Saturday, 23 June 2018

Belfast Linen

I was  having an Instagram conversation about the scarcity of linen to be found in Ireland and that same day I went to the Titanic Experience  in Belfast. Little did I know the two events would be linked, and supported by another walk through the Ulster Museum....
Titanic Belfast Experience
In 1711 a Linen Board was established in Ulster to direct the development of the linen industry and new methods and better seeds were imported by the French Huguenots who settled in the north of Ireland at the end of the 17th century. Flax was grown in the countryside alongside food crops.

Flax seeds through to brown and bleached linen
Flax seeds were sown in spring and harvested around 100 days later. The mature flax was pulled from the ground rather than cut, so the extra length could be obtained. It then underwent a retting process which used moisture and bacteria to eat away the hard woody stem so that the inside fibres could be removed easily. Scutching then removed the outer skin of the flax, leaving only the silky inner fibres. These were combed over pins, known as roughing, and then hackling gave the flax a more thorough combing to remove superfluous organic matter.

Growing flax and turning into linen cloth was a long and laborious process with many stages. Traditionally women and children prepared the flax and spun the fibres into thread at home on spinning wheels whilst men then wove the thread into linen cloth on hand looms.

Working from home
Image from Titanic Belfast
The brown linen was taken to markets to be sold for bleaching and finishing then usually exported, mainly to England where it was prized for its fine quality.

Flax Mill c.1840
Image: Titanic Belfast

In the early 1840's linen cloth production moved from a home-based occupation in the country to a large scale factory-based one in the city. The different processes linen had to undergo before being made into cloth meant there were a series of hierarchical jobs within the mills accompanied by differing standards of working conditions and pay.

Mill production
Image: Titanic Belfast
Mill Production
Image: Titanic Belfast
During the 19th century people flocked to Belfast to work in the new linen mills and by 1900 Belfast was producing and exporting more linen than anywhere else in the world. There were over 65,000 mill workers at the turn of the century, many employed in Belfast, and around 900,000 flax spinning spindles in Belfast alone in 1900. Mill workers worked 6 days a week from 6.30am to 6pm for very low wages, many of whom were women and children who were often known as "half-timers" because they attended school as well. Dust inhaled when preparing the flax could trigger disease, and the hot humid conditions necessary for the spinning and weaving of linen caused chest infections. Working barefoot in water in the spinning rooms often led to painful foot conditions.

Mill Production
Image: Titanic Belfast
Embroiderers were often lowly paid but their working conditions were healthier, and they were considered socially superior.

Examples of fine linen embroidery at the Ulster Museum
The Titanic needed huge quantities of linen for her maiden voyage and these were all made in Belfast. The First Class passengers had damask linen tablecloths and napkins, patterned with the White Star emblem. Linens were also used for all the bedding as well as in the kitchens and dining room.  The Titanic carried thousands of aprons and tablecloths and over 10,000 kitchen cloths, as well as 18,000 bed sheets and 45,000 table napkins! There were no facilities on board to wash anything, so there were separate stores for clean and dirty linens, and a drying room for wet linen so they did not become mouldy on the voyage.

The information above came from the Titanic Belfast Experience Museum. More information about the history of Irish linen can be found here

Walking around the Ulster Museum I came across an enormous hand-woven contemporary Irish linen artwork - The Game of Thrones Tapestry that opened at the museum in July 2017. 

Game of Thrones Tapestry, Ulster Museum
Now, I have not seen Game of Thrones, but I thoroughly enjoyed walking around this incredible tapestry which snaked back and forth across walls within the exhibition space. It is now 66 metres long, and consists of six 11m panels, one for each of the six series currently produced. By the time it is finished it will be longer than its inspiration, the Bayeux Tapestry which measures 77m. Here are some images of some of the series - are you a fan and can you recognise any of the scenes??

The Night is Dark and full of terrors....
Have you been paying attention...?
Exquisite weaving and embroidery
The End....for now......
Read more about this amazing tapestry and how it has reignited the awareness of Irish Linen and promoted Irish tourism here

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Wild Atlantic Way

It was so hard to tear myself away from Cill Rialaig, but right at the nth hour I had a message on Instagram that one of the people I have been following, Susan (@todayinireland) was in Ballinskelligs and could we catch up for a coffee? I have been following Susan because she really gets about this part of the world, and to be honest, I thought I would bump into her on the beach one day or walking around in Waterville, but of course, it was literally just as I was leaving town. It is so lovely to meet people face to face that you have connected with on IG!

