The Wonder of Willow

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Ciaran Hogan grew up surrounded by Willow - After visiting his family home, a beautiful stone cottage perched on the side of a mountain in Loch Na Fooey, Co. Galway, I knew that he wasn't lying.

His father - let's just refer to him as the 'Willow Man' for the moment - has a trail of his creations dotted all over the house, Dolores, the 'willow mans' wife, informs me 'You should have seen the place before we got the extension!

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Joe Hogan - the 'willow man' decided to become a basket maker long before he had ever made a basket. 

"It seems a bit odd looking back, I had made the decision to become a basket maker before I had ever made a basket, I didn’t even know if I would like it."

So what had attracted Joe Hogan's attention to this craft - Which brings us to the wonder of willow. I had no idea before I met Joe and Ciaran Hogan how simple it is to grow willow and how versatile it can be - This is precisely the reason Joe decided, back in the 1970's that he would try his hand at basketmaking before ever actually making a basket.

"I found Willow attractive because you can grow you own. It was the main attraction to basket making, you can grow your own material as opposed to importing it. How willow grows intrigued me a little bit. You simply stick a piece, about 1ft long into the ground and it will take, 1 year later you might have 10 rods, the second year 15/20 rods …."

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Yes, it is that simple. Willow is a tree of course, however you never let it turn into a tree, you use the rods, also often called 'sally rods'. As Joe and Ciaran Hogan explained to me, to grow your rods, you simply stick a foot long cutting into the ground and hey presto! 

"I hadn’t intended on being a full time basket maker, maybe three or four days per week, I found it very absorbing so it turned into a full-time pursuit".

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Many of us endeavour to find something which will help settle the mind and the body, allowing our path through life to be that little smoother, for me it's yoga, for you maybe running or meditation, for Joe Hogan it is his willow.

"It is quite absorbing, one of those things where you wouldn’t notice the day going by – which means you are absorbed in the present moment. It’s very good for that, slowing down the head - What was it John Lennon said  'Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans', working with willow is a meditative process for me."

Joe Hogan made an informed and considered decision to pursue a career with willow, based on it's versatility and his locale. This turned out to be, not only a successful path but also a mindful and meditative route. 

"The idea of being able to go out cut and harvest the willow and use it, the immediacy of it, that connection to nature. There is a wholeness about it. It also turns a country location into an advantage."

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It was not surprising to discover that Ciaran Hogan, Joe's son, also makes baskets for a living and has taken his father's knowledge and skills to help inform and shape his own path - This is what often happens, skills passed to children, children following in parents' footsteps, is it not? - However, to the Hogan clann and Ciaran himself, this was very unexpected.

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It was not something Ciaran had planned to do - he was a draughtsman - It was more by accident that he found himself making baskets in his studio and shop in a Craft Centre in Spiddal.

Ciaran was living in New Zealand and reached a crossroads that led him back home to Ireland, that was 3 years ago. 

"I called home and told dad I was thinking of coming home to make baskets"

Ciaran's mother, Dolores later told me, when I was at their home, that Joe and herself couldn't believe it when they received that call from Ciaran, out of all of her four son's, Ciaran was the last one that they expected to start making baskets for a living. Joe was also very aware of the expectations that can be placed on children to 'follow in footsteps':

"I didn’t overly encourage Ciaran, I feel that that stuff can be a bit overdone, I was very wary of that. All the children are able to make a basket but I wouldn't pressure any of them to take it up as a career. I’m glad for him that he is enjoying it, but if he stopped tomorrow it wouldn’t bother me."

Ciaran returned from New Zealand to begin an apprenticeship with his father.

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"I trained at home for 8 months after returning from New Zealand, it was tough enough, being back at home age 30 and working with dad every day."

The baskets that Ciaran makes are very practical and functional. Some of these are traditional Irish baskets that are unique to Ireland, such as the Creel and Sciob.

"My work is very practical, what dad is doing is more artistic. I am only 3 years at it. At the moment I am happy doing what I’m doing, dad gets his inspirarton from the landscape. Traditional baskets are what I am making - The creel, turf baskets, sciob's. The Sciob and Creel are unique to Ireland."

