Born June 2nd, 1930
Died January 29th, 2024
Kevin Donaghy, who has died aged 93 in Bruckless, Co Donegal, was a leading figure in the world of Irish textiles. Part of his life was dedicated to preserving and developing the craft of handwoven tweed at Studio Donegal, which he established in Kilcar in 1979 under parent company Connemara Fabrics. When Connemara Fabrics was rationalised, he bought out the company in 1987 with his wife, Wendy, and it continues to thrive under his son Tristan and Tristan’s wife, Anne, a graphic designer.
As a young man, Kevin studied woollen and worsted spinning in Bradford, becoming a textile technologist, and worked for more than 30 years for Salts Ireland in Tullamore, then one of the most modern spinning mills in Europe. Passionate about arts and crafts, textiles held a special place in his heart and the preservation of the craft of hand weaving was his life goal. Studio Donegal was his dream and he poured his energy into making it a success.
He was born in London, the son of the poet Lyle Donaghy and his wife, Lilian Roberts (sister of the artist Hilda Roberts), the youngest of a Dublin Quaker family who had built Appian Way and buildings on the Dublin and Kingstown railways. Kevin’s older brother, Roland, had been born in Paris in 1928.
In 1931 he and Roland moved back to Dublin with their mother. They lived in various places including Ballyroan House in Rathfarnham with the Coulters, a republican family from Donegal, before moving in 1935 to Glencree to live with his mother’s partner, the republican activist Charlie Gilmore, in a tiny two-room cottage belonging to the poet Joseph Campbell.
Kevin remembered getting groceries from Enniskerry in a pony and trap, keeping a pet raven, learning how to dispose of hand grenades, seeing bullets in Gilmore’s bandolier as well as getting very tired of rabbit – shot, trapped or snared. Gilmore also taught him how to sail, fostering a love of the sea that never left him.
The cottage hosted many wild parties. Charlie and Lilian’s circle of friends – bohemian radicals, writers and artists of the time – included Samuel Beckett, Mervyn Wall and Sean O’Sullivan. Later they moved to a slate-roofed cottage owned by a republican stonemason, where Donaghy learned how to use a hammer and cold chisel, another skill that remained throughout his life when he could break and course freestone.
Shortly before his mother’s death in 1938, he and Roland went to live with their uncle and aunt Alec and Dorothy Turner in Blackrock and cousin Meikle. He was educated first in Avoca (now Newpark Comprehensive) followed by High School. Alec, a horticulturist who worked for the Department of Agriculture, kept bees and instilled in the young Kevin a love of the natural world. It was at the Turner home at the age of eight that he met his father for the first time and discovered “a big strong man that I felt proud of”. Donaghy was always drawn to the pacifism, tolerance and progressiveness of his Quaker ancestry.
At 16 he was encouraged by Turner to apply for Salts spinning mill, which then employed more than 500 people. He was immediately taken on and sent to Bradford for training, returning as a young apprentice. He was to remain for the next 30 years, becoming the general manager, remembered as one of the best. He and Wendy Montgomery, who was from a mixed Quaker/Church of Ireland family, married in the Churchtown Quaker meeting house in 1963 when she was 20 and studying in Cathal Brugha Street and he was 32. They settled in Tullamore, where their four children were born.
With the erosion of the textile trade in the 1970s and the strain of keeping an enormous mill going, he and Wendy decided to leave and move to Donegal with their family in 1978, when the opportunity arose to manage a carpet yarn factory. He later became a consultant at Connemara Fabrics, out of which Studio Donegal was created. This was an ambitious project to reinvent the heritage craft of hand-weaving under threat due to the introduction of machines.
“His head was in his hands. Those beautiful hands were always modelling and moving things,” according to his family, who remembers how he would pull pieces of sheep’s wool from barbed wire, spin it between thumb and forefinger, roll and pull until it formed a ply. He introduced a sewing room in the 1980s to have a completely vertical operation, and today Studio Donegal is a successful small business making and exporting tweed throws, blankets, hats and clothing, as well as selling wool and operating tours of the mill.
He believed in harmonious working conditions, maintaining that “if you are generous in what you do, you will get generosity in return”
Along with a strong visual sense, Donaghy believed passionately in making and in the adaptability of the hand loom. At Salts, he had sold yarn to almost every weaving mill in Ireland.
He had a mental map of Irish waterways, having explored them on his handmade canoes and kayaks. He also read voraciously and could recite poetry at will – Mahon, Coleridge, Allingham, Homer.
He believed in harmonious working conditions, maintaining that “if you are generous in what you do, you will get generosity in return”. He is remembered by his family – all of whom have inherited his artistry and design skills – as being immensely gentle, patient, supportive, humorous and mischievous.
He was by times a beekeeper, took a short stint rearing sheep before planting a woodland. A seafarer who once sailed in a well-boat from Crookhaven to Paimpol in Brittany with a cargo of crayfish, he ran away to sea again in his 80s, setting out from Bruckless to Sligo in his boat, an adapted salmon punt, coming ashore a day later in Coney Island at dusk. He remained active in the company until 2015 and was described in many tributes as “an inspirational man of the cloth”.
Kevin Donaghy is survived by his wife, Wendy; his children, Natasha, Tristan, Marcus and Meriel; and seven grandchildren, Ava, Conall, Leo, Clara, Luke, Lilian and Reuben.