It is not unusual, perhaps, that I decided to write this particular blog, at this particular juncture in my life. January is a time for reflection and this year, once again, we do so with a heaviness of heart.
I mentioned in the introduction to Greenville Style, that on the day I sat my Viva (Latin for, by ‘live voice’) – the defense of my PhD, in Cultural Anthropology at NUIM, my external examiner Professor Hastings Donnan , asked me, after the exam, what I intended to do next. He must have anticipated that I would say ‘find a publisher for the thesis’ or ‘look for an academic position’. My response greatly surprised him: ‘I want to open a fashion boutique’.
The Journey to ‘The Business’
The journey to ‘The Business’ began. Researching and planning the shop started pretty much immediately after I left NUIM and put behind me, for ever I thought, my academic life.
I wanted to get out of academia, and get involved in the arts, culture, fashion and interior design. I needed mentally and emotionally a break from years of difficult academic study. I did a short course at The Grafton Academy in Fashion Design in Dublin (https://graftonacademy.com/) and met wonderful people there.
I also started, but never completed, a course at UL in Entrepreneurship. It just was too much like the academic life I had left behind me, or so I felt and I had difficulty trying to apply the theoretical business approaches I was being taught, to the creative and business idea, I had visualized, and wanted to bring to life.
Nenagh seemed the perfect location for such a shop – at a cross-road, almost, mid Country, where I felt people could easily travel to it.
A prosperous town in the late Nineties and early Naughties, I found a property to rent at No 1 Summerhill, that caught my eye and the rent was not prohibitive. Though I recall one local person, telling me at the time, that the business was ‘doomed to fail’ before it even opened. Apparently ‘all businesses that established in that premises, never succeeded’. I tried not to focus on that particular comment and put it down to begrudgery. There was no shortage of that!
Vintage car we parked across the street from The Business . Our window displays were always like works of art!
During this time I had moved back to live in Killough and I had met my future husband. My world started to become filled with artistic and creative people, which I had missed for over a decade and a half. I was collaborating with wonderful people involved in the Arts – Lyn Kirkham and Paul Finch of Greenmantle; Giordana Giache; Alexandra Zolich; Magdalena Soltysik; Tom Doherty; Sizmon Pruciak; Dessislava Oberholtzer – to name a few. Life was good.
I also completed research on Tipperary personalities I had been working on and that got published in a specially themed edition of the The Irish Entrepreneur Magazine (Sept/Oct 2003), which I was delighted about.
Good… but Challenging Times,
Saying that I could also list all the things that were a huge challenge and concern to me at that same time, that cost me many sleepless nights. The fact that I had no first hand experience in fashion buying was a huge concern and, on reflection, the single biggest problem I faced in making the boutique side of the business work. You cannot learn this skill from a book and I had no experience in this area – something that I now see was vital for the enterprise to succeed. I also became pregnant, unexpectedly, with our eldest child Don (now 14) -in the mist of setting up the business.
Steadfastly I nonetheless dug my heels in and kept going at it. I wanted my shop to be more than just a boutique. I wanted a little café too; and a gallery space. I wanted my shop to be a place for cultural events and gatherings. I had a great team with me, helping me in the day to day aspects of things – Adam, Diane Fahy, Aoife Flaherty and Josie Nolan, among others.
It was a time when finance was easy to get and Banks were lending – too easily. We certainly could not see the financial crash that was looming down the road, on the sunny Sunday afternoon, when I finally opened my dream business venture at 1, Summerhill Nenagh.
The Opening Day
The official opening happened on September 12th, 2004, when I was nearly 8 months pregnant. The shop was thronged with people. Brian Kennedy, who was guest of honour and officially opened the business, sang ” You raise me Up”; the late Anne Bushnell, who regularly visited us here at Greenville before she died, gave probably one of her most wonderful live performances. And the late and inspirational Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who we lost only last year, came along, to have a glass of champagne and wish us well.
Tim Ryan Exhibition
That first year I had to juggle prenatal hospital visits with buying trips for the next season. This was a very difficult juggling act. I was also planning my next big event at ‘The Business’ – an exhibition of the works of locally born knitwear designer Tim Ryan.
This was planned for Oct 29th 2004 and we were delighted when cultural critic and writer Robert O’Byrne agreed to come down to Nenagh to open the event.
We exhibited 8 designs by Tim on Saturday October 29th – displaying his attention to colour and fabric and the originality of his beautiful pieces.
It was another great evening. I did not anticipate that I would be on route to St. Luke’s hospital the following afternoon. Labor pains started , not long after we got home that night after Tim’s exhibition opened. Don was born, Sunday evening October 30th – to the overwhelming joy of Joseph and I, our respective Mothers, extended family and friends. Our precious first boy, one of three, we so adore.
Fashion Show and Presentation of the works of customized Vintage Designer, Mei Hui Liu
The next event I held was in 2005 – a vintage fashion show and I presented the unique works of London based customized vintage designer Mei Hui Liu.
I was delighted that Cyril Cullen from Farney Castle, another highly respected knitwear designer, compéred this event. There is a book about Cyril “Knot Sure: The Life and Work of Irish Fashion Designer Cyril Cullen” by Margot Cullen, his daughter, for those interested to know more about his work.
