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Oonagh Swift

Free spirit who came from a strong cultural lineage and also created her own through pottery, says Eamon Delaney

Oonagh Swift (nee Ryan), who died last month, was an extraordinary woman who came from a strong cultural lineage as well as creating her own. She was the daughter of the founder of the famous Monument Creameries, Agnes V Ryan, and her father was senator Seamus Ryan, a close friend of Eamon de Valera.

She was the sister of the late John Ryan, the writer, memoirist, and owner of the 1960s literary hangout, the Bailey bar, and the well-known actress Kathleen Ryan, who starred in the classic film Odd Man Out.

She was married to Russian nobleman Prince Alexis Guedroitz, and then the Irish painter Patrick Swift and then his good friend, the poet David Wright. In recent years, she became a potter and established a successful studio in the Algarve in Portugal.

Originally from South Africa, and deaf, Wright was an ambitious poet who became a significant and experimental figure on the UK literary scene, and read at the funeral of Patrick Kavanagh in 1967. He and Patrick Swift became artistic collaborators as well as good friends and published an artistic quarterly with the enigmatic title of X, which published then unfashionable poets such as Stevie Smith and Kavanagh. They also collaborated on travel books about Portugal, for which Swift did the illustrations.

"It was Patrick Swift who taught me to talk to him effectively," the poet Martin Green recalled. "To see the two of them in animated conversation was to witness an amazing mime show, Swift silently mouthing the words."

In 1983, Swift died of a brain tumour and two years later Wright lost his wife through a similar affliction. In 1987, the poet married Swift's widow Oonagh, and thereafter divided his time between his house in Cumbria and Oonagh's home in the Algarve. He died in 1994.

Oonagh was born in Rathgar in 1929 and grew up at the Ryan family home, Burton Hall in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. She was educated at Mount Anville, and finishing schools in London and Brussels, and also studied art and dance in Dublin. At a dance in Biarritz, she met and eventually married the young Prince Alexis Guedroitz, an emigre Russian. They had a daughter, Princess Agnes Alexeievna, now a Belgian actress known as Ania Guedroitz.

Later, in London, she married the Irish painter Patrick Swift and bore him three daughters, one of whom, Kate, died subsequently. On receipt of monies from the winding up of the prosperous Monument Creameries in Ireland, she established a pottery studio in a Portuguese fishing village, called Porches Pottery, which drew on local customs but also on modern designs.

The skills and atmosphere of Swift's own artwork fed into the creative milieu of Porches, but it was very much Oonagh's project. As Swift recalled, "the unconscious flow of brush work achieved by a day's freehand painting created a masterpiece of free-flowing design". The project is well described in a book by Oonagh's sister, Ide, a nun, now living in Dublin. The objective of the pottery was that each piece was utterly unique: no stencils are used in painting the hand thrown majolica ware, and thus, by all accounts, Porches Pottery has a strength and quality in its designs that lifts it above its competitors.

Oonagh Swift managed the pottery for more than 20 years. Today her daughters Estella and Juliet continue to manage the business and keep the traditions of Porches Pottery alive. Principally they design new patterns for the shop and work to commission. In addition to this, they often work closely with clients, creating individual work from initial sketches to tiled panels.

The legacy of Porches is a tribute to the vision of its founder and to her long and culturally rich life. Oonagh Swift, who died on October 25, is survived and is deeply mourned by her beloved daughters Ania, Juliet and Estella, by her sister Ide and her brother Patrick, as well as her extended family and her many friends.

Sunday Independent