When then Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited the White House in March 2017 for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations, he not only presented the traditional bowl of shamrock to divisive US president Donald Trump but brought along Irish gifts for his wife, Melania, and the couple’s only son, Barron.
Among the haul presented by Kenny, who famously pointed out in what turned out to be a viral speech that “St Patrick was the patron saint of immigrants”, was The Moon Spun Round: WB Yeats for Children.
The collection of Yeats’s poetry and folklore tales had been illustrated by Shona Shirley Macdonald, a Scottish artist who moved to Ireland a decade ago. Indeed, Irish folklore and language are also the raison d’etre for Mireog, the design company she runs.
The illustrator set up Mireog in a studio at the home she shares in the Co Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinn with partner Ciaran O Nuallain, a 36-year-old artist, print-maker and art teacher who also designs the T-shirts they produce. The couple met while they were both studying at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Shona founded Mireog in 2014 after realising there was a gap in the market for eco-friendly illustrated greeting cards, stationery, T-shirts and postcards, all emblazoned with proverbs, songs and folklore in Irish and other Celtic languages. The front of one of Mireog’s T-shirts, for instance, has six similar proverbs in each of the Celtic languages that are arranged in a spiral fashion. The Irish version of the proverb reads “tir gan teanga, tir gan anam”, which means “a country without a language is a country without a soul”.
Shona (32) grew up in Aberdeenshire, with a father whose first language was Scottish Gaelic. However, she rarely heard him speak it and she was mostly indifferent towards Celtic languages until she met Ciaran, a fluent Irish speaker from Carlow. A 2011 census revealed only 1.1pc of the Scottish population reported being able to speak Scots Gaelic.
“My father had Scots Gaelic but never really spoke it to us, so I didn’t have a positive attitude towards it,” Shona says. “People don’t really learn it at school, though there are some Gaelic-medium schools and some schools teach it as a subject. So it wasn’t until I met Ciaran that I found Celtic languages interesting. He’s the inspiration behind Mireog.”
After relocating to Ireland, Shona lived in Carlow and then Cork. But six years ago, she and Ciaran moved to An Rinn. Being immersed in an Irish-speaking environment sparked a desire in Shona to create illustrations and designs that would promote the language.“I wanted to help the language and I didn’t think there were many products available like ours,” she says. “I started learning Irish, by going to classes and speaking to Ciaran through Irish a bit. I’m the manager of Mireog. But because Ciaran is the fluent speaker, he’s the one who promotes Mireog through Irish.”
Before establishing Mireog, which means “frolic” in Irish, Shona dipped her toe into the business by selling a small number of cards through Etsy, the artisanal online marketplace. “I didn’t sell a lot because it’s such a huge website,” she says. “But I worked on designs for two years before setting up Mireog in 2014.”
During her market research, when she produced the same greeting card in both Irish and English, the artist realised the Irish version was more popular. This gave Shona the confidence to approach retailers about stocking the products. “I emailed Charlie Byrne’s bookshop [in Galway] because I liked the shop so much, and they replied and ordered a bunch of cards,” she says. “They’ve been a big customer ever since.”
Mireog’s T-shirts, meanwhile, are hand screen-printed with water-based inks by the couple in their studio. It is important to them that their materials have a minimal environmental footprint — not only do the products not come in plastic packaging, but Mireog uses 100pc organic cotton T-shirts that are produced by Earth Positive in India in a factory using wind and solar energy.
Shona was also prompted to use Earth Positive because the company is affiliated with the Fair Wear Foundation, a non-profit organisation that audits them to ensure they are not using sweatshop, child or forced labour or manufacturing in unsafe conditions.
“In 2013, there was a collapse of a garment building in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 people, which occurred due to the negligence of the building owners. It’s not an isolated case and, unfortunately, since then little has changed,” says Shona, who plans to improve the sustainability of Mireog’s materials further.
Since Mireog was set up, the burgeoning business has sold its wares at festivals. It began selling its Celtic proverb T-shirts at the Pan Celtic Festival in Carlow and has taken stands at the West Waterford Festival of Food.
“The Pan Celtic has been in Carlow a few times and is a festival of food, music, writing, dancing and singing competitions,” Shona says. “When we did our first market at it, the Welsh and Scottish choirs were at either ends of the pub and having a sing-off.”
In 2017, Mireog made its debut appearance at Showhouse, an annual exhibition at the RDS which highlights Irish craft and design to international trade buyers seeking new suppliers. Mireog was one of six exhibitors at the Made in Waterford stand, supported by the Local Enterprise Office. The company used the exhibition as an opportunity to sell its Irish-language range of notebooks, which are made in Ireland from recycled paper and card.
“Being at Showcase was the best thing we could have done because that’s when stockists are open to getting new products,” Shona says. Mireog products now sell in 30 outlets around the island. Its range of stockists include The Cat & The Moon crafts and jewellery shop in Sligo, a flower shop in Dungarvan, the Bastion Gallery in Athlone, The Winding Stair restaurant in Dublin, and Siopa.ie, an online retailer of Irish-language products.
“Online, we sell about third of our products to Ireland, a third to the UK and a third to the USA,” Shona says. “There are also customers in a smattering of other countries, such as in Scandinavia, where some people either speak Irish or have an inclination towards the language.”
Sales at Mireog have risen 260pc in the year to date and Shona believes the international demand at its online shop demonstrates there is a market for the company’s products in physical outlets in the US and the UK.
Not bad for a company led by two artists with no background in business. “We’ve been figuring it out and learning as we go along,” Shona says. “There were lots of challenges, as it’s a very time-consuming process and there are just two of us so we have to do all the jobs ourselves and wear all the different hats.”