‘’..you must be allowed to fail, as well as to succeed, in every area of the Arts. ‘Fail better’, as Beckett would say”.
I remember the buzz of excitement in the foyer, at a fashion show in Limerick, sometime around 2005. Deirdre McQuillan, Fashion Editor for The Irish Times was attending and we spoke briefly. I recall her telling me about her connections to Tipperary and I always wanted to follow up with her about that.
We spoke again in 2009 when she wrote about me in her column ‘My Style’ in The Irish Times.
Several years later we are sitting together in Il Café Di Napoli, a wonderful Italian cafe in Dublin, a place I have frequented every week, for the past two months. I love the ambiance there. Don, Joss and I are doing a wonderful drawing course at The Drawing School on Merrion Square, and we pop into the café after class each week. Hence I suggested to Deirdre to meet there.
Inevitably before we delve into the story of Deirdre’s fascinating career, as an editor, activist, fashion journalist, author, food writer, PRO for the Abbey Theatre, – we go back to Tipperary, and to the time she spent there as a child, visiting with her great Aunts.
I have brought along her lovely book The Irish Country House Table to the interview for her to sign and I quote here a section from the introduction. : ‘My earliest memories of good food come from the country. As a child, I was sent to stay with my grand- aunts in Tipperary during the summer holidays and I vividly remember that my shy, gentle aunt, a brilliant cook, was never more at ease than when she was bustling around the kitchen preparing good things to eat’. Irish Country House Table (Gill & Macmillan 1994)
I tell Deirdre I am loving the recipes in this book, and so the conversation starts here.
Denise: So tell me about your memories of spending time in Borrisokane as a child.
Deirdre: My two great aunts Madge and Kit, sisters of my grandmother Mary owned The Central Hotel, shop and pub in the middle of Borrisokane. Aunty Kit did all the buying and handled the financial affairs while Auntie Madge’s fiefdom was the kitchen. And it was a huge kitchen, as I remember as a child. She taught me how to bake and was never happier than when she was in there fussing around the place. The book is dedicated to her. I would have been sent for a couple of weeks every summer to visit. So, I spent a lot of time there. One of the things I had to do when I arrived in Borrisokane was to go and visit all the other local shopkeepers in the town for a chat. Gather the eggs from the yard.
Denise : And it’s a beautiful town, with some lovely buildings.
Deirdre: The Central Hotel was a fine three storey building and I remember it very well, every little detail. One of my memories was of the market day when all the animals would be penned up along the footpaths of the street and you’d go to the window downstairs and see sheep looking in at you! A lot of money changed hands on those days and I used to pull pints in the pub and take the takings of that day to the bank the following morning. What else do I remember about those summers? I learnt how to cycle at a lovely house with a long avenue just outside the town called Killavalla owned by the Corcoran family. I remember seeing butter being churned there for the first time.
Denise: A complete contrast to city life. So you got your culinary education in Tipperary.
Deirdre: Well certainly in baking yes. Auntie Madge made patty cakes, sponge cakes and bread and when my parents came down to collect me, we would have the most wonderful meals in the dining room but have to sit on these awful horse hair seated chairs! She was shy and modest, but the food she served was incredible.
When Kit died and the place was sold, I am told that Madge got into that car and never looked back at the place in which she had been born and lived all her life. She spent the last years of her life with another sister, Eileen Slater. Eileen was great fun, had married an Englishman called Slater and after he died lived in a lovely apartment in Northumberland Road in Dublin and that’s where Madge spent her last days. I was reminded of her when I first saw ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ by Brian Friel at the Abbey.
Denise: So tell me about how you got involved in journalism.
Deirdre: I got involved in journalism because I always wanted to write. I kept a diary when I was a teenager and always kept notes when I went to some new place. (In fact I have also had a career as a travel journalist and have traveled widely in Asia, South America and Africa and of course various parts of Europe. I’ve always been curious and love learning about other places!) My first trip was in 1970 when I spent a month in Morocco and kept a daily diary. I can still tell what I did every day there in the month of March.
Denise: Morocco is beautiful. I have been there. We have friends in Casablanca. I also associate the country with all the famous artists who spent time there, like Sir John Lavery.