A coffee catch up at Barbara's on the beach, Ballinskelligs
Back into the car for 45 minutes and it was time for another goodbye at Caherdaniel from John and Kerryann (@atlanticirishseaweed). I love these two people who are so passionate about seaweed and making a living from educating others about the benefits of eating and bathing in it!
The Blind Piper, Caherdaniel
We met downstairs at The Blind Piper, a true Irish pub - a bit early for a pint for me but not for some I could mention! Kerryann gave me a bag of seaweed to eat and a couple of seaweed bath bags to try out so luckily most of the places we have stayed have baths.

Sneem for lunch at the Bakery
Back in the car we passed through Sneem and stopped for a quick lunch before heading to Kenmare, where I was keen to see the Kenmare Lace and Design Museum

In the 1800's sisters of the Poor Clare convent in Kenmare introduced needlepoint lace to the women and the girls of the locality as a response to the poverty that followed the Great Famine. This was an incredible initiative of the nuns who also arranged for tuition from tutors from the Kensington School of Design in London and the Crawford School of Art in Cork, leading to the establishment of a school of design in Kenmare.

Gouache painted designs by the nuns of the Poor Clare Convent, Kenmare
From this school came designs that won acclaim in exhibitions around the world. Kenmare lace graced royal functions and liturgical occasions, however eventually economic factors brought about its decline and apparent demise. These designs have been revived and local lacemaking continues today.

Lace design and lace on display in the local church.
Next it was off to Bantry to have a look around Bantry House, the private estate still owned by the descendants of the Earl of Bantry.

The view of pantry House from the rear Garden.
Home to the White family since 1739  this house has a garden with seven terraces, overlooking Bantry Bay, with many works of art both inside and outside the house. After many years of neglect the garden terraces were overhauled in 2016 and work continues on the garden restoration today.  The inside of the houses was magnificent, but photos were not allowed.

Onwards to our destination, Kinsale, where we spent two nights. Kinsale is a gorgeous seaside town, known for its colourful buildings and fine dining. 

Kinsale Harbour

One of the many pubs in Kinsale

Cute cottages

Colourful buildings
Our next journey is to Kilkenny, to see the famous Kilkenny Craft and Design Centre, kiss the Blarney Stone and then head towards Belfast for my research at the Ulster Museum herbarium.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Slán Cill Rialaig

5am view from Cill Rialaig
When I first arrived at Cill Rialaig to start my two week residency, the islands and neighbouring headlands were mostly covered in mist, conjuring up the mythology of Hy-Brasil.  For the past week though, the view to the islands have all been exceptionally clear as we have had hot and mostly sunny days.  I have spent some time this week on Ballinskelligs beach, fossicking for seaweeds, sea glass and other flotsam and jetsam to put on the studio windowsill.
Ballinskelligs Beach

Egg cases from the Nursehound catshark
One of the interesting finds has been some egg cases from the Nursehound catshark.  Also known a 'mermaids purses' shark egg casings come in all shapes and sizes.  Most Australians will know the Port Jackson shark egg cases as being architecturally spiralled, like a giant ceiling or wall plug, but dark brown. These egg cases are beautifully adorned with long curly tendrils from each of the four corners. The Nursehound Catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) is near threatened in Ireland and the north-east Atlantic. Their eggs are laid amongst the seaweeds just under the low tide mark and take 9 months to hatch. Pity I can't bring these home with me....

Other finds have been a diverse array of seaweeds, including Himathalia elongate, often known as Sea Spaghetti or Thong Weed. It is delicious the way Kerryann from Atlantic Irish Seaweed prepares it with sesame oil and soy, but I was just eating it straight from the sea as well - it has a delightful crunchy nutty texture.
Himanthalia elongata
And of course, you can't come to Ireland without finding Irish moss, or Chondrus crispus, the source of carrageenan used extensively in the food, cosmetics and textile industry.

