CONOR Holden and his wife Clare are this year celebrating 25 years of Holden Leathergoods, their quality handcrafted designs business.
Their handbags, leather briefcases, purses, wallets and photo frames are exquisitely crafted, each one with loving care. Their range of colour, and of timeless classics as well as trend-driven styles, are carefully thought out and have the classy look of the catwalks of Milan, New York or Paris – but at a fraction of the price. Their atelier is based just outside Dingle in Co Kerry and they also have a smart shop in the town itself.
Conor is originally from Templeogue in Dublin and Clare is from just outside Coventry in the UK. Like many other people in business, Conor came to leather in a roundabout way.
"I worked in hotel management in the Tara Towers in Dublin, and in Quinnsworth as a trainee manager. I then went to England and I got a job in local government. My job was assessing students for college and university grants. After a couple of years I wanted to come home but in the Eighties there weren't any jobs. You had to have money or a trade. I looked around for something I could learn to do to take home. I couldn't find anything until one day somebody applied for a grant to do a course in leather goods production at a college in London. I said I like the sound of that. The following year, I gave up my job and went to college for two years to learn the craft, the idea being to provide my own employment when I came home. That's what I have been doing since, providing my own employment and employment for others.
"We decided we were going to make quality pieces and so from the beginning we've used suede lining. We use solid brass fittings and Italian leather. There is no such thing as Irish leather, all our hides are exported and tanned abroad, so we use Italian leather. We work with five different tanneries in Italy. Some of them specialise in croc print finishes, some in classic leathers, some do weird and wonderful," Conor explains.
It hasn't always been easy for Conor and Clare and like everybody else in the country they were affected by the recession. Conor says that in 2008 there were six of them working on leather goods and in 2009 there were two.
"We brought it right down to two of us. In the first six months of that year, my wife and I lived off money that we had to finish building our house. We were looking at closure but, through literally cutting our costs down to nothing, we kept going. We have managed to build it back up and this summer there were six people employed here. We have turned it around and we are looking at export – we see this as our future."
Conor and Clare are now running classes on leather craft and you come away having made your own handbag at the end of the week. "People are looking to themselves in terms of trying to provide their own future in the same way as I did 25 years ago. They are turning to things that they like and they are turning what they like into a future for themselves," Conor says.
The courses cost €650 for five days and that includes the materials and the finished bag. It's a pretty intensive course but there is great satisfaction in seeing something beautiful that you have made and in learning a craft as well.
"The first day is the introduction to the workshop. We go through the machinery, the tools that we use for leather crafting, the different types of leathers, the finishes, the different construction of handbags. The second day we do a small bit of workshop production. I would get everyone to do some of the basic taping, folding over of pockets and making zip pockets. What that does is it actually introduces them to the parts and gives them a bit of confidence for when they are starting to do their own bag.
"This bag is a classic bag which we do with a flap, with flat straps, with cross-over handles or we do a combination of all of them. So what happens is that the students go into the storerooms and choose whatever leather they want, they choose the lining they want, so they can be as weird and way out and wonderful as they want, and they choose the fittings. We all work on the same basic style but everybody has their own input into how it finishes.
"I cut one and then they go and cut their own. We do all the benchwork together and everybody finishes their bag but the whole ethos here is that I don't make their bag for them. I don't say, 'here, I'll do that for you because it's easier for me'. So they walk out of here at the end of the week with a bag they have made from start to finish and that they've influenced design-wise, whether it's the leather, the lining, the fittings, or the finish," explains Conor.
The Holdens have had all sorts of people on their courses including an American lawyer who made a bag for his mother. "When he put the last stitches in his bag, the look on his face was magical."
The next course will be in February 2014 and they will do a follow-up course on pattern cutting. So, if you want something really special by way of a handbag, briefcase, or laptop case, you couldn't do better than a beautiful Irish handcrafted item.
OVER the bank holiday weekend, we were in Kilkenny for the seventh Savour Kilkenny food festival, which proved a tremendous success.
We stayed in the Pembroke Hotel and on Friday night we were guests of Savour Kilkenny at Zuni's Restaurant where, following a bubbling reception, head chef Maria Raftery served up a truly knock-out tasting menu. using produce from local suppliers. These were not tiny tasting portions but of the lavish Edwardian-style seven course dinner – appropriate for Kilkenny with its magnificent castle dominating the city. It was amazing value at just €60 and €89 with matching wines. Chef Maria Raftery did herself and Savour Kilkenny proud. www.zuni.ie
Next morning we went along to the Chapter House at St Mary's Cathedral on James's Street, which has been turned into a lovely tearoom. I think the new tearoom here is a brilliant idea for the community and for visitors.
We had scrumptious lemon drizzle cake and a cracking carrot cake. They do hot and cold lunches too at really good prices such as a seafood medley with roast baby potatoes and roast veg at €8.95. They also do private functions and small weddings.
Savour Kilkenny also saw blogger and KLCR broadcaster Fiona Dillon launch her scrumptious new book, Food from an Irish Garden, in which she shares recipes, knowledge and insights into her 'good life' lifestyle with her family at Hunter's Lodge in Co Carlow.
With two Michelin stars now in the county, at Campagne in Kilkenny City and Mount Juliet in Thomastown, plus amazing artisan food producers throughout, Kilkenny is a dining destination to be reckoned with.