By Guest Blogger Constance Hall
As Mike, our tour bus driver, maneuvered the bus up the narrow road to Aine Dunne’s home and studio we didn’t realize what a treat we had in store. She welcomed us warmly and as we stepped into her cosy Irish kitchen we truly felt like friends who were being treated to a wonderful day of learning to spin with spindles and tapestry weaving from Aine, as well as hearing her play her flute while we sat by her peat fire and had tea and scones. Although this was day two, it seemed like the real start to our fiber tour of Northern Ireland!
Most of our group had flown into Dublin on Monday in the middle of April. The tour didn’t start until Wednesday, but I wanted the extra day to wander around Dublin and to get accustomed to the time difference from the east coast of the US. The hotel that Irish Tourism had picked out for the beginning of the trip just happened to be within walking distance of the Guinness factory, where a free day could be well spent. The top of the factory has a pub and a 360 degree view of Dublin, making it a perfect place to sit and study the overview of an amazing city without making too many demands of a jet-lagged brain.
Wednesday was the official start of the tour and we began with a trip to the National Museum of Ireland which was featuring a textile exhibition (“The Way We Wore”) featuring typical Irish clothing from the 1700’s. Then we were off to Dublin Castle with a tour by a guide that was just for our group. Our last stop this day was a visit to the Constant Knitter, a yarn shop in Dublin with yarns we were used to seeing at home as well as Irish yarns which we can’t get in the states. A special surprise for us was getting to meet Kieran Foley, a local knitter and knitwear designer who gave us a private trunk show of his amazing designs. We left inspired by our first day and ready for the welcome dinner at the hotel. This was a typical day on our trip: some fiber, some sightseeing, good food and great company.
Irish Tourism plans the Northern Ireland tour as well as a Southern Ireland tour with a love of fiber firmly in mind. This tour encompassed the northern half of the island of Ireland starting in Dublin, going north to Belfast then over the top to Donegal, down to Sligo, on further down to Galway and then straight across the center of the island completing the big loop to Dublin. We were able to visit many of the wonderful, “Can’t miss that” stops that any traveler in Ireland would want to see but added to those are fiber workshops, museum tours and fiber and craft shopping opportunities that regular visitors to Ireland would never get to arrange or take advantage of in nine days.
One of the many highlights was a visit on day 2 to the Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen Factory in business since the mid 1800’s. We had a private, behind the scenes tour of linen weaving and finished in the factory still in production. This was followed by a visit to the Irish Linen Center and Lisburn Museum which gave us a good idea of just how important Irish Linen has been to the history of Ireland. Later in the trip was Studio Donegal. Here, they weave by hand the same way they have been doing for over one hundred years. Many of the items woven there are from Donegal Yarns, spun nearby and for sale in many locations. Our private tour included seeing the spinning machines as well as the big looms they warp and weave on, not mechanized. The blanket I bought there will be the most cherished item I bought in Ireland. Foxford Woolen Mills near Galway, also on the trip, is one of the last working mills but the designs are definitely more modern. There were quite a contrast between the three and a good overview of fiber from the past to the present day.
The hotels chosen for us were always good, the staff were helpful and very patient with a group of excited but tired tourists. The rooms were modern and perfectly clean with most having electric tea kettles for making morning tea… heaven! Our hotel in Belfast was very near the heart of the city giving us a perfect location to walk out and explore. I was a bit wary of Belfast and didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a warm welcome and an easy to explore city with really good restaurants and shopping.
We felt very lucky in having Mike Darcy as our tour bus driver/tour guide. He was always considerate and helpful. As we left Belfast to head to Donegal, he asked if we wanted the longer way with ocean views or the shorter route with less ocean. We all voted for ocean and we were so glad we did! We got to view a stunning coastline as we made our way to the Giant’s Causeway and then to Dunluce Castle, built in the 1500’s. The weather during the 9 days we were in Ireland was perfect. The blue skies and warm breezes could not have been more pleasant than if Irish Tourism had ordered it up just for us.
Another high point was Edel MacBride’s studio, Knitfield. We were met by her horses craning their necks over the fence to see who had arrived. Her studio was a fiber lovers dream; full of fiber, patterns and yarn she had specially spun and buttons to pick from. We could feel the passion for the work they are doing there; making it a joy to visit. We were there for a workshop taught by Edel including cable and Irish Moss stitch, yarn and patterns were included. She shared her story and her family with us, along with tea and scones in the storybook kitchen at her studio. Shopping was enjoyed by all.
We made our way to Letterkenny is Sliabh League Cliffs. There was a stunning line of cliffs and a great place to walk off some of good Irish food I had been indulging in. The meals everywhere were amazingly good: fish and chips, mussels that were farmed in the clear fiords which we could see from the bus, scones and biscuits (cookies) plus the wonderful dark beer on tap everywhere. A good walk up the hill was just what I needed.
One of the last two workshops we enjoyed was a knitting workshop held in a perfect location, the National Museum of Country Life near Galway. Ciara Ni Reachtnin gave us a lesson on how to make her shawl pattern: Deirdre of Sorrows. This is a pattern based on Celtic Mythology as interpreted by Ciara. She supplied the yarn; a special hand dyed yarn made just for her pattern and our class and a cute bag too. She was patient with our attempts at her cable medallion. We had plenty of time to work though any problems or questions we had.
On our last day we returned to Dublin and had a knitting workshop at This Is Knit, a very charming yarn shop in Dublin owned by Lisa Sisk. She met us at the shop, where we picked out our favorite color of yarn for our project, the Glenties Cowl pattern, designed by Lisa and knit as a Mobius. She was a great teacher and we all got the idea pretty well. She brought in a local spinner to show the yarns he is designing and spinning; and we learned more about the Irish spinning scene. This was a perfect workshop to end our fiber tour.
We had a final wonderful dinner at Nancy Hands Restaurant. Most of us were strangers when the tour started but after 9 days of fiber, fun and the exhilarating Irish atmosphere we were leaving as friends. The next morning Mike took us to the airport for our flights home. After this great trip the first thing I would say to everyone who asked was “I can’t wait to go back!” Irish Tourism took such good care of us and had so thoughtfully planned the trip to fulfill our fiber desires that I wouldn’t hesitate to go again. As a woman traveling alone I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Next year Irish Tourism is offering two spring trips and two fall trips. I am planning on the next Southern route fiber tour. I need my Ireland fix!
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