Models walked up and down the beautiful hand crafted stairs at the shop (designed by Greenmantle, Killea) and the atmosphere was, again, electric.
Joanne Hynes popped in for a glass of wine and I had one of my own Mother’s dresses modeled on the day – which I still have and occasionally wear.
Fiona Marron Exhibition
The exhibition of Fiona Marron’s works in 2006 was another special occasion.
This was opened by jazz and blues singer Honor Heffernan ( who had used one of Fiona’s lovely paintings, as part of her album cover, ‘Fire and Ice’). Again, a large gathering came on the evening, and several of Fiona’s works sold. I was always eager to support designers, artists and craftspeople – from every walk in life.
I held several other smaller exhibitions and events such as displaying the work of Kate Hennessey, pictured here with her husband Tom Muldowney. We always managed to add something extra to an event at the shop – like having an old vintage car park outside the shop’s front door.
All during these years, as mentioned above, I was still going back and forth to London and Paris to plan and buy the next season’s stock. I was managing aspects of the café which I became fascinated with – but again had no first hand experience, back then, in the food business.
I was learning on my feet, as it were, about how to buy prudently and how to run the café – but difficult times were ahead before I had worked some of these fundamental aspects of my fledgling business out.
With our second beautiful son Joss on the way in 2007, we were eager to plan our wedding. Or should I say – my beloved Mother certainly was! On a cold but dazzlingly seasonal December evening in 2007, I married Joseph at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Templemore. We held our reception back at our home at Killough – Greenville, the place we both loved.
During 2007 I started sourcing fabric and doing some basic designs for a line of my own dresses. I sold several in the shop, one off pieces, that had an old Hollywood glamour style.
I collaborated with seamstresses and artists to make the dresses and I particularly loved organza (like the yellow organza dress I am wearing in this photograph, taken in the shop). I used lace and satin fabrics also.
Economic Crash and Closure
When 2008 dawned, with economists talking about a crisis of monumental proportions, that the United States were already reeling from, I fully understood the seriousness of the situation the country was in. We were in. My shop was going to close and the ramifications were going to be enormous for Joseph and I. The global crash violently hit Ireland. In the space of a few weeks, between the end of 2007 and 2008 my dream, ‘The Business’ was over. Panic set in and manageable cash flow problems, that could have been resolved if people had been given a few weeks, resulted in closures, panic and vile publicity. Like many caught in the middle of this global and national mess, our lives, literally, fell apart, in the space of a few weeks. If there is anything positive I can say about this nightmare period of my life it is only this – we soon discovered who are real friends were. One or two, whom I would have considered loyal friends, proved themselves tobe anything but. Nonetheless I am grateful, to this day, I became aware who they were, however painful it was then.
Kilmainham Exhibition 2009 and Interview with Deirdre McQuillan ‘The Irish Times’
True to character though, I kept going, with great difficulty!. I was asked to hold an exhibition of my own creations, at the Hilton Hotel, Kilmainham in early 2009, in collaboration with photographer Tom Doherty. Tom and I have worked together artistically for several years. I am looking forward to writing a blog about his photographic career soon.
I was very honoured when ‘The Irish Times’ fashion editor Deirdre McQuillan interviewed me about my style for a piece in ‘The Irish Times’ shortly after that published on April 4th 2009. So while the years that followed the closure of ‘The Business’ were difficult, to put it mildly, for Joseph and I, I still continued to build on all that I had learnt during those incredible few years, creating and managing my dream café -boutique.
Return to Education?
As I write this piece, there are several books on the desk in front of me. One is called ‘The Art of Art History’ by Donald Preziosi , which I have been reading since early in January. I visited the Department of Art History and Cultural Policy, at UCD, last November and it is my hope to return to do a Masters in Art History, Collections and Curating , there in the next few years. I sincerely believed, the day I sat my Viva, I would never return to academic study again!.
There is also a cookery book from Avoca Cafe which I am currently rereading and sampling recipes from (which are great by the way). I am also looking into doing a Professional Certificate Course at Dublin Cookery School next year. I certainly could never have anticipated the learning curve running the café at ‘The Business’ was going to be. I knew so little then about preparing food and most of my focus went to health and safety issues that were, of course, central to running a café. Since then I have spent endless happy hours making home lattes, baking breads, and cooking meals for family, friends and guests at Greenville.
Finally I have a copy of one of the many beautiful books by Robert O’Byrne – ‘Romantic Irish Homes’ , (2009) which I was looking at, only last evening, for inspiration with a room I am redesigning at Greenville.
So at this juncture in my life, I can look back and see how it all fit together, despite the heartbreak of some dreadful moments. My upbringing in Killough; my family (some of whom we have so loved and so recently lost, perhaps adding to my reflective mood); the years studying for a PhD in Cultural Anthropology; ‘The Business’; my interests in Tipperary people and Tipperary as ‘a place’; the Arts; fashion, food and design – it all, sort of, ‘adds up’ and makes sense, in a surprising type of way.
Central to it all now are four inspirational people I have the privilege to spend every day with – Joseph, Don, Joss and Étienne Devine. Thank you.
Thank everybody who has helped me learn and keep forging forward to gain new experiences. That is what life is all about.