Ciaran also offers basket making courses in his Spiddal studio, which he says are very successful and that he particularly enjoys as they can offer a welcome relief to working on your own, doing the repetitive work that can be involved when you are making the practical baskets. I ask Ciaran what he likes most about basket making:

"Being able to create something form nothing and have pride in it". 

The Creel, Traditional Irish Basket

The Creel, Traditional Irish Basket

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Joe Hogan was born and raised in Caltra, east Co. Galway, and was never artistic as a child 'or even handy'…

"Caltra is a completely different landscape, flat land with slow moving rivers. I wasn’t artistic as a child or even handy, my brother was so good that I was pretty useless, although I did always have an interest in Art - without being good at it."

In the meantime you only have to take a look at Joe's website to see all the awards that he has won, his exhibits, the amazing head dresses that he designed and made for London Fashion Week - He has obviously become quite artistic and even a little 'handy' since his childhood days! 

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Joe started his career in basket making by travelling the country and meeting traditional basket makers

"I started visiting old basket makers and got to know two brothers called the Quinlans, from Tallow, Co.Waterford. I would have liked a proper apprenticeship but couldn’t get one, so I taught myself."

"When I came here in 1977, Tommy Sheáin Tommy or Tommy Joyce (in English) taught me how to make the creel and a straddle mat. These are traditional and unique baskets of Ireland"

"I gradually became more interested in other baskets – Lobster pots and the like, a fella in Ross Rua by the name of Festy Mortimer, I got one of his last pots. Once you get a basket to see, it is easy enough to make. Having said that, the creel is one of the most difficult. The Creel is one of few baskets made upside down – The work I'm doing now, is based on that."

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Joe spent a lot of time researching traditional Irish baskets and wrote a book on the subject, 'Bare Branches, Blue Black Sky'

"In or around 2000 I wrote a book about the traditional baskets. I think that it was my way of giving something back. This was also the point and connection that I started doing my own work, I still make traditional baskets to order but now nearly all of what I do is my own stuff."

Nature and landscape is central to Joe and how he works.

"The lansdscape here for me is huge. I started doing this other work to deepen my connection with the land, I felt some kind of need to deepen my own connection with nature. This is an amazing landscape, I never stop noticing it and feel very priviledged to be able to live and work here. You have to rely a bit more on your own resources out here.  For some people it can seem isolating - If you don’t draw some sustenance from nature, it is isolating."

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At this stage of his career, Joe is in the very fortunate position of being able to produce the work that he is doing now, for himself. I asked for his reflections on the crafts industry in Ireland.

"You should always make things really well to your own standard. People aren’t connecting to the same extent, we all live in a community but are living as isolated members of a community. How it should be, sometimes its not always how it is - There are sites in Ireland that sell crafts but they don’t really have a co-operative feel about them. Some people who are into crafts are by their nature a bit independent. For the moment that's how it is for crafts people, that is why most in Ireland have to distinguish their work by making it high end."

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"When I started basketmaking its was supposedly dead – officially dead. The Quinlan brothers in Cork were only ones paying tax and officially recognized There are probably about 13/14 basket makers now. 95 % of every basket you see in Ireland is made in China, I don’t think that that is sustainable, you can’t keep getting cheaper and cheaper."

"When I started it was Poland, basket making was the 10th largest industry in Poland then, now it is completely gone. The whole capitalist model of free movement of capital but not free movement of material is not sustainable or right. It is like the cheap food model, it is not even healthy - everyone knows that cheap food has a high cost really."

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Before I met Ciaran & Joe Hogan I had no idea how easy it was to grow Willow and that every basket that is made in the world is handmade. There is a huge onus on buyers, especially mass buyers that use baskets, shops, restaurants etc to buy locally produced quality baskets where possible. For shoppers like you and I, the next time you buy a basket or a gift in a basket, think of Joe & Ciaran Hogan and the other basket makers, as Joe said, it's kind of like the cheap food model, your cheap mass produced basket may well really have a high cost.

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And for those with the time and the inclination, do a basket making course, plant a few willow rods and make your own - Sure you don't have to be artistic or even handy!