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The International Writers Magazine: Travel: Ireland

Dublin and The Avoca Weavers
• Marianne de Nazareth
Three leaved Shamrocks, Leprechauns, faries and elves. I had grown up with these icons connected to Ireland, with the warm hearted Irish missionaries, who ran our catholic schools in India. Through our singing classes we sang about Molly Malone, the pretty fishmonger in ‘Dublin’s fair city’ and who did not know the famous ‘Oh Danny Boy?’ which we sang at every party where we gathered around the piano?


So, going for the ESOF 2012 in Dublin, as a Robert Bosch Fellow, was exciting for me, as Ireland would come ‘alive, alive oh’ at last!

The Science Forum brings the best European scientists across the whole of Europe to showcase their discoveries and the papers they have published. For me a science journalist, it’s like five days of enjoying filling my brain, in an Ali Babbas cave of knowledge. In fact choosing the right session was so very difficult, as some sessions overlapped and I missed on several that I would liked to have attended.  

Four of us lived in the Temple Bar Hotel which is in the heart of Dublin and literally gave us, the visitor, a peek at the pulse of the city.  My room was on the fourth floor, directly above the ‘Buskers’ pub where singers regaled customers into the wee hours of the morning. Leaving my window open a crack, I drifted in and out of sleep listening and revelling in songs, that we all know back in India. None of that head banging stuff, just nice traditional Irish balads and songs.

The Irish are very creative and so writers and singers abound.  I happened to stumble on a statue of James Joyce, the Irish author, while we walked around O’Connell Street waiting for our tour bus to arrive. Of course I had to get a picture with him and then happily found several statues of famous icons of Dublin strategically placed for visitors, taking a ‘Literary Walk’ across the city. Oscar Wilde, Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett and Marian Keyes were some of the names I resonated with. Even the President of Ireland in his inauguration speech at the opening of the conference read out a poem by Oscar Wilde which resonated with all of the audience. Later we were treated to the amazing River Dance by a very talented dance troupe, with a smashing laser show in the back ground.

A few of us flew in a day early to go on a trip to see the Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough vales. The trip cost us 25 Euros which is expensive for our standards, but what the heck? Once the conference started we would be locked indoors with work.

“Ireland’s called the country of trees,” said Gillian our tour guide proudly,  pointing to the Ash, Oak, Beech and Elder trees. “It takes 200 years for an Oak tree to reach maturity, and they are considered sacred,” she explained while we looked up in awe at a beautiful specimen.

Wicklow The Wicklow mountains were covered with purple Heather all beginning to bloom. Interestingly it is on these mountains that many great films like ‘Braveheart’, ‘Excalibur’ and ‘King Arthur’ have been filmed with the trees and the mountains covered with thistle.

To bring it into a more modern context, Gillian told the younger tourists that all the Dracula and Werewolf films were also shot in the Wicklow mountains.

For our media party we were taken to the Guinness factory with the tour ending up at the Gravity Bar on the top of the seven story building, designed in the shape of a giant pint of Guinness. Called the Guinness storehouse, it was a fermentation plant from 1904 to 1988 and has now been turned into a seven story visitor experience. Each floor goes into the secrets of making the 250 year old brand of lager, which has loyal followers across the globe, even in India. It was an amazing experience and then when we reached the top, we were all treated to a lavish dinner with tall glasses of Guinness, for those of us who drink it! A live band regaled us with popular Irish songs like Cockles and Mussels, Danny Boy etc.and when the tunes became more bouncy and the Guinness had relaxed the crowd, many got up to happily dance around to the catchy Irish melodies.

But in the midst of all this splendour and new found wealth, Dublin has a shockingly moving art installation, on the banks of the River Liffey. The Famine Memorial which was crafted by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie and is dedicated to the Irish, who were forced to emigrate during the 19th century famine. The hoplessness on the faces of the starving bronze figures in rags, standing on the quayside, from where they originally left, is a thought provoking reminder of a difficult time. Passing it every morning on my way to the conference, I realised that the Irish are proud of their history and their difficult past as well. That is what is necessary to put things into perspective, when wealth threatens to overtake common sense.

The handweavers of Avoca in Dublin

Avoca Mill

It was chilly as we walked around O’Connell Street in central Dublin, waiting for our tour bus to arrive. We had come in a day early before the ESOF 2012 conference, being held in Dublin, to go on a day trip to the Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough.

Amazingly through the countryside that we drove, there was nothing to spoil the beauty. No ugly buildings, no unsightly scars of mining, the whole area was picture book perfect and naturally has been popular with the Hollywood set, to shoot their films in. Driving along very narrow winding lanes, in a huge airconditioned bus in itself was a feat for the driver, but when he turned into the Avoca Handweavers factory, I wondered was he ever going to make it? But he did, and soon we were tumbling out to go for a tour around the world famous, Irish factory.

Avoca( Abhóca) is a small town near Arklow, in County Wicklow, Ireland. It is situated on the River Avoca. “The Avoca area has been associated with its famous copper mines for many years and the valley has been immortalised by Thomas Moore in the famous song The Meeting of the Waters. The name of the song sprang from the meeting of the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers, about two miles from the village of Avoca,” explained our smiling and chatty guide. “The song is said to have been written under a tree, the stump of which remains by the Meetings.”

History has it that the mill was set up in 1723 as a co-operative, where farmers could spin and weave their wool. In the Avoca Village, County Wicklow Mill's uncoloured yarn, was turned into tweeds and blankets. However, colour soon came to Avoca as vivid natural vegetable dyes in reds, greens, and yellows brightened the Mill's output. These were soon recognised as Avoca Handweavers' signature hues and the Mill thrived through the 1920s and 30s when it was run by a trio of sisters, called the Wynnes.

Avoca Weavers By the 1960s however,the mill had fallen into disrepair, until a young couple took over in the mid-seventies. When Donald & Hilary Pratt bought the Avoca Handweavers Mill in 1974, he was a Dublin lawyer and was handling the sale of the site for development. He ended up buying it himself despite knowing nothing about handweaving, but believing there was a future in the Mill's past. The run-down buildings, the tumbling mill, the name itself had woven a spell of sorts on the couple.

He left law and Hilary gave up her teaching job as they took over the leaking mill and empty order book. But soon the looms were humming again and Avoca is visited by tourists from around the world, like me, today.

After walking through the mills and admiring the fabric coming off the looms, we went into the shop selling a variety of Avoca goods, not just throws and blankets. Avoca throw rugs, throws, blankets in natural fibres - 100% pure new lambswool, mohair, cashmere, angora, even cotton and linen tumbled from stands and tall stools throughout the shop. The prices are competitive and remember, it’s the real Avoca brand that you are buying. After splurging on a throw and a sweater, we went in to eat a meal in their wonderful café, full of the most wonderful international meals on offer.

“We still produce everything only using all natural fibres, in the vibrant colours that mark Avoca. After all, why change the habit of several lifetimes,” asks the gorgeous PR lady who walks us through the mills.

Sitting out in the scented garden, enjoying the stunning blue Hydraengas and yellow pansies, we admired the beauty and softness of the Mohair rug that we bought. It’s worth a trip to Avoca, if nothing else to see how some of Dublin’s culture still stands at its pristine best, clacking away on its hand- looms!

© Marianne de Nazareth August 2012

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