Killybegs turns out carpets fit for palaces

When the restoration experts of English heritage set about refurbishing Eltham Palace in London, they had to go to Killybegs, …

When the restoration experts of English heritage set about refurbishing Eltham Palace in London, they had to go to Killybegs, Co Donegal, to find a carpet manufacturer capable of reproducing a handmade rug to the very high standards required.

Killybegs may be better known for its fishing fleets, but for generations the town's women have worked on exclusive rugs which can now be found in some of the world's best-known buildings, including The White House and Buckingham Palace as well as Aras an Uachtarain, Dublin Castle and many embassies. Donegal Carpets is the only hand-knotted carpet producer still in existence in either Ireland or Britain. Carpets were first made in the Killybegs factory more than 100 years ago, and it has now risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of the 1980s recession which forced it to close.

Reopened in 1994 by the Killybegs Enterprise Group, it operated under a as FAS scheme until three local businessmen took it over in January. The manager, Mr Michael McDaid, says there are now high hopes that the commission from English Heritage, valued at £20,000, will be the first of many more.

If £20,000 seems a bit pricey for a rug, spare a thought for the effort that goes into making it. It is a reproduction of one designed in 1930 by the American designer Marion Dorn for Eltham Palace, circular in shape, and measuring 20 feet in diameter. For the seven women currently employed by Donegal Carpets, this amounts to approximately 400,000 knots, each one tied by hand.


Marketing is now the firm's main focus. Mr McDaid points out that it is still not widely known, even in Killybegs, that the factory is open again. He is determined to re-establish Donegal Carpets as a world leader in handmade carpets, and stresses that the same degree of craftmanship is still involved today as when the factory opened in 1898.

A Scotsman, Alexander Morton, originally opened four carpet-making factories in west Donegal at the end of the last century. At the time he boasted that he could produce the carpets at a very competitive price because labour was so cheap there. In 1910 the factory employed more than 500 people.

But various economic crises over the years took their toll. The three outlying plants closed during the first World War, but the Killybegs factory, under different owners and with greatly reduced staff numbers, continued operating until the late 1980s.

Apart from Lotto-winners, Mr McDaid expects customers to be either interior designers catering for the very upper end of the market, or heritage bodies charged with the upkeep of state buildings. He has found however that there is still one problem with the Killybegs carpets - they don't wear out quickly enough.