Aoibheann McNamara

A bright-spark designer, restaurateur and great craic, Aoibheann McNamara is the creative darling of bohemian Galway on Ireland’s west coast. She catches up with Cliodhna Prendergast to chat Irish craft-making, sailing in West Cork, and Berber camping trips on the ergs of Morocco.

Aoibheann's restaurant, Ard Bia at Nimmos.

Growing up in the wild landscape of Ardara on Ireland’s north coast, with its small land holdings, craft industries and deep-rooted traditions, restaurateur and fashion designer Aoibheann McNamara’s aesthetic was shaped by the natural world of seasonally changing landscapes.

While she was always destined for a creative life, it was upon moving to Galway on Ireland’s west coast that she truly began exploring the artistic expression of her country’s traditions with unrestrained enthusiasm. A small medieval harbor city where the town square is a short walk to salmon and trout fishing on the weir, it is a somewhat unexpectedly bohemian hub with a vibrant arts and music scene.

Forever testing the accepted norms, Aoibheann has become the creative darling and a driving force behind the city’s avant-garde. Her passion has found expression in art, fashion, food and travel. In her travels (often to Morocco) she absorbs cultures, often reworking what she learns, never afraid to merge and cross-pollinate. This has borne a diverse resume: from galleries opened in Galway and Berlin, to her award-winning Galway restaurant, Ard Bia at Nimmos.

Serving locally sourced and mostly organic and wild produce, the Ard Bia menu reflects the region and occasionally features influences from the Middle East and North Africa. In a casual and vibrant setting, the walls feature the work of interesting artists and guests often share communal tables where conversation and goodwill flow in equal measure. More recently, Aoibheann has collaborated with the supremely innovative designer Triona Lillis on the fashion label The Tweed Project. Together, they access the authentic craft of Irish weavers and translate it into high-quality tweed and linen pieces that are sold locally and through the country’s leading department store, Brown Thomas.

Blackrock in Galway.

While instinctively supportive and community-based, Aoibheann’s sense of quality and design is so acute that she will, almost immediately when viewing a project, impulsively endorse or reject it on the spot. This ability to see to the heart of a matter is coupled with a gleeful and loquacious charm (earning her the moniker “CraicNamara”) that easily overcomes most obstacles.

How does travel influence your designs? Triona and I have a global awareness that informs our aesthetic. Even without travel, we assimilate, distil and apply it using our traditional influences in an Irish way but with a fresh international approach. Yes, we did the kaftans and yes, they may have been influenced in some way by Morocco, but mostly it would be the crafts encountered that might inspire us; some kind of weaving, or basket making, which may be similar to an Irish craft weave. We have a very strong Irish identity that we always return to.

Tell us about your obsession with Morocco. The food is so incredible, the visual is so deeply penetrative—because of the French influence perhaps—there is a beautiful way of life, and craft is very strong; it’s not an effort, it is a part of their being. A country that has a deep connection with its crafts is a vibrant and usually fairly contented country and that’s the kind of thing that matters to me.

Marrakesh.

Do you think the resurgence of Irish craft since the global financial crisis is sustainable? It is completely sustainable. We have one of the strongest craft industries in the world. We found this out way back in the 1950s as part of the Year of Design when both Denmark and Ireland were hailed as the greats in craft. If you look at the Traditional Crafts of Ireland book by David Shaw-Smith, it is a testament to the crafts here. It covers so many skills from harp making, thatching, glass blowing to crios [traditional belt] weavers of the Aran Islands, dry-stone wall building, basket making and currach [fishing boat] building. We have all of that in our heritage but we are reviving it in a new way.

Walking into Ard Bia you are immediately hit with a connection to the world of art—be it on the walls or books on the shelves. Is that intentional? I have always been interested in the notion that you can be sitting in Ard Bia reading an art book from Iceland, so you are here but yet you are brought somewhere else. I think because Ireland was always so “twee” in a sense, quite focused on ourselves, we never really looked beyond and I thought it was very important to do that. Ard Bia was always inspired by travel and what we could bring back and we are now involved in a series of events where we bring ourselves out into the wider world. We just brought the Ard Bia brunch to Berlin and took over the Michelberger Hotel. Next it will be dinner or a weekend in Marrakesh.

