A baptism of fire is how Joan Nagle describes the first few months of 2020. After spending their last Christmas in Dublin before moving permanently to Connemara, she and husband John took the road west to take over the reins of Connemara Carpets on March 5th.
Three weeks later the country was in lockdown.
It has been a difficult few years for Nagle, since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017: “Though I was never in fear for my life, it made me sit back and really think ‘what do I really want to do and where do I want to live?”
As she and her family had spent so many summers in Renyvle, by July 2019 Nagle had decided that the west of Ireland was to be their new home.
It’s not the first time the family, originally from Cork, has had to make a big move. Tech entrepreneur John Nagle was a high-flier in the Celtic Tiger years with his payments company Alphyra, which merged with a UK entity to become Payzone. But mounting debt forced the couple to sell homes in Shankill and Killiney, where they had spent millions building a Miami-style mansion overlooking the sea.
“When the 2008 crash came we were badly affected and John ended up in Myanmar for seven years.”
John Nagle emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, establishing a new electronic payments company, Red Dot, in Myanmar with backing from businessman Denis O’Brien. Joan Nagle travelled back and forth from Ireland as the children were still in school in Dublin.
Her time in Myanmar has had an influence on the new designs in her new carpet business. Living in Yangon, she came to really love the colour orange, especially the hues worn by the Buddhist monks.
“It was incredible, the Shwedagon Pagoda would light up at night and we would watch the monks going in and out. The colours were amazing, and were definitely an inspiration for the large carpet in our showroom [designed by Joan] that depicts different shades of orange suns. Also, the temples and sunsets in Began have an amazing orange glow. Myanmar is certainly the country of colour.”
The couple moved back to Ireland after Red Dot ceased operating in December 2018.
Moyard-based Connemara Carpets was originally McMurray Carpets, established by Wilhelmina and Denis McMurray back in the 1970s . They quickly built up a reputation for superb quality and their luxurious rugs found their way into wealthy homes, embassies, yachts and even Government buildings (the famous blue carpet in the Dáil is an example).
The couple ran their business until they retired in 2009, when the company – then renamed Connemara Carpets – was taken over by local businessman Kieran O’Donohue.
“When Kieran heard we were looking for something to do in the west of Ireland he approached us as he wanted to retire,” recalls Joan Nagle.
Nagle herself had been a customer of McMurray carpets since 1998, when she visited the factory in Moyard. “I commissioned our first carpet there – which I designed – and over the years I bought many for our other properties and one as a gift for my mother.”
The company, which she now runs, employs seven full-time craftspeople in addition to her and her family. “All but two have worked at the factory in Moyard for the past 25 years – except for a short period when it was closed.
“We really saw the potential with the company; over 85 per cent of the carpets made here went to the US, with a very limited Irish market. There was also only one relationship with an interior designer in the US, so we are in the process of changing that to increase our brand awareness.”
In addition to the handmade rugs created for bespoke customer designs, they began the Moyard Collection; a series of rugs designed in-house by Nagle and in-house artist Beatriz Laguna, a more off the shelf option, but still custom made to order. They also returned to something the McMurrays started in the early years: hand-knotted wall hangings.
“When I discovered that the McMurrays had worked with artists, I approached Oliver Sears who I knew, from when he had a gallery in Cork”.
Now the company is working in tandem with Cork-based artist Sarah Walker, Sasha Sykes from Tipperary, Samuel Walsh from Limerick, and local artist Alannah Robins to reproduce their artworks as wall hangings.
While Connemara Hill lamb has been granted Protection Geographical Indication status under European Union law since 1999, Nagle says the wool is not right for their carpets.
“I was amazed that we could not use Connemara wool, and have to import merino wool from New Zealand, which gives our carpets a velvet finish. Any time I questioned it – as I had the idea we should start our own flock – I was told that west of Ireland sheep here have a much hardier coat, to protect them from the weather, and is sadly destined for insulation and fertilizer.”
The wool first goes to a wool spinner in the UK, and then to a dye house, also in the UK. Every piece is done by hand at the factory in Moyard. From the design process with Laguna and Nagle, the colours – from a choice of 1,354 – are then chosen by the customer, in conjunction with Kurt Kafka, who Nagle refers to as “wonder man” from his years of experience with the McMurrays.
After this the sketch is drawn, every piece is tufted and sheared by hand, to give it its supersoft finish.
“Some people might think that there are only a few colours in each carpet, but a recent tapestry done in conjunction with Alannah Robins actually has 57 different colours. You don’t see them at first, as they are all used in a gradient of colour. And this is why, from the time the design and colours are chosen, a carpet takes from eight to 12 weeks to complete.” says Nagle.
What makes these carpets special, besides their custom design and velvet finish, is the materials used (silk, linen and bamboo blends are also offered).
Costs range from €700 to €1,200 per square metre for all the carpets, wall hangings and off the peg designs and depend on size, number of colours and medium used – with a silk mix being the most expensive – and the favoured choice of the Saudi Royal family, who were customers when the McMurrays ran the company.
At the local launch of Connemara Carpets to mark the occasion of the Nagle family taking over the business at their showroom in the Station House complex in Clifden, Wilhelmina and Denis McMurray as well as Kieran O’Donohue, celebrated that the tradition of handmade carpets from Connemara will continue into the future.
The Nagles are in talks with the Furniture Design College in Letterfrack to look into apprenticeships and a full-time course, so the craft can also continue for generations to come.
While they miss their former home in Dublin, they rarely get back.
“We have being going non-stop since January and I didn’t go back until I had a doctor’s check-up in late June. Between Covid and the business we haven’t had a chance. We are renting at the moment in Tully Cross, as we are concentrating on the business, which is open seven days a week, but in time will buy our own place in this lovely part of the world.”