Photograph: By the newly restored loom in Glendowen Craft Shop. From left: Pat McGonigle, Anne McGonigle, Kathleen Barr, John Heena and Mary Barr
Well worth a visit, Glendowen Craft Shop in Inishowen’s Meentagh Glen was buzzing, as well as clickity-clacking, on Bank Holiday Monday past as Ardara master weaver, John Heena entertained the visitors.
Accompanying himself on the guitar, John sang “The Weaver’s Song” for owners Anne and Pat McGonigle and special guests, Kathleen and Mary Barr.
According to Anne, John had arrived in the peninsula the previous Thursday to restore a loom, which had previously belonged to Buncrana weavers, Anne Barr and Nina Quigley.
Telling Donegal Now the whole yarn, Anne said: “There was a customer in the shop one day having a look around and she asked me about the tweed. I told her I bought it from Magee’s and McNutt’s.
“Introducing herself as Anne Barr, she asked me if I would like a loom and I said I would love one but I probably couldn’t afford one.
“Anne then told me she had a loom lying in a shed, which she had bought more than 40 years ago and we were welcome to it if we wanted it. She said she had used the loom for many years in Buncrana, where she wove tweed. Herself and her friend, Nina Quigley had bought the loom between them from someone in The Downngs and they had both used it to make tweed. Anne had woven her tweed in a room behind Barr’s Hardware Shop on Buncrana Main Street, which was owned by her father.
“So, Pat and I arranged to go and meet Anne and her mother, Kathleen, in the house and there was the loom, in the shed, in pieces and we brought it back to Clonmany in the back of a trailer,” smiled Anne.
Then by good luck, Anne McGonigle met master weaver, John Heena, one of the few hand weavers left in Donegal.
John called up to Inishowen a couple of weeks ago to look at the loom and to Anne’s great delight he said he would be able to “put it back together again.”
Taking up the yarn, John said: “I started weaving in 1970. My uncle worked for McNutt’s. He was a foreman weaver down there. He started in McNutt’s in Carrigart in 1952.
“Ardara, the town I live in had an awful lot of people working in Magee’s. In fact, when I started in Magee’s there were 117 weavers at that time. We are down to two at the minute.
“I actually wove at home. We didn’t even have electricity at home. I wove by the light of the old paraffin Tilley lamp. I went to work at the factory in Ardara, Ghaeltarra Éireann and that was a Kilcar company and I remember at one stage there were 37 of us working there. I started by filling bobbins and I really liked it.
“In the 1970s the power looms came in and they destroyed the hand weaving. Work was scarce for a few years but I went back to it in the mid-1990s and I am 14 years now in Studio Donegal, in Kilcar,” said John.
John is currently training three apprentices.
He said: “I have a young woman from Wicklow, she is going well. And I have a young lad whose father is from Cahersiveen in County Kerry and whose mother is from Kilcar. I also have a young woman from Philadelphia, who is in Gortahork learning Irish. She is actually going back to The States to do a course in Textiles but she is coming back to Kilcar again.
“I think it is a good thing to see more young women getting involved in weaving. In years gone by, you would never have seen a woman on a loom.
“Through my work, I decided I would get into old looms, restoring and maintaining them. I have done a few. I knew this was a good one straightaway. It really impressed me. Whoever owned this loom knew what they were doing.
“This is a double width loom. It can actually weave to 68 inches wide. You can make rugs. You can make scarves. What you can turn out on these is really amazing. I am lucky enough in Studio Donegal. We get an awful lot of people calling. I featured in an RTÉ programme a number of years ago, ‘In Good Hands’ and on ITV’s ‘Lesser Spotted Journey.’ I also gave Prince Charles and Camilla a weaving demonstration when they visited Donegal,” said John.
As good as his word, a clearly delighted John had the loom up and running on Bank Holiday Monday.
He said: “I knew to look at it, it was a really good loom. A couple of times I was wondering if I’d get there or not but it went fine for me. I went well for us and Pat and Anne are very pleased.
“It’s now a working loom. You could weave your own tweed on it again. Whatever you want, curtain material, scarves, suiting, upholstery covering, you name it,” said a satisfied John, reaching for his guitar.
Watching on, Mary Barr, sister of one of the restored loom’s original owners, recalled her own craft shop in Buncrana “many years ago” on the site of the present day ‘Oscar’s Restaurant.”
Mary said: “George Devlin taught a whole lot of us how to weave. George was a wonderful weaver, from the Clonmany area. It was a FÁS course in Ballyliffin at the time and we learned to weave there.
“Then I started a little craft shop, which is long since gone. I weaved my own tweed and a lady, who lives two doors up from Anne here, called, Briege McEleney, made the clothes and I sold them in the craft shop.
“It is lovely to see my sister’s loom in operation again. Anne, who currently lives in Cork, was also taught weaving by George Devlin,” said Mary.
According to the McGlinchey Summer School 2006 book: ‘Inishowen at Work – Then and Now: Trades, Skills and Traditional Crafts’, the VEC organised a weaving class in Clonmany in 1957.
“Premises were rented from Mrs Susan Harkin and six looms were installed upstairs in what was formerly Packie Harkin’s Egg Store.
“Seamus Cannon, a master weaver from Glencolmkille was appointed instructor. The large frame for warping bars, constructed under his direction by Vinnie Grant and Danny Mc Conallogue was erected downstairs.
“Ten young men, ranging in age from 15 to 25 started their six-month training course at the end of September 1957. Among those first trainees were, George Devlin (Toitin), Paddy Doherty (Davey), James McGonigle, Paddy Mc Carron, Neil Mc Caron and Barney O’ Donnell.”
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