Deirdre: Four of us, friends from London spent a whole month travelling there right down to the south to Goulimine and back up through the Atlas mountains, camping. It was like another world to me. In TCD I spent a year studying Arabic in the School of Divinity because I had ambitions to be a foreign correspondent given that it was the most widely spoken language in the world. I am left handed so it was beautiful to learn because of its calligraphy and because you write from right to left. I could only do a year because Professor Weingreen was a Hebraist and couldn’t take us any further. Besides, it was starting to take up so much time that I had to concentrate on General Studies in which I eventually graduated in 1968. When I went to Morocco in 1970 I could floor people with the little bit of Arabic I had at the time. But there are so many dialects and what I was studying was classical Arabic. So it didn’t develop in the way it should have….it would have been a very different career.
Denise: Fascinating – so how did things unfold from there?
Editing ‘Women’s Choice’
Deirdre: After graduation, I got a job working in London for Penguin Books. Brendan Kennelly had been my tutor in Trinity and they were working on his Penguin Book of Irish Verse. My job was to clear the permissions for all the poetry, and I spent a year there doing that and working as a secretary for two brilliant editors, Robert Hutchinson and later Neil Middleton. The thing about Penguin was you couldn’t go any further there, there were no prospects – you couldn’t hope to become a commissioning editor. So I came back to work on a magazine called ‘Woman’s Choice’, in Dublin and ended up editing that magazine.
Denise: And what stand’s out in your mind from your time as editor of ‘Women’s Choice’.
Deirdre: I was editor of the magazine for several years. I have given you a picture of one issue, because it was incredibly important, containing a guide to contraception (image below) . At the time it was against the law to publish any information about what was termed family planning – that issue sold out and there were many requests for more as well as vociferous criticism from right wing Catholics in the media for publishing it.
Denise: It had a huge circulation?
Deirdre: Yes it had a circulation of about 55,000 a week. So it was not inconsiderable. It was a very exciting time in the early 70s. We had done a survey beforehand asking readers for their views on contraception and got a huge response. I remember the sheer desperation of women at the time, most of whom were married with several children and struggling to cope. We had a column called ‘Talk it Over’, an agony aunt, who established connections with a whole underground network of sympathetic doctors and who could help a woman in need of contraception along with pharmacists who would honour the prescriptions. So the work that we were doing that year was incredibly important and valuable. And it’s kind of forgotten a bit… the contraceptive train and burning bras and all that is remembered but really what we were doing was vital – providing women with the information they needed. And you had to be very careful obviously. The book that really influenced me at the time was ‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer. I remember closing that book and thinking: ‘everything is going to change now’ .
Denise: We tend to forget just how difficult it all was.
Deirdre: Well you had all these right wing commentators in the media, the Catholic church’s power was enormous. So what we provided was the only information that was available to women at the time.
Denise: I remember in the ‘70s my mother bought ‘Woman’s Way’ magazine every week. I used to cut the front pictures out of the magazine and keep them. I had hundreds of them because the front pages had these glamorous women wearing wonderful clothes. I am very regretful that I didn’t manage to retain those, as I generally keep everything.
Deirdre: Well I kept all the ‘Women’s Choice’ ones, actually – I have a file of them. As editor, I would have written a leader every week. It was a time when a lot of women’s organisations began and we wrote about issues like domestic violence, equal pay, the status of women etc. My deputy was a woman called Darina McCluskey whose family were doctors and started the Civil Rights movement in the north. So there was all that as well going on.
The Abbey Years
Denise: It was a time of great change and think of all the writers that were influenced by the events of that time – the emerging Northern Irish crisis, that phase of the Irish feminist movement etc. I am thinking of the late Seamus Deane who we only lost recently, Friel, Heaney, Nuala O Faolain, well there were so many…
Deirdre: Well I would have known many of them when I went to the Abbey, because that was the next phase of my life: the Abbey Theatre. I was ten years in the Abbey as its PRO. I left ‘Women’s Choice’, because they wanted to launch the magazine in the UK reusing features from Australian magazines leaving only the letters page as local interest. I could not stand over that and see everything that meant anything to me destroyed. I had serialised ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ and other important Irish novels, I had commissioned people like Mary Maher of The Irish Times to write a column on motherhood, Dr. Moira Woods on medical matters (she went on to establish the Sexual Assault Unit in the Rotunda). I had published many interesting writers and to stand over something like this – I just couldn’t. So when the job in the Abbey came up, Gemma Hussey was on its Board and would have known of my work and campaigning and her influence obviously helped me secure that job.
Denise: Some wonderful plays produced in that period.