Chondrus crispus

During my time at Cill Rialaig I have also connected with Alexis and Stephen from Fermoyle Pottery and Garden, just a few minutes out of Dun Geagan. They invited me to come to their studio to decorate a few ceramic platters and it was a great opportunity to try my surface design skills onto a new substrate. It also gave us time to play around with the seaweed I had collected and to experiment with some ideas that might go into production for them.

Painting one of the platters at Fermoyle Pottery
Alexis and Steve have a lovely house and extensive garden complete with a huge poly tunnel which enables them to grow vegetables all year round and try out plants that would not survive the harsh winters. The whole family hangs out there in the long summer nights and it also doubles up as a unique area for drying clothes when the weather is wet (which it hasn't been!). They keep chooks and guinea fowls and grow vegetables, fruits and herbs in an effort to be self-sustainable and to provide their kids with a knowledge of where their food comes from. The poly tunnel is the kids favourite place to hang out because that's where the strawberries and new peas are growing right now!

Playing around with seaweed inspired ceramics

Stephen perfecting the edges of my platter (yes he has shorts on!)

One of the seaweed bowls we are working on.
Stephen and Alexis are very encouraging and they are in the process of setting up a lovely Airbnb above their studio - perfect for a potter (hint hint) and are looking to collaborate with artists on a series of platters for a unique Artist range. They keep talking about what we will do the 'next time I come to Ballinskelligs'😊 and to be perfectly honest I can almost see that happening.....
For the time being it is a day to be finishing off work, as it is wild and windy, overcast and looking like rain outside.  I have to start packing and tomorrow I head off to Kinsale, Cork and Kilkenny.  Then next week I will be in Belfast at the Ulster Museum Herbarium ...stay tuned!

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Seaweed Locavore

I am a recent convert to Instagram (thanks to all my workshop students who have been nagging at me for years...!) and the full meaning of how it can bring like-minded people together hit home yesterday when I finally got to meet two people I have been following - Kerryann and John Fitzgerald from Atlantic Irish Seaweed. They operate out of a teeny tiny village called Caherdaniel on the wild Atlantic coastline, about 45 minutes from Cill Rialaig.

John and Kerryann Fitzgerald
When I realised that they were close to Cill Rialaig whilst I was planning my trip, I immediately emailed John to see if I could attend one of their seaweed foraging workshops.  John explained that these workshops are ideally timed according to the best tides for seaweed collecting, so an exact date could not be scheduled until I got here.  Unfortunately, the tides were against me attending a regular workshop, but John had another idea in store for me....they had been approached by Tourism Ireland to showcase their locavore business and it just so happened that the film crew were coming to film while I was here. Would I be interested in participating??? You bet! 

Atlantic Irish Seaweed office at The Blind Piper, Caherdaniel
We met upstairs at The Blind Piper pub, and in true filming style, we started with the end of the seaweed story first - that is, we got to eat the fruits of our, or rather Kerryann's labour, before we went foraging. This was timed perfectly because it was lunchtime, and I was eager to try the dishes laid out before us.  By us I mean the four "tourists" for the day, so in me at least they had a bona fide model!

Getting our instructions for the filming from Simon the Cameraman.
Kerryann had prepared an array of delicious looking foods using local ingredients as well as different kinds of local seaweeds. Her descriptions of each dish were mouthwatering in themselves but the hardest part was having to "pretend" to eat and enjoy for the camera, because of course we couldn't actually eat the food until the film crew were happy with the footage!

Some of the seaweed degustation menu 
I can't recall all the types of seaweed or foods we ate eventually, but we had a sauerkraut, top left, local pork prosciutto with samphire, thin slices of pepper beef with seaweed spinach and wild garlic and a rich labne with a seaweed pesto, all artistically presented on an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary plates. We also drank a kombucha made with pineapple and seaweed, and for desert some chocolate seaweed bonbons and a seaweed toffee brittle. 

After we actually did eat the lunch (delicious!) we headed down to nearby Derrynane Beach, where John talked us through the procedures of collecting the various seaweeds, safety precautions, and identified at least half a dozen types that we had eaten for lunch. 

Derrynane Beach
In a normal workshop, John would give a lecture first and then forage later, but this was an unusual day, and everything we did was not done once or even twice but many times to get the actions just right to sync with each take. 

