Life Home & Garden

Friday 24 May 2019

Objects of desire

Ash is native to Ireland and beloved of hurlers - but architect Roisin Murphy loves it indoors

Simple, elegant and very Irish: a three-legged stool by furniture-maker Feargus de Brún
Simple, elegant and very Irish: a three-legged stool by furniture-maker Feargus de Brún

Roisin Murphy

I've dragged a fair few poor joiners and carpenters into my field of dreams when it comes to making things in ash - a timber native to Ireland and used to make hurls.

I've made an ash four-poster bed, an ash hurling bench, which is essentially a trunk or ottoman designed to hold hurls and paraphernalia for a GAA family.

As an architect, I nominate it as the material of choice for wall cladding, tables, floors. Ash, anybody?

I like it limed, which is a whitening coat you can put on timber which stops it from turning yellow. It keeps the plain matt rawness that a hurl or fresh timber has.

This has caused consternation with the joiners as they love to see the grain and twists in the wood and lime obscures and dulls them down. I often get a flat refusal: "Sacrilege, no!" I'll plead with them, usually landing somewhere in between.

Perhaps it was my experience of racism as a young Irish student architect in London which pricked an interest in my native materials. Racism makes you feather your heart with the strokes of your own culture and the hurl, a thing of Ireland, was a symbol of something of our otherness which I kept locked in my mind while I worked there. It was something you could use to separate yourself from the jibes about your hair, your skin tone or your accent.

Despite my obsession, I had no experience of the sport, other than attending the odd match and having a best friend who was the daughter of a famous Rackard from Wexford hurling. The Rackards were the sporting legends of their day, making it into the Guinness Book of Records for the most points ever scored in a match.

I also had a keen interest in Irish furniture, in particular simple chairs, especially the three-legged stool. I was on a jaunt to collect a bar of soap from Kaethe Burt-O'Dea's Bi Urban, a studio workshop initiative in Dublin's Stoneybatter, and already aware of the work of Feargus De Brun, a well-regarded furniture-maker who runs stoolmaking workshops there.

I was keen to see his work. It didn't disappoint. Simple, elegant and entirely recognisable as Irish. Three legs perfectly angled for the exact balance required and an individual look to the seat shape. In a previous incarnation they would have been milking parlour stools. They were small and perfectly formed. And had legs of ash.

Feargus who is 31 now, first started making hurls at 12, after developing a love for the sport.

A native of Co Cork, he was a player for Kanturk and, for him, it was a natural thing to make a hurl. And nearly 20 years later, he is still at it.

He continued working with wood, developing a thriving business and joining forces with a few other joiners. Each year, they would go to England to fell trees for their business, sometimes up to 180 trees a trip and would share the cost. But something felt amiss, he says, and he felt guilty about the trees afterwards.

When the downturn came, he realised he could go back to what he loved and the thing that had drawn him into the business of wood - making things with his hands.

His girlfriend is from Co Clare, but her work brought them to Dublin, while his work brought them to Stoneybatter, a place where other folk were working on environmentally aware projects.

Along the way, Feargus learnt about the wheres and whys of wood, and now only chooses from sustainably managed local forests where they coppice the trees so they don't die but new shoots spring up from the stump.

Which seems to me to be a bit like a new country code. Cut just as much as you need. Leave no footprint. Carbon, that is.

Sunday Independent

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