Once upon a time, there was a myth that you had to live in a city to have a creative career. While artists were understood to live wildly inspired and solitary lives on the edges of Ireland; designers and makers at the more practical end of things needed large populations for their client base and networking opportunities, right? Wrong on all counts. Some artists may have spread out to seek affordable locations, but coastal lives are often anything but solitary; and who needs urban networking when you have a solid core of local support to build on?
West Cork is famed for its makers, and Leitrim has an arty reputation, but it might surprise you to discover that Kenmare, Killarney's more peaceful sister, has a wealth of talented artisans living and working in its beautiful environs. Covid has offered unexpected opportunities, not least with the explosion in Zoom meetings, online shopping and a strengthened rural delivery network.
Eamonn O'Sullivan set up Anchor Studio (anchorstudio.ie) on Henry Street in 2019, after 15 years working in Dublin and London. Initially nervous about the move, things immediately took off.
“I got separate business cards made with a Dublin address,” he admits. “But I never actually used them.”
A recent winner of an Institute of Designers Ireland (IDI) award for his work on Maura O'Connell Foley's My Wild Atlantic Kitchen book of recipes, O'Sullivan is also an exhibition designer, and a keen advocate for the town's creatives. He points out Benoit Lorge's chocolates (delicious), for whom he designed the branding and packaging. Lorge (lorge.ie) runs chocolate-making courses that book out way in advance.
A Kenmare native, O'Sullivan's brother Bryan is a highly accoladed designer who creates lush yet tasteful interiors for the ultra wealthy. Bryan has worked on hotels from London's Connaught and Claridges, to Ireland's Ballynahinch – and, closer to home in 2021, Kenmare's Park.
"Our parents were always creative thinkers, although they weren't artists themselves," says Eamonn. In fact, his father, Mickey "Ned" O'Sullivan was, he tells me, the only All-Ireland winning captain not to hold the Sam Maguire aloft – as he had been knocked unconscious during the final game.
Based in the studio next door, Eamonn's wife, Lizzie O'Sullivan (lizzie.ie) works with textiles, making bespoke cushions and interior accessories. Kept busy with commissions, and her brother-in-law's projects, she has recently been sending luscious cushions up to Ballynahinch. The walls of her space are lined with enticing-looking rolls and bolts of fabric, delivered by a stream of couriers, who will return to pick up the finished products.
“Eircodes, couriers and broadband have made being based here possible,” she agrees.
“There was already a shift towards living and working away from cities,” adds Eamonn. “But Covid has accelerated it. Now you can operate at the highest level but be anywhere. I have as good a creative network here as I have ever had.”
Extending that network, photographer Lynda Kenny (who took the images for this article) is based in one of the offices downstairs.
"When I moved from Cork, I originally thought I'd be over and back all the time," she says. "But I never imagined I'd have so much work, or work that was so cool." Primarily a food photographer (visualfeasts.ie), she also does a nice line in atmospheric interior images.
There's a generosity at play too, and a sense that the more you share, the more might come back from the world
“The first year of Covid was really bad”, she says. “But then people decided to get online, and the past 12 months have been amazing”. Having her son also changed her perspective.
“I had bought a house in Mallow in 2006, and I got stuck for 12 years. Now I feel like I’m making up for lost time. I may still be afraid at times, but now I go for it anyway.”
Kenny’s work features in the Wild Atlantic Kitchen book, and there’s a lively rapport between her and Eamonn O’Sullivan as they talk about potential collaborations. There’s a generosity at play too, and a sense that the more you share, the more might come back from the world.
The best creative networks often happen organically, depending on the right circumstances of space, people, disciplines and imaginations coming together at the right time.
In Kenmare, the rapport extends to the offices next door, where Nathalie Vos and Justina Gruzdyte run Edit Interior Design Studio (editdesignstudio.ie), which they established in 2018. Having recently completed an award-winning do-over on Kenmare's Lansdowne hotel, bought last year by John and Francis Brennan of The Park, the pair met by chance.
Originally from Lithuania, Gruzdyte was enjoying one of the town’s summer festivals when she got talking to a man holding a baby.