Where do you find your inspiration? What inspires me has become much more pared back. I don’t look at magazines anymore, it’s overload. I am very interested in an internal journey in life now, not an external one. For me it is about wellness, spirituality and diet. People are really starting to care for themselves and I find by caring for myself and my son in a very deep way, professionally and creatively things are on fire. I am not saying I have achieved everything but I am moving forward and that makes all sorts of things happen.

—Cliodhna Prendergast is a chef, writer and co-founder of Lens and Larder.

Where was your last vacation? Marrakesh. For over twenty years I’ve gone almost every opportunity. I fly into the city and then move onto the surrounding area, whether it’s the Atlas Mountains or the Ourika Valley.

Where will your next vacation be? Marrakesh again, and then down south to the desert town of Zagora and the oasis town of Skoura, and a nomadic Berber camping trip to Erg Chigaga over the New Year period so we can count the stars on the crisp winter nights and drink mint tea.

The thing you can’t travel without? My son, Oni. He is a super little traveler—open and adaptable.

Plane, train or automobile? I think ultimately I’d love to walk everywhere and slow travel right down.

The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Obama, obviously—we could discuss how to stop climate change on the duration of, ironically, a long-haul flight.

What is your in-flight ritual? A good meal before the flight, lots of water, a prayer for safe flight, and knitting

The language you wish you spoke? Arabic, Arabic, Arabic. That whole magical world out there would open up even more.

When were you happiest while traveling? The last trip to Marrakesh with my son was magical on many levels, especially because of the kindness of the people.

Desert island or downtown? Can it be the countryside? Walking, crisp air, health, vitality, nature.

If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? I think the greatest happiness I felt at a hotel was at The Imperial in New Delhi. It envelopes you in a world and almost transforms you into someone else during your stay.

What is your room service indulgence? I don’t really do room service—I’m up and out to people-watch at breakfast and then to explore the food scene wherever I am.

The strangest place you’ve spent a night? On the way to the Dalai Lama birthday celebrations at Leh in Ladakh when we had to travel overnight on the road from Srinagar way back in the ’90s. It was when Pakistan was shelling India on the border and we could hear the shelling all night. Needless to say, we missed the birthday and when we eventually entered Leh all the Tibetans were driving out after the celebrations.

What is your favorite market? I adore the souk des épices part of the Medina in Marrakesh. All my little friends and places to eat are around there. My son loves the baby turtles there too.

If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Japan at the turn of the 19th century.

What are the show-off spots in your hometown? In Galway: every last inch of it. From a swim at Blackrock Beach, to brunch in Kai on Sea Road, to a drink in Sheridan’s Wine Bar, to dinner and cocktails in The Universal, and a stroll through the Saturday Galway Market. Every corner is magic, with people who care in a way that almost doesn’t exist anymore.

Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? Weekend: Puglia for their cucina povera and unpretentiousness.
Week: In West Cork for sailing, crab sandwiches and the possibility of a gig in Levis’ in Ballydehob.
Month: Sweden on a lake with nothing else but a boat and a good book.
Year: Morocco to have my son, Oni, go to school there so he becomes fluent in French and Arabic.

Your biggest extravagance on the road? The desire to stay in beautiful places.

Describe a memorable meal from your travels. I adored my forty-fifth birthday lunch at Berber Lodge in Marrakesh. A pumpkin and cumin soup, fennel and rocket salads, marinated meats, and not one but two birthday cakes, with oranges and cinnamon.

Travel hell is? The door taking too long to open on a Ryanair flight when it’s hot.

Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? I’d love to go to Bhutan.

Three favorite stores on earth? Cutter Books in Stow-on-the-