Deirdre: Yes because the policy of Joe Dowling, as Artistic Director was to nourish and promote Irish writers. Touring was a highlight: I particularly remember ‘Faith Healer’ and Donal McCann’s brilliant performance in that Friel play and the many plays of Tom Murphy, who became a good friend. And of course the first US tour since the 1930s, to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington was thrilling. I worked at the theatre from 1972 to 1982 when I was headhunted by Vincent Browne who was re-establishing The Sunday Tribune. May 1983 was a month I will not forget; I got married, changed jobs, became pregnant and joined the Sunday Tribune. It was a big decision, but ten years at the Abbey was ten years. So I decided to make the leap and go to the Tribune
The Sunday Tribune
Denise: A decade can change a lot – I always think decades mark periods of huge change, not just historically but personally in one’s own life.
Deirdre: Yes everyone changes and I totally believe that in life you make choices at critical times and from that point of view I’m an existentialist and believe that you are a result of the choices that you make. So yes, it was a big step in March 1983. I joined others in the venture, many of whom came from or went on to very successful careers – Emily O’Reilly, Maggie O Kane, Deirdre Purcell, Fintan O’Toole, Michael Dwyer, Lynn Geldof, Eamonn Dunphy, David Walsh, Paul Tansey, Brian Trench. Coming from the theatre Browne suggested I cover that area, but I preferred to write about other things. So I started writing features, like one on sex education in schools and another on domestic violence and incest, a topic not much written about then along with interviews with interesting people and other stuff.
Denise: What a wonderfully talented group of people. And of course you were again trying to get information out to the public that was otherwise being swept under the carpet.
Deirdre: Yes exactly – I mean there was no sex education in the schools at the time and a very forceful right wing movement against it. There was an American priest called Fr. Paul Marx, a leader of the pro life movement who came to Ireland at the time with a 14 week old foetus in a bottle and went around the schools with this foetus to show teenagers as an introduction to sex education. Shocking.
Putting Fashion of the Irish Map
Denise: And when did you start writing about fashion?
Deirdre: Well Vincent (Browne) couldn’t bear the idea of fashion and kept calling it ‘clothes’! We tried to get various people to do it. But having worked on ‘Women’s Choice’ and published fashion features – I suppose you could have called me a stylist at the time – I knew how it worked and was interested in a general way in fashion though I had never nourished any ambitions to be a fashion journalist. And I thought, well, if I have to do it, I’m going to do it properly. So I read every single thing, everything I could read on the subject. And I realised it was more than just about the clothes. It was about textiles, it was about design, about aesthetics, about social history. So it opened a whole new world to me. And then when my second son was born I went freelance, but with a contract to do fashion features for the Tribune. And I continued to do that for quite some years.
Denise: That was pretty groundbreaking.
Deirdre: It was ground breaking at the time, because there was a gifted production manager at the paper called Andy Barclay (who only died recently) and he loved fashion and style and would give my features huge spreads. So as Kavanagh says, : ‘Gods make their own importance’, and the Tribune made fashion important. I was the first Irish journalist to cover the British Designer Show, for instance, which eventually became London Fashion Week.
Another first was photographing the ancient gold lunulas and torcs from the National Museum on a live model – I doubt if this will ever be allowed again! During this time I also started doing features for Town & Country, Elle, the Washington Times and The Financial Times and wrote various books as well. It was also the start of another career as a travel writer.
Denise: Your first book was the ‘The Aran Sweater,’ I think?. Then ‘A Style Guide to Dublin’ which you worked on with Seamus Heaney’s wife Marie Heaney I think?. And there was the one on Fish….
Deirdre: Yes: ‘Perfectly Simple Fish’. There was the book about Mary Robinson. And then the book on Roly’s Bistro. I spent weeks doing that as we had every single recipe tested in a domestic kitchen. It sold 20,000 copies. The Aran Sweater book took nearly a year’s research but it was so rewarding to do.
Denise: So you were freelancing when you were offered a position with The Irish Times?
Deirdre: Geraldine Kennedy had been appointed editor of The Irish Times.
Denise: Another Tipperary woman whom I interviewed some years ago.
Deirdre: Another great Tipperary woman indeed. I was approached by her to become Fashion Editor of The Irish Times. And it was wonderful because suddenly there were resources I had never had previously, I had support and enthusiasm and was made to feel so welcome. That was in 2003 and I had to jump straight into it.
Denise: Fashion has changed a great deal in those eighteen years.
Deirdre: It certainly has in many ways.