“He asked me to keep an eye on the child,” she says, laughing at the memory. “He didn’t come back for ages, and the next thing, Nathalie comes along and says ‘what are you doing with my baby?’” Friends ever since, they soon realised they were in the same business, and so setting up together became a natural progression.
A South African native, Vos came to Kenmare via Union Hall.
“I married an Irishman, and we were living in London. My husband saw a house online. It was a huge big farmhouse, for €650 a month, and we were in a one-bed apartment.”
Clearly adventurous, they rented the house without actually visiting it first, and spent a year there, before moving “to the big metropolis of Kenmare. It takes time to settle into the countryside,” Vos continues. “Life happens differently. You get to know people more slowly, it’s spread out.”
Kenmare is really international, so our work is very varied
Covid has brought more people to Kenmare to live, notes Gruzdyte, as well as people wanting to lavish love on their holiday homes.
“A well-designed holiday home will pay for itself,” she notes, also pointing out that the Covid-driven hiatuses in hospitality gave hotels and guesthouses breathing space to renovate. How much does living in such gorgeous surroundings influence their work?
“Light plays a really important part,” says Vos. “And we do take cues from where we are.”
“The clients themselves are a big inspiration,” adds Gruzdyte. “Kenmare is really international, so our work is very varied. I came from a big city too. Covid has made me love and appreciate where I am now.”
Capturing all this beauty is Norman McCloskey, who arrived from Limerick three decades ago (normanmccloskey.com).
Kenmare has gone through a renaissance
“I went out on the lash, and decided I didn’t want to go home again,” he says. McCloskey’s work also features (along with that of Maria Bell) in the Wild Atlantic Kitchen book, while his publication, Beara, designed by Eamonn O’Sullivan, captures the peninsula on Kenmare’s doorstep, and makes you realise why so many people come here and never want to leave. Initially concerned about how a lack of international visitors might impact on his livelihood, McCloskey says that the Irish have been incredible customers over the past two years. Echoing Gruzdyte, Covid has clearly made us value what we have.
Also on Henry Street, Fiachra Crowley opened his ceramics shop last summer (fiachracrowley.com). A Christmas pop-up in 2020 was "crazy", he says with enthusiasm.
“So I thought – let’s take a leap of faith.”
Another Kenmare native, Crowley says he has never felt a desire to leave.
“It’s a very creative town. I studied locally, and thought – I’ll do something I enjoy for a year and see what happens …” What happened was an evident demand for his stoneware, which glows with unique glazings.
“Kenmare has gone through a renaissance,” he says. “There are new shops. People have been reassessing how they want to live. We have had a lot of staycationers coming. I don’t know how it will be when the Americans come back, but living here, Mum helps out in the shop, and if I need something, I don’t have to go far.”
Farther out of town, up the valley, Jason Borst has a treasure trove of a workshop where he crafts extraordinary knives to commission (jborstknives.ie). Steel is laid out for honing – from the elaborate Damascus with its intricate waves, to more workhorse varieties of blade. In a large chest freezer, wood for handles is kept at the optimum temperature and humidity while, in a different unit, ancient bog oak is being slowly brought to stability.
Elsewhere, trays of fossils and semi-precious stones await inlay in the handles, and Borst knows them all intimately – notwithstanding the wide array. He ferrets avidly through containers to show off favourite finds. Chefs, he says, are return clients. After all, if you’re plying a knife all day long, you want something you truly love and enjoy.
Standing outside, with a view across the mountains, you start to see how his deep love of the landscape, its shapes, treasures and ever shifting light filters into his work. Why not have a perfect bespoke knife? Why not choose to live and work in such an endlessly beautiful place? And if you truly can’t make the move, these creatives can help you, with a little piece of it to take home when you go.
More to see in Kenmare: check out PFK goldsmith and jewellery design, pfk.ie; breezy easy sweats and other styles from Begley and Bowie, begleyandbowie.bigcartel.com; furniture making from Joop and Adrian Duyn, joopduyn.ie; and a rolling series of exhibitions at the Kenmare Butter Market exhibition space, kenmarebuttermarket.org