Friday 19 July 2019

Clare is keeping lace alive in Ashford

David Medcalf met Clare Salley, who promotes the tradition of Ulster lacework from her home in the townland of Shanelough

Clare's daughter Teresa wearing one of her mother's creations
Clare's daughter Teresa wearing one of her mother's creations

Carrickmacross. That's a town in County Monaghan, is it not? Yes indeed, it is in Monaghan, a place famous for its delicate lace work, considered by many to be the best of its kind in the world.

Yet to find one of the best modern exponents of this intricate art form there is no need to journey as far as Ulster.

Instead, take a turn up the road into the hills above the village of Ashford and head in the general direction of Rathdrum.

The home of Clare Salley, renowned exponent of the sewing needle, is at the end of a farm lane set well back from the public thoroughfare.

This is a location off the beaten track with views of hill tops and forestry rising above the cattle pasture.

There is no neon sign at the gate advertising the presence of this skilled practitioner of Carrickmacross lacework.

She works away from the limelight in the bungalow where she resides with husband Denis on the family farm.

Actually, limelight may certainly not be the best light in which to pick out the stitches which go towards making her fine pieces.

She reveals that she prefers best of all to work in the homely surroundings of her kitchen in the mornings when the sunshine is at its most advantageous.

But she may pick up her needle and thread at any time of day, or even while keeping half an eye on the telly in the evenings, keeping up to date with 'Coronation Street' while she works.

It was back in 1820 that a Monaghan lady, one Mrs Grey Porter, caught the lace making bug while on honeymoon in Italy.

She was fascinated and enthralled by the local craftswomen and she took careful note of what they were doing.

Mrs Porter imported the techniques she witnessed on holiday back to Ireland, where she refined her Italian inspiration to create Carrickmacross lace.

Almost two centuries later, connoisseurs speak of the distinctive loop edging, pops and filling stitches which distinguish it from Limerick lace or Youghal lace.

But to the ordinary person it appears simply and unpretentiously lovely, almost always made with white cotton or silk yarn.

'I did my own wedding and the weddings of six of my daughters,' Clare reveals proudly.

The family wedding albums are full of images of her handiwork as seen on the veils and, in two instances, also on the dresses.

The six, in order of marriage, are Margaret, Eileen, Teresa, Michelle, Freda and Clare-Marie, with young Ashling still to come.

After all this matrimonial activity, the 62-year-old mother of all these brides (she and Denis have no sons) is now seven times a grandmother.

So it makes sense that the new generation is being kitted out in lacework at christening time.

And the girls will also in due course be offered First Communion veils, just as their mothers were a generation ago.

The Salley lace making started in County Meath where Clare grew up, more or less by accident.

As a teenager, she was persuaded to accompany a neighbour who was nervous about driving to Carnaross for night classes once a week.

The main attraction of this arrangement for the 16-year-old was that she was able to spend an hour or so with a friend who lived in the village.

It turned out that numbers enrolling in the class were sparse, so Clare and her friend were press ganged in to fill up the roll.

'I was not interested,' she now admits, looking back at her introduction to Carrickmacross's most famous export.

The reluctant pupil acquired the basics, learning how to make her own patterns on greaseproof paper. The patterns were then tacked together with layers of netting and organdie.

Then the pattern was brought to life with mind boggling, eye squinting attention to detail, following the lines of the pattern at a rate of at least 3 neat stitches to the millimetre.

Next the trademark picot (the T is silent, of course) loop stitches are added around the edges.

And finally, the lace maker takes out a pair of special scissors, which resemble nail scissors but have rounded rather than pointed tips, to snip away the surplus organdie.

It is a process which is timeless and intricate - and far too much bother for a young woman who was busy finishing school and embarking on a career as a nurse.

She was about to start a job at Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital in Dublin when a girlfriend of hers asked her to go out with her to a dance.

The function at Laurel Hall in Bray proved unexpectedly momentous as it was there that she first met Denis Salley, a farmer.

The couple married in 1975 and they lived for a short while in Bray before the Meath woman found herself living close to 1,000 feet up a Wicklow mountain in the townland of Shanelough.

As the children started to arrive, she was thrown back on her own resources for entertainment and pastimes.

'I wanted to do something apart from just minding the children, so I took up making the lace again. I just loved it.'

Then a woman in Kilmacanogue put an advert in the Wicklow People seeking craft workers.

Continually drawn to craftwork, Clare was interested at the time in knitting, rug-making and crochet as well as the lace.

When she went into Kilmac with her samples, the woman who had placed the ad had no doubt as to which of the four crafts she felt was of most commercial interest.

She was happy to take as many Holy Communion veils as her new recruit could produce for her shop.

The store did not last for too long but Clare's renewed interest in Carrickmacross persisted and she began to look around for craft fairs.

As it turned out, she started at the top, attending her first 'Showcase' in the RDS around 1990.

The prestigious Craft Council of Ireland organised event at the Ballsbridge venue is a magnet for buyers representing outlets all over the US and Canada.

They have become her regular customers so that Clare reckons most of her work over the past quarter century is now scattered across North America rather than remaining at home.

She uses her own website to promote the lace and her willingness to provide a touch of traditional class for marriage ceremonies.

'It is still a hobby really,' she stresses. 'You would not do it for the money.'

She says that she has never been a member of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, which is the best known promoter of domestic crafts.

She is aware that her chosen field of expertise is still alive and well in County Monaghan but she is a rarity in her adopted home county.

'People ask "why do you have Carrickmacross lace in Wicklow?" but you can bring the technique to China if you want to.'

She sticks very much with the tradition established all those years ago by Mrs Grey Porter.

Tricks of the trade include using tea to dye pieces so that the bright white is toned down to give what she calls a champagne look.

'Black, white and cream are the three colours that I have used,' says the woman who has starred in the past on RTÉ's 'Nationwide' with her needles, interviewed by reporter Valerie Waters.

Her family reared, Clare thought she might cease production when she went back to work, part time in Bray nursing home.

Yet she somehow never let it slip, while still finding time for Facebook and her latest hobby - playing bridge twice a week.

She is not dismayed by the fact that none of her flock of daughters has followed in her footsteps though they have all been introduced to the skill required.

'People do not have the patience any more but I don't think it will die out. There will always be someone - everything goes in cycles.'

Wicklow People