When entrepreneur Alix Mulholland and her family were renovating the kitchen of their holiday home in the Mourne Mountains last year, they were all in agreement about one thing - there was no need for a dishwasher.
Given that most people hate doing the dishes, it was pretty unusual to agree on this, but they had their reasons. "There was limited room for units and appliances. And one of the nicest things about this place is the landscape and we all quite like standing at the sink washing the dishes and admiring Slieve Donard and everything around it. It puts you firmly in the now," says Alix. "I just love it here."
That same landscape, with its ever-changing light, broody skies, dry stone walls covered in bramble, and peaty, mossy fields dotted with gorse, was the inspiration behind Alix's extremely successful business. Field Day is a range of candles, diffusers and soaps, hand creams and other scented products that has been nearly 20 years in the making.
The third of four siblings, Alix grew up in Belfast where her father had a shoe retail business with her uncle. "He was in business before the Troubles, during the Troubles and after the Troubles. He had two or three premises blown up. When you think of it, it's hard enough being in business without that as well," the elegant blonde says.
Nonetheless Alix, after finishing school, went on herself to study business at University in Glasgow. "I enjoyed it to an extent, but I was homesick, and I used to think constantly of the things about home that I missed - coming here, as we did during every school holiday, climbing Slieve Donard, splashing about in the water holes among the rocks. The sights, the sounds and smells," Alix says. "In my final year I had to prepare a small-business plan and I had a lightbulb moment. I thought it would be nice to come up with an idea which would marry business and missing home."
It was around the millennium, and the notion of Irish soaps and candles had yet to explode. Giftware was still all about crystal and leprechauns, but Alix had an idea to change all that. "I had the idea for a home fragrance that would celebrate the natural fragrances of Ireland, the smells of the sea and the grass; no one else was doing it".
Straight after she finished college she decided to put her plan into action. She went back to Belfast and took, as she calls it, a normal job in the tourism sector while at the same time her plan marinated. "The job was to satisfy my mum but I did really enjoy it," Alix says, "and it confirmed my hunch that tourists would like nice Irish candles and soaps. The idea just wouldn't go away."
In fairness to her mother, she allowed Alix to start her business in the family home. "I started at Mum's kitchen table, armed with a book on making soaps by Melinda Coss, the Delia Smith of soap-making, and I got some orders from the shops in Lisburn," she says.
The initial stages weren't without disasters. "I remember one day putting one of the ingredients, sodium hydroxide, in a plastic jug on a windowsill. If you know anything about chemistry, you will know that within minutes the jug had melted and it even damaged the windowsill. There's still a massive dent in it." Alix recalls with a laugh.
In those days, entrepreneurship wasn't fashionable and with her mother's words of caution about safe, secure jobs ringing in her ears, Alix held on to the day job for quite a while and continued to work away on the soap in her spare time.
Then she had a breakthrough. "I had a boyfriend who was an accountant, and he suggested I do a trade fair, so I nervously exhibited at Showcase in the RDS in 2002. In those days, the products were very rustic, rough cut in hessian packaging and at the same time my brand name - it was Bog Standard in those days - was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Anyway, they were a success. I got lots of stockists and after that I went full-time."
So, good advice from the accountant boyfriend and there was a happy ending there too. "I married the accountant, whom I had met on a church ski trip in the south of France. All very wholesome," Alix laughs. "It was a good business move. He loves doing all the things I hate doing - spreadsheets, costings, margins. He still helps me out, even though he has a full-time job."
Alix and her husband, Carson Mulholland, married in 2004, and they have two children - Grace, nine and Charlie, seven. Alix continued to grow the business, developing from her initial soap product to a range of over 40 items, comprising candles and diffusers among other things.
She changed the name from Bog Standard to Field Day. "I felt we had outgrown Bog Standard," Alix explains. "Over the years, the products had become cleaner, more feminine, more grown-up. I wanted something that still said Ireland and nature because, of course, they're all made in Ireland and Field Day works."
She has also developed a more upmarket range called Field Apothecary, with evocative names like Rain, Lichen, Hay - all elements of nature that can be found in abundance at the family holiday home in the Mournes.
Alix and Carson have a house in Belfast but they come often to the holiday home with their children. "My parents bought this house 40 years ago," she says. "Mum was pregnant with me when they bought it so it's always been part of my life."
When her parents bought the house it was a wreck, but they lovingly restored it. "It was originally an old coach inn, 250 years old. It was in a terrible state of disrepair and it was a labour of love for them. They repaired the thatched roof - it has to be repaired every 10 years and completely re-thatched every 20 years - and my dad built up all the stone walls. Sadly, he died of a heart attack 20 years ago while working on the walls."
Alix explains that they kept all the original details, like the half door to the front and the fire crane on the hearth, even though they recently installed a wood-burning stove.
Though it's still furnished in the vernacular style, they updated the house last year with an Ikea kitchen and new bathrooms, making it an extremely comfortable, almost luxurious, bolthole.
And it's a great getaway from business. "We're very untechnical here. There's no radio, we can't even get local radio; for some reason we get Manx radio! We've no tv, no Wi-Fi. We toyed with the internet but decided not. I love that. If you want any signal on your mobile you can stand on your tiptoes on the stone wall and text messages will come flooding in."
But who wants to stand on a stone wall when you can sit on it and admire the view? And better yet - get great new ideas while you're at it.
See fielddayireland.ie; fieldapothecary.ie
Field Day products are available in leading giftware shops nationwide. Field Apothecary candles are exclusive to Arnotts, see arnotts.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
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