A tour of Killybegs Carpets led by locals Tony O’Callaghan and Patricia Faherty who tell the story of how these prestigiousfloor coverings are made
My mother often told me how much she would love to own a Donegal Carpet and I was soon to find out why. Patricia Faherty the owner of Seawinds B&B and local historian Tony O’Callaghan took us on a tour of Killybegs International Carpet & Fishing Centre.
In 1898, a Scottish Industrialist named Alexander Morton, established carpet making in Killybegs. His contact list and client base were among the most prestigious in the world. Examples of these fabulous floor coverings grace the floors of palaces, embassies and castles across the globe including; the Vatican, White House, and Buckingham Palace.
Constructed from Canadian pitch pine and 42 feet long, the loom is the longest in the world. In its heyday, a dozen girls sat side by side on a wooden bench making perfect knots to create a work of art.
The patterns were designed and drawn on graphs and coloured by hand. Many of the early designs were supplied by Charles Voysey, a prominent Arts and Crafts Movement designer whose creations were sought after by the fashion conscious elite.
Only a quarter of the pattern was needed as the full version appeared using the magic of mirrors. Tony said: “My mother used to tell the story of the parish priest back in the 1930’s, he used to say ‘It’s a good thing. Because the carpet factory keeps the girls in town and if the girls stay in town, the boys stay in town and I’ll continue to have a parish.’”
When the carpets were at the finishing stage, a few men that were down on the pier fishing would come up and help the girls take the carpets off the loom. Then they spread it out in readiness for the cropping process. As a lad, Tony used to call in to the factory on his way home from school then nip down to the shop for fags and crisps for the girls.
Although Donegal Carpets has ceased trading, the factory is now a Heritage Centre where traditional skills are still used to repair carpets. Queen Elizabeth II and Barrack Obama visited Dublin Castle in 2012 and admired the plush Donegals in Aras an Uuachtarain.
I said that I hoped the Irish President Michael D Higgins who was on a historic visit to see the Queen that week, would be keeping an eye out for wear and tear on the Palace’s carpets and perhaps nudge a bit of business their way.
Fishing and Maritime History
Killybegs is Ireland’s most important fishing port. It’s name means ‘Little cells’, which was the name given to small stone huts built by the monks. A small cluster of these beehive shaped structures greets the visitor arriving along the main road from Donegal Town.
The natural harbour was described by Tony as being created by a massive glacial skid mark. Fishing is a dangerous job and many lost their lives in the storms which battered the rugged coastline.
Patricia and Tony’s voices tailed off to a sad lament as they recounted the stories of loss. In 1588 the Girona, a galleas in Spanish Armada limped into the harbour to repair a broken rudder. The crew from two other shipwrecks squeezed out their socks and marched across the hills to join the ship. Three weeks later they set sail and were shipwrecked off the Antrim coast near the Giant’s Causeway. All but nine of the 1200 onboard perished.
Herring was an important catch to the locals. Salted herrings were shipped to all corners of the world from the town and an important source of income.
For a full on virtual experience of the Wild Atlantic Way, a boat simulator, replicating a fishing trawler can produce waves which smash against the windows but I guarantee you’ll stay dry.
It costs €5 per person for the tour which includes a cup of tea or coffee.
Killybegs regatta is one of the oldest in Ireland and is held annually. Plans are afoot to complete a 62 berth marina.
Many cruise ships visit the town each summer and these are these are some things you can do when visiting Killybegs. Patricia told me that when SV Voyager lost the power in two generators on its ‘Celtic Cruise’ last May, the town netted 487 passengers and 286 crew for two extra days ensuring the town prospered and much merriment was made.
St Catherine, the patron saint of seafarers and scholars has lent her name to many buildings in the area. It’s possibly the only town in Ireland with an Egyptian Princess for a patron saint and of course there is a Holy Well in her honour.
Patricia’s B&B has books about the Mass Rocks and Holy Wells of Ireland which you are welcome to read. I was too hungry and tired to go on the Heritage Trail, choosing dinner instead. My eyes drooped as dessert arrived. Outside, a chill wind blew. We walked briskly.
Patricia was full of life and asked me to join her in the front room where two guests from Minnesota were having a yarn with Patricia’s mother. They were researching their ancestry and Patricia’s mother was the woman to talk to. Within minutes, someone mentioned William Allingham. Patricia said that Allingham had written his most famous poem, ‘The Fairies’ while staying in Killybegs.
She began:- ‘Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen…’
I completed:- ‘We daren’t go a-hunting For fear of little men.’
I said my goodnights and went upstairs to find Dan fast asleep and snoring gently.