Monday 20 May 2019

Stage drama

Stage drama costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's Co Meath home showcases her expertise with colour, texture and pattern, but, above all, it is comfortable and family focused.

Costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh in the living room extension, which was added to her 19th-Century cottage in 2004. The extension, which includes a bedroom, was designed by the architect Simon Walker. The double bass belongs to Eimer's daughter, Iris; the family
photos are by Eimer's husband, photographer Bernard Walsh
Costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh in the living room extension, which was added to her 19th-Century cottage in 2004. The extension, which includes a bedroom, was designed by the architect Simon Walker. The double bass belongs to Eimer's daughter, Iris; the family photos are by Eimer's husband, photographer Bernard Walsh
The living area off the kitchen is comfortably furnished. Above the check sofa is a painting by Tim Mara, while over the navy sofa hangs a work by Eimer's greatgrandfather, James McCormack, who was a church painter, as were his brothers
Eimer plays the piano in her downtime. The bath outside was originally in the house and is used to display flowers
The yellow units are from The Panelling Centre. The unit beneath the gilt mirror is from Ikea
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh favourite room in Sandymount. Bathroom. Photo: Tony Gavin 28/03/2014

Mary O'Sullivan

Though a yellow kitchen is a lovely thing, and cheers up a typical grey day enormously, we Irish haven't taken to yellow in a big way. Only a really creative person used to taking risks with colour would venture into such a prominent yellow and, sure enough, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh – owner of this successfully yellow kitchen – works in design. As one of Ireland's most celebrated costume designers, Eimer has a profound knowledge of the power of colour, texture and pattern, and uses them to great effect in her lovely home in Co Meath.

However, there is a sense that she consciously doesn't use her home as a showcase for her creativity – it's mainly about comfort and the family's needs, while the design talent is kept for the many movies and TV dramas Eimer has worked on over the years – these include Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited, Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy and, most recently, Calvary.

She has worked with top directors, including Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan and John Michael McDonagh, while there's a long list of film stars for whom she has designed costumes – Julia Roberts, Maggie Smith, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.

Given that our indigenous film industry has only recently found its feet, it's not surprising that, when Eimer was contemplating a career, costume design was not on the list.

"I never thought of film. It was not in my line of vision. I was from Limerick," Eimer laughs, which suggests that a metropolis, it was not. However, she did want to go to Limerick College of Art and Design (LCAD). She loved art and was good at it, a talent possibly inherited from her great-grandfather – he was a church painter, and his paintings still hang in the cathedral in Thurles.

"Actually, I didn't do art in school. The school I went to, you could either do art or French, and art was for people who weren't very smart," she says. Rather modestly, Eimer leaves unsaid that she was one of the smart ones. "I put the portfolio for art college together myself, and I felt I blagged my way into the college. I got an interview . . . I don't think it would happen now," she says ruefully, adding, "I wanted to do fashion. I wanted to be Jean Paul Gaultier."

The cheery fortysomething finished her degree in fashion when she was 20, and then decided to go with a friend to Madrid. "I intended just going for a few months, and then on to Paris or Milan, but I loved Madrid. I was sharing a house with some film students; there was a lot going on in Madrid. It was the mid Eighties; we used to see Pedro Almodovar – people were interested in design, film, art, photography, creativity. I got a real buzz from that," Eimer reminisces. "We were going to films all the time, and I just thought, 'costume designer'. I really wanted to work in film.

"It was all Pedro's fault," she says with a laugh. "I used to look at Almodovar's films. They are amazing. I loved the colours, I loved the women, I loved the whole visual qualities of his films. I suddenly kind of thought, 'Maybe that's something I could try'."

At the same time, Eimer wanted to come home. As it happened, the film industry here was beginning to take off. Consolata Boyle gave Eimer her first job – as costume-department runner on The Secret of Roan Inish – it was only three weeks' work, but it was the start she needed. "I just loved the whole process."

Then the other great Irish costume designer, Joan Bergin, took Eimer on as her assistant and, together, they worked on a host of projects. Over the years, Eimer also worked with other internationally acclaimed designers. Soon, she was not only given total control of the costumes for the films she's worked on, but has received numerous awards for her work.

And many of her projects have been challenging, including her most recent, Calvary, which is now showing. It stars Brendan Gleeson and was directed by Michael John McDonagh, the same team who brought us The Guard. It's full of men – Kelly Reilly is one of the few women – with very little scope for imaginative costumes. Calvary is mainly about a priest, but it's also about a village full of men with issues – the doctor, the priest, the butcher – so how do you make them look different? "It's a challenge," Eimer says. "It's really about working with the actor, and helping them with their character."

Eimer jokingly adopts a male voice: "Who am I?" then reverts to her own, "I don't know, but try this on," she laughs, adding that, in Calvary, to distinguish the characters, they exaggerated the costumes. "We wouldn't always do that, but, with John Michael's scripts, you know there's a heightened realism to it, so you can bring that into the costumes, and that helps with the characterisation."

As well as working on film, Eimer, who recently completed an MA in NCAD, is now also head of the Costume Design department at the National Film School at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology, where she lectures.

She continues to work on films, but is selective – partly because of her college commitments and partly because of her family. She and her husband, Bernard Walsh, have a daughter, Iris, 11, and a son, Emmet, six. She and Bernard met in 1991 and married in 2000.

"He was a friend of my brother. He was in a band at the time," Eimer says. Bernard's now also in the film business – he's a stills photographer, currently working on Love/Hate. "He is so supportive," she says. "Whenever a job comes up, he says, 'If you want to do it, that's fine.' But, of course, I want to be at home as well."

Home is a renovated and extended cottage in Co Meath. When they bought it in 1996, it was deep in the countryside, which Eimer loved and is the reason why they bought it. Things have changed a lot since, but she's obviously the type who embraces change. The house is near the bypass of the M3.

"When we bought the house, there was a line on the plans that indicated there might be a road, but we thought, 'That'll never happen'. It doesn't affect us at all. It's still very quiet and safe and we love the village."

The biggest changes were to the house itself. The cottage, which dates from 1857, used to be a two-bedroomed structure, but, over the years, Eimer and Bernard have had work done, with major renovations in 1998 and 2004 – both times, the renovations were designed by architect Simon Walker.

The kids bedrooms are book-ended by the living areas – at one end is the large, yellow kitchen/dining/living room, while, at the other, is the more formal living room, which was the most recent add-on.

Above the living room is the master bedroom, and next to it, a converted shed. "We connected the house to the shed," Eimer explains. "When we're really cross with it, we call it the shed, but, when it's semi-functioning, it's the studio. It's for Bernard's work."

With regard to her own work, Eimer's not saying what her next film project is, but, no doubt, it will include some famous names. As for her own name, Eimer says these same stars think it's hilarious. "It's a great ice-breaker," she says. But, more than that, when it's on the credits of a film, it's a guarantee the costumes will be great.

L

  • 'Calvary' is now on general release nationwide. For information on the IADT, see www.iadt.ie

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