What began for Joe Hogan as a way to live off the land became a new art form. Roisin Murphy meets the master basket-maker.
Nobody could have guessed that a potato ‘colander’ would survive from pre-Famine times to be the accessory for your home in 2020. But that’s exactly what you'll find hanging in the hippest restaurants or decorating your most on-trend friend’s table tops.
These are large baskets, shaped and formed with willow into a round tray, ranging in diameter from a foot to as wide as four feet. They come in an array of different colours and are known as a ‘sciob’ in Irish, or a skib. It was used as in farmers’ cottages to strain potatoes and was then put on the ground to serve food and be used as a table.
The Irish basket is having a moment. If you have one now, it's probably not used for straining potatoes but more likely it means you’re hip to the trend of Irish basketry, or have attended one of the many basket-making courses that are happening around the country.
The names of the baskets are as beautiful as their look. Creels, muzzles, fish traps, turf baskets. They are even immortalised in a well-known song, ‘down by the sally gardens’ refers to the patch of willow that was usually grown close to the house specifically to make baskets.
The other name that’s inseparable from Irish baskets at the moment is Joe Hogan’s.
Though he has been ‘discovered’ in the last decade or two, Joe has woven baskets since the 1970s. He uses willow grown near his home in Loch na Fooey in Galway. “Bí curamach leis na choirnéil” his own teacher told him 30 years ago in Connemara when he first set out. Be careful with the corners. Look for corners in Joe’s work – you’ll find none.
Joe’s legacy is massive, influencing a new generation of basket makers. But what inspired him to learn the craft in the 1970s was simply a desire to live a sustainable lifestyle. “It was the thing to live off the land at that time,” he says, “when I found the basket-making and that you could grow the willow to make baskets, I thought, Yes, I'll do that.” He has since written several books cataloguing our heritage in the craft – Bare Branches Blue Black Sky, Learning from the Earth and Basket Making in Ireland.
He no longer makes traditional-style baskets. He decided many years ago now, on a passing ‘notion’ to give six months to making ‘artistic baskets’.
He shows me that famous postcard photograph by John Hynde – “those baskets you see in the photograph of the donkey with the two children,” he says, “they are creels.” He started to use bits of found or scrap wood into them as handles. The basket then had to work around a piece of ‘chaos, making each one unique.
Over the years, his creative work has grown to include small nest-like pieces that are made of strings of willow, twigs and moss that look like miniature frantic birds’ nests. They don’t look like they were made by human hands at all, more as if Joe himself had a wee bird in the studio.
Joe has taught most of this generation’s basket-makers in Ireland, including his son Ciarán whose work is found in the Spiddal Craft Village in Connemara. Others have been drawn to Ireland and the craft, weaving beautiful works, such as Tipperary-based Hanna van Aelst, whose work is on sale at Design Ireland and Stable of Ireland, and Heike Kahle from Baurnafea Willow Works in Kilkenny.
Joe was short-listed for the Loewe Craft Prize in 2018, the highest accolade in the art and craft world. His work has even appeared as headpieces for models in fashion designer Joanne Hynes’s shows.
Joanne says she had difficulty explaining the idea to people until they actually saw his pieces. The nests and his work spin somewhere between basket and art forms and dare you to touch them. They look delicate but are really robust.
But I wouldn’t use them for potatoes.