I certainly hope my acting skills were up to it, not that I needed to act because I was so interested in the identification of the seaweed and how to use it in everyday food. The health benefits of eating seaweed are enormous, and John had all the facts and figures off the top of his head, informing us about Vitamin B6, omegas and gut bacteria. Seaweeds were the very first vegetables humans ate and the precursors to all our land plants so it makes sense to include them back into our diet ....and they can be free if you collect in the right areas and prepare them correctly.

What a fantastic day and what a truly unique Irish experience for me - plus I got to meet my IG friends Kerryann and John. A day of laughter and banter was cemented over a few pints in Bridie's pub when we finally called it a wrap! If you are ever around Caherdaniel way I would recommend doing something completely Irish, local and authentic like the seaweed workshop because it is something you will remember long after each spectacular coastline and touristy destination becomes a distant memory.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Cill Rialaig Artist Retreat

Tigh Josie Cottage with the green door, Cill Rialaig
Arrived at Cill Rialaig in Ballinskelligs last Thursday afternoon to start my residency - a short two weeks but hopefully a productive one. Cill Rialaig is situated in the restored ruins of a pre-famine village, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It perches high above the ocean on a rugged clifftop and the only sounds are the birds, the waves, the wind  and the sheep in the paddocks. The nearest town of Ballinskelligs is 7 km away and it has a population of around 600. The other town of Cahersiveen is 20km away and there are several supermarkets and other shops there for necessities.

View from the mezzanine bedroom window
There are 8 restored cottages in total, one of which is the communal meeting house, Tigh an Comhra (Gaelic for House of Conversation).  I've been inside but we have yet to have any communal gatherings or meals there. There is also a laundry, presided over by Michael who keeps everything ticking over at the retreat. Each cottage has a mezzanine bedroom which is accessed by split wooden stairs - actually much easier to traverse than single steps because the gradient is so steep! The cottages are spartan but contain everything you need - sofa, chairs, tables and basic kitchen and bathroom. The studio end of the cottage has a glass roof with views to the sky and rocky hill right behind the cottage. It is amazing to stand in the space and feel that you are outside in, if you know what I mean.
Since I have been here I have been exploring the nearby beach and surrounding towns, the magnificent coastline and the ruined abbeys and castles that seem to spring up around every bend in the road. Because of my recent injury (fractured wrist...!) I am taking advantage of being driving around, and unfortunately any adventurous hiking is also out because my hand is still in a splint and I don't want to risk undoing the healing that has been happening over the last 7 weeks.

Sunrise this morning at 5am
Sunrises can be spectacular because the warmth of the rays starts burning off the mist that has settled over everything, obscuring the nearby islands and the other promontories. Slowly the landscape is revealed as the sun climbs higher. In contrast, I have been trying to capture the moment the sun sinks at around 10-11pm, but it is so elusive.  It is not the spectacular sunset we are used to in Australia, well not while I'm here anyway, it is more a gradual sigh of release at the end of the are not even sure if it is setting or if it is just a figment of your imagination. I go to bed in the light and sometimes I wake up at around 3am and it is dark, but not for long.

Sunset over the Atlantic
On Sunday there was an art opening at Siopa Cill Rialaig, the Cill Rialaig Gallery, cafe and shop in nearby Dun Geagan.  Two of the artists staying in the retreat, Jane Seymour and Bina Shah were exhibiting together. Jane is a ceramic artist whose works are evocative of landscape, mists and layering of texture and colour in monochromatic tones.  Bina uses mixed media, cold wax, printing making and painting to evoke natural and urban environments.  The opening provided the opportunity to meet Noelle Campbell Sharp, the founder of Cill Rialiag whose vision for an artist retreat has seen over 3,500 artists stay here.
Noelle Campbell Sharp introducing Jane Seymour and Bina Shah
And in an amazing coincidence, I caught up with Irish textile artist, Nicola Henley, at the opening! I first met Nicola years ago when I had an exhibition at Timeless Textiles in Newcastle and she had arrived in Australia to also exhibit and conduct workshops.  Since then she has returned to Australia many times and we had planned to catch up when I was in County Clare, but fortunately she is a good friend of Jane's and attended the opening and is staying for a few days at Cill Rialiag...small world!

Catching up with Nicola Henley
I will post again with some of the amazing coastlines I have seen on my day trips around Ballinskelligs, beach fossicking, seaweed collecting and drinking in the inspiring landscape.