The Irish Times – Suitable Souvenirs for Christmas
MAGAN’S WORLD: Manchán Magan’s tales of a travel addict
Suggesting you do your Christmas shopping amidst the leprechauns, shillelaghs and Diageo-branded paraphernalia that constitute Irish souvenir shops mightn’t sound like sage advice, but some of the most alluring products I’ve seen have been in quick darts around the souvenir shops of Irish provincial towns: Bunbury Boards from Carlow; Rory Conner Knives from Bantry; Michael Casey’s bog sculptures from Longford; and de Blacam knitwear from Inis Meáin. All are available in gift shops, but better by far to make a trip to the places themselves.
Barley Harbour near Newtowncashel on Lough Ree, Co Longford, was a revelation to me when I happened upon it last month – a horseshoe-shaped limestone pier jutting out towards Quaker Island on a road that leads nowhere. For 40 years, local man Michael Casey has been carving ancient oak, yew and pine pulled from the surrounding bog. His workshop on the lakeshore is like a medieval craft shed – the dust of ages rising from sanded wood that hasn’t seen the light of day since the Bronze Age.
He and his son, Kevin, work away amidst the smell of beeswax and the sound of curlews overhead, finding, honing and polishing forms within 3,000-year-old trees. The herons, swans and salmon they carve bristle with the pent-up energy of thousands of years hidden in the bog, as though the millennia of yearning that the timber fibres must have felt for the sun and wind and rain that first made them is seeking release.
Their work dates back to, and is informed by, a time when Fionn and Oisín wandered these lands – perfect as mementos of Ireland for friends abroad. In fact, what unites all of the items listed here, is that they are products of the earth – embodying our turf, wind and rain.
Bunbury chopping boards are made from Irish hardwood growing in the Bunbury family’s vast estate at Lisnavagh on the Carlow/Wicklow border and other nearby woodlands. They are the product of this ancient family’s inspiring attempt to save their old domain, renovate their woodlands and return the estate to being the community employer it once was. It’s a lot to ask for from a chopping board, but it seems to be working. Each board comes with a serial number which, when entered on a website, reveals the story of the tree, when it fell or why it was felled, and what has been done to replace it.
Not only can you buy a board or platter, but you can visit the 800 acres of parkland, woodland and pleasure gardens at Lisnavagh and stay in an estate cottage or else take over the entire Gothic Revival mansion for a bacchanalian weekend.
With Rory Conner Knives, it is the handles that most incite covetousness: sensuous, sheen-rich shapes of Irish bog-oak, stag horn, spalted maple, snake wood and most spectacularly of all, box-elder burl, blushed green to give the most ravishing marblesque finish. The handles have that irresistible tactile quality of amber beads or early Christian pendant glazes. The blades are pared down by hand from high carbon stainless-steel to pristine functionality.
Rory is one of Ireland’s last remaining professional cutlers. His workshop is in Bantry and his knives are for sale in the local CookWare Company shop. While there, take a trip out to Whiddy Island where an architectural surprise awaits – a portal back to the Napoleonic era.
Of these intrinsically Irish products, Tarlach de Blacam’s Inis Meáin Knitting Company probably needs least introduction. His restrained range of linen and wool clothing in wan earthy tones of grey, blue and beige, inspired by traditional Aran designs, justifiably receives international acclaim. Likewise, the gourmet restaurant and designer suites, his son Ruairí and his wife run beside the shop on Inis Meáin, which is unfortunately closed in winter.