved to help and that’s nice. Irresponsibly (for a hole is immediately blown in the temporary tin foil oil filler cap), on our way home from the beach we nonetheless stop to enjoy a Chinese takeaway in a hip and welcoming, unpretentious, pub with a great singer/songwriter and other friendly folk, and then a visit to a new friend’s beautiful home, banoffee pie with her many kids and a drink with them and some musicians in another great and curious little pub. She relates intriguing tales of mysterious family constellation therapy happenings. I have strange dreams, but since I have had three sociable and musical evenings in a row with a beach walk in between, and made a bunch of new contacts as well as friends, life is looking brighter again.


Focus and uprootedness


I’m harbouring some kind of vague hope that last year’s drama will depart with last year’s departure; that the suspension of reality during the festivities together with celebration, ritualistic appreciation, farewell and release will bring in the new. But it’s mostly all still there, isn’t it? Domestic, emotional, political, financial and environmental upheaval, personally and collectively; the pressing need to make one’s way in a world bled ever drier

But I write to you because your responses remind me that it’s ok, even beautiful: my taste of homelessness before Christmas alarmed me and some of you, but the silver lining was in learning that next time I can put word out and the magic carpets will be woven in an instant – thank you. You have to line them up as best you can, and learn to surf!

Pin board

Photo by Alice Carfrae

Christmas was, after all, a family occasion, and lovely. An Indian, a German, several Brits, several Irishmen and an Italo-Celt prepared and enjoyed a delicious meal together.

Then I headed back up to Connemara for plans made last month.


The route through mountains that touches the weed-dressed backs of the bays in Cork is stunning – I missed it in the dark on my way down earlier.

Descending into Kerry lowlands a disturbed character by the side of the road flashes his bits at me, and later I follow a hearse for ten minutes. The two incidents are not related except that a Kerryman I meet on a Connemara mountain a few days later confirms that Things Happen in Kerry – the rest of my journey is uneventful, and enjoyable enough.

I meet the first of my friends in welcoming Galway City, and after five years, it is lovely to catch up. The next night at the coast we discover an incredible tonsil of three or four beaches, welcome the twilit wind in our hair and tidy a tangled lifebuoy rope. In a pub we find an excellent young duo making trad music on guitar and banjo. The following day, New Year’s Eve, we meet the other two of our party, and take them to my favourite beach – which is always the first beach, where I land in wonder – before preparing and eating another good meal together.

On New Year’s Day I clock about 20km with a dogwalk followed by a group walk: country lanes and mountain tracks are great settings for a natter. 

At a mass rock (where Catholics worshipped in secret when ousted from their churches) on a low mountain pass a group of young Irish folk say their prayers aloud and then chatter, friendly, as we climb back down the hill together. I apologise for the Brits, as I often feel myself compelled to do, though they show no grudge.


Photo by Zinny Ross

The following day Murph and I take advantage of the incredible sun. Every time I get into the van to go anywhere it feels like an adventure, and today is no exception: the corner of Connemara I’ve not yet seen is the north west and its convoluted coastline is littered with islands and inlets. With little information as usual I just follow my nose and hit gold: the road turns into a lane and the lane turns into a beach, only this is a beach with a difference: the signs direct drivers straight across the sand to a two-mile island that’s accessible for twelve hours a day according to the tides. I scowl at those over-enjoying the novelty and driving around the whole beach as if it were a car park, and leave the van on the near shore, walking to the island instead. I wonder how fast the tide will race over this flat strand and whether it catches people off guard. I meet an interesting young couple (and my radar for new friends says they’re definitely good contenders, but they’re in a hurry) who’ve actually read the tide tables. They reassure me I’ve quite a few hours, and keeping an eye out for the time of slackwater I calculate that they’re right.


The rural Irish, like the rural Scottish, tend to bury their dead in wildy places with stunning sea views. I pass a large graveyard on the island’s shore as I head north for an anti-clockwise circuit. I wonder whether I will be walking on white sand all the way, but the western shore is rockier, and so we traverse the machair (which must be full of meadowflowers in summer). I’m told, though have not yet been able to verify, that Connemara detached itself from Scotland, and so the accumulating number of parallels I identify between the landscape and culture of here and the Hebrides/West Highlands ceases to surprise me. I am in love with them both.

I eat my picnic on the farthest north west point of the island, gazing on the glittering blue and green and black and white of the Atlantic and its other islands. The wind is cold but the sun warm and Murphy quite patient. Behind us the Twelve Bens and Maumturks of Connemara have white peaks. Walking down the outer shore we pass rock formations and a shrine, one of which may be a ruined church I’ve been told about. There’s a lough in the middle of the island with swans and cignets, and I’m reminded of Heaney’s Flaggey Shore again.

We’ve been out for five hours and as the sun slants even more I worry a little about the tide as we skirt farmland and follow the lane back through the few houses on the island, but we are fine.

As I leave the peninsular I see a patch of land for sale that captures my imagination. My heart is still in Connemara.

Returning to Cork offers comfort though: it’s full of alternative types and I am not weird here. By the time I’m back in the Kerry mountains I’m rocking through the tunnels to American Pie and even the furniture crashes around in the back as I sweep too fast around 180º bends. (Back on the hillfarm the frost is heavy and an hour after I’ve gone to bed I recall my host’s warnings of icy roads and shudder at how I might have killed myself with excessive jubilance rolling the van on the trickiest mountain passes. But it was fun and I didn’t.) I meet an interesting woman on the most southerly point who has read about me, and she offers me a parking place at her rural home. I’ve also been offered an isolated bothy on a rocky shore if a hermitage is what I need, which it might well be if I can cope with only a woodburner, no electricity and an earth floor in winter.

I’m still feeling disoriented and in limbo, and where I thought I could write myself back into focus I have not, so the only therapy left is to set up the loom. Thank god for that.