Ireland: Weaving a lyrical Irish tale or two

By Geraldine O'Sullivan

The melodic Irish brogue is the soundtrack to Geraldine O'Sullivan Beere's visit to Avoca County, Ireland.

The ruins of the 6th-century monastic settlement of Glendalough, founded by St Kevin, rest in the Wicklow mountains. Photo / Supplied
The ruins of the 6th-century monastic settlement of Glendalough, founded by St Kevin, rest in the Wicklow mountains. Photo / Supplied

The Irish love to talk and tell tales. Bewitched by their lyrical sing-song speech, I hope every Irishman I meet will not stop talking.

A flower seller in Cork tells me the most melodic Irish dialect is from his fair city.

The tones of the language are different in each Irish county, but its rhythmic quality weaves its charm everywhere.

Strangely, Irish shopkeepers seem just as intrigued by my Kiwi accent. They want to know where I come from, setting the discussion off again, weaving in and out like the shuttles carrying the bright colours of woven yarn on the looms in Avoca's old woollen mill.

"Uhuurr've been here terrty yharrrs," says one weaver melodically. His words stretch out in thick brogue as though he's speaking in a tunnel. He guides purple and green spun wool yarn into an old wooden loom, chatting as he works.

The stone woollen mill has been rescued and restored to emerge as an enterprising business mixing an age-old craft with contemporary homeware design, and now the old wooden looms are busier than ever. Weavers talk with visitors who gather round the loom. They talk 'n' weave, talk 'n' weave. No wonder strands of old stories are called yarns.

Avoca Handweavers, on the banks of the Avoca River, was once a co-operative where farmers spun their wool into yarn, which local weavers then turned into blankets and tweed cloth. As industrialisation took over, both people and handcrafts became redundant. The looms and weavers fell silent. But then the mill was bought in the 1970s and revived. The old timber floors once again echo to the clickety-clack of the shuttle.

At another loom, bright red warp and hot pink weft combine to create a knobbly mohair throw. The old wooden looms no longer turn out country colours of green and grey tweed. Instead they are alight with a contemporary mix of bright colours - burned orange, hot pink, lime green. The mill's store and cafe are a riot of colour and recycled tables, chairs and store fittings.

Just down the road in Avoca village, conversation overflows among a small group of locals at the Fitzgeralds' pub, made famous by TV series Ballykissangel. It was a normal morning and it seemed to me Father Frank, played by Cork-born actor Niall Toibin, might walk through the door. I eavesdropped on the locals, the song of their accents swirling like the froth on top of their pints of Guinness.

The pub walls were dotted with photographs of the village's past and its people.

No doubt the TV crews would have added their stories and craic during filming here, but left few changes, apart from the pub's name and colour, both changed for the series.

A short walk up the hill from the pub is the grey stone parish church, known as St Joseph's in the TV series. The bell tower shoots skyward to a spire.

Nearby, the meeting of two rivers is linked to the poetry of Irish poet and balladeer Thomas Moore, considered Ireland's national bard. Many of his lyrics became songs. The rivers Avonmor and Avonbeg join to form the River Avoca.

The memorial park at the meeting point is dedicated to Moore, and includes a bust and stone with his favourite lines from The Meeting of the Rivers:

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet,
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh, the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.

Further up the valley, the 6th-century monastic settlement of Glendalough rests in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. In Gaelic it is called Gleann Da Loch, meaning the glen of two lakes. Ancient ruins and striking lake scenery are woven into the tale of St Kevin, who built a small settlement in this steep glacial valley.

An ancient round tower and a stone ruin called St Kevin's Kitchen, and another ruin called St Kevin's Bed, recall the community of monks that lived here.

Just above the lake centre, the organic cafe Glendalough Green at Laragh specialises in homemade breads, soups and cakes. Green chairs outside and rustic chairs inside invite lingering.

It's a store for walkers on the many local trails, including the Wicklow Way. Hikers pore over maps, their discussion a homely sound mingling with the bustle of cooks and the aroma of baking. Even in recommending cakes, the cook weaves her melodic brogue into a colourful yarn.

Geraldine O'Sullivan Beere paid her own expenses.

- Herald on Sunday

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