Denise: And the politics surrounding it have changed quite dramatically too. Who would have been at the pinnacle of their careers then when you started at The Irish Times: John Rocha, Louise Kennedy, Quin and Donnelly.
Deirdre: Indeed and others like Mariad Whisker, Michael Mortell and Lainey Keogh were also beginning their successful careers and there was still Sybil Connolly, the most successful Irish designer internationally and one of the first Irish female entrepreneurs. I did the last interview with Sybil before she died.
Denise: And over those eighteen years reporting on fashion Deirdre – are there key moments that stand out to you in that period?
Deirdre: Andy Barclay’s insistence on my going to London to the British Designer Show was the kind of encouragement I needed and that really changed everything for me. I remember seeing John Galliano, Jasper Conran, Vivienne Westwood and other emerging British designers on the London catwalk in Olympia where the event was then held. I can still remember Galliano’s first show, the colours, the silhouettes, the sheer energy. I followed his career right to the day he was dropped from Dior and his last show in Paris.
Other unforgettable collections were those of McQueen in London and Paris.
Denise: ..McQueen was so gifted and unbelievably talented. So tragic.
Deirdre: Yes, he was a trained Savile Row tailor but knew how to break the rules and push boundaries and was so ahead of everyone else in every way particularly in experimenting with new technology. The one collection I’ll never forget was in the sports stadium at Bercy in Paris where he regularly used to stage his shows. It was called The Widows of Culloden for autumn/winter 2006 when he returned to his Scottish roots and the Highland Rape collection of 1995 which made his name. At the end of the show, a hologram of Kate Moss appeared like a genie in a bottle, an otherworldly apparition arising from a glass pyramid in the middle of the stage – and then disappeared. I’ll never forget it.
Denise: That show was unforgettable – and then to have a good seat as a fashion journalist! You were so fortunate.
Deirdre: Yes. But the big change now of course is that these kind of elaborate live shows are probably not going to happen anymore except occasionally by big international brands who can afford to do them…everything changed with Covid. And it needed to change.
Denise: In what respect?
Deirdre: In that we are consuming too much, too much is happening and fashion had become a treadmill that no one seemed to be able to get off or stop with pre collections, cruise collections, whatever. I mean John Galliano was having to do thirty three collections a year. How does your creativity let alone your sanity manage that?
Denise : Design was bought by the corporate sector.
Deirdre: Yes. When the corporate sector moved into fashion, designers surrendered their independence and became pawns in big business. Big business changed fashion – particularly when Bernard Arnault bought Dior, then Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy and started to dominate the world of luxury. That changed everything globally.
Denise: In the sense that standards dropped?
Deirdre: No, it wasn’t that standards dropped, it’s just that design was bought by the corporate sector. And so as a designer you had to deliver, to sell. So creatively you were not allowed to fail and you must be allowed to fail, as well as succeed, in every area of the arts. “Fail Better” as Beckett would say.
Denise: Yes. Well it was pressure that was a big factor in Alexander McQueen’s demise….he was overworked.
Deirdre: Yes and the same with Galliano. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the industry. That is being revealed in a whole new genre of books on the subject, the most recent one called ‘Unraveled’ by Maxine Bedat, about the life and death of a garment – the scale of production and consumption and how so much clothing ends up in landfill in Africa. I recently did a feature on summer fashion reading in The Irish Times Saturday magazine selecting six fashion books and ‘Unraveled’ was top of the list that included ‘What Artists Wear’ by Charlie Porter, ‘Patch Work’ by Claire Wilcox and ‘Dandy Style’ by Shaun Cole and Miles Lambert.
Denise: I will look some of those books up. The landfill situation is serious.
Deirdre: Yes, I saw the scale of the situation in one of the biggest slums in Africa, Kibera in Nairobi a few years ago – mountains of clothing as far as the eye could see and so shocking. Yet people have made fortunes from fashion. Arnault is the richest man in France, Amancio Ortega, now in his 80s owns Zara and is the richest man in Spain. The richest man in Japan is Tadashi Yanai owner of Uniqlo. The owner of H&M, the biggest global fashion company in the world is Steffan Persson who bought an entire village in Hampshire, England. You have fashion tycoon Michael Lewis head of a clothing empire that includes 3000 stores and brands like Phase Eight and Whistles who recently married Lady Kitty Spencer. Her ring was estimated at €300,000!
Denise: There is so much wastage and so many people working behind the scenes in underpaid jobs.
Deirdre: Yes, I mean Boohoo have a lot to answer for in terms of labour abuse and scandalous disregard for workers’ rights. So there’s a lot that is wrong: we are consuming far too much. Influencers are persuading us to buy more and more so these days I think it’s important when considering a purchase to ask am I going to wear this more than thirty times? And if not, don’t buy.
Denise: I read your recent article in The Irish Times on Sustainable Fashion and you are raising very important points there about the industry and about greenwashing (11).
Deirdre: Sustainability is one of the biggest issues in the fashion industry, but unlike food labels such as ‘free range’ or ‘organic’, sustainability in clothing is not regulated, consequently, yes, there is a lot of greenwashing. It is estimated that 40% of environmental claims could be misleading customers. The industry churns 80 billion garments out annually. Zara for instance produced more than 450 million items in 2018! We throw away 1.2 billion tons of clothing to land fill….I mean that can’t continue.
Denise: Yes – it is a really critical situation, like Climate Change. It is one that needs to be taken more seriously by us all.
Deirdre: Carrie Symonds rented her wedding dress for £45 and drew attention to My Wardrobe HQ . That set an example to others.
Denise: Deirdre I could chat for hours but it does strike me you are a type of institution in Ireland, given all the years of fashion commentary and analysis you have provided. You must have an amazing collection of books, magazines and key beautiful pieces?
Deirdre: Oh, yes lots and lots of books! And I have a few pieces that I treasure, not necessarily expensive designer items.
Denise: And would you ever think of doing an exhibition of these pieces and the books and articles you have archived?
Deirdre: Well I mean the thing is I have an extensive fashion library which I would ideally like to sell not being in a position to donate. And I have a whole box of invitations from years of attending shows in London and Paris, some of which are very elaborate, innovative and interesting in their own right.
Denise: But shouldn’t they be looked at maybe by the National Museum of Ireland? Think about what the V&A have done for fashion history?.
Deirdre: Oriole Cullen, who is Irish, and a senior curator at the V & A was behind the big recent Dior exhibition in London. She would be an interesting person for you to talk to and has had wide experience and knowledge of fashion.
Denise: But you should think about that Deirdre. Collins Barracks (pictured above) would surely be interested in the amazing collection you have – documenting several critical decades in Irish life.
Deirdre: I would love to see Collins Barracks put on more Irish fashion exhibitions as there is certainly great interest out there – when they put on When Philip met Isabella – with Philip Treacy’s hats in the Riding School, it attracted a record attendance. But that was years ago.
Maybe there are plans in progress? One of the aspects of being a fashion journalist that I have really enjoyed in my career is witnessing and reporting on the scale of Irish creativity in the industry both at home and abroad. I have been covering the graduation shows in Dublin and Limerick and seeing the development and growth of so many talented designers and following their progression – like Simone Rocha, for example. So there are rich resources out there from which to draw…
(1): Left: Deirdre’s Grandmother Mary Cleary from Borrisokane with her husband Stephen Murtagh. Right: Deirdre’s Mother Joan McQuillan nee Murtagh.
(2) A photograph of the Central Hotel, Borrisokane, from the 1970s, after Deirdre’s relatives had sold the building. Image: Sincere thanks to Eamon Slevin for sourcing this image.
(3): ‘My Studio Door, Tangier’ by Sir John Lavery RHA Image: The Belfast Telegraph
(4): ‘The Abbey Theater Dublin : A Commemorative Record 1966-1976’ by Deirdre McQuillan
(5): Image: Donal McCann in ‘Faith Healer’ by Brian Friel . Image: The Irish Times
(6): Torc : National Museum of Ireland. Image: Archeology.ie
(7): ‘The Irish Sweater’, Deirdre McQuillan (Appletree 1993) ; Mary Robinson: A President in Progress, Deirdre McQuillan (Gill & Macmillan 1994)
(8): Sybil Connolly . Image:Limerick.ie/Hunt Museum
(9): John Galliano while at Dior – the image gives some sense of his theatrical and vibrant designs. Image: WWD
(10): Alexander McQueen and Kate Moss. Image: Mail: On Line
(11): ‘Sustainable Fashion: 10 Irish Brands for The Mindful Shopper’, The Irish Times , Sat, July 24th 2021
(12): Part of Deirdre’s extensive library.
(13) : Louis Vuitton Invitation.
( 14) : Isabella Blow. Image: ‘Philip Treacy: When Philip Met Isabella’, by Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow and Hamish Bowles. Assouline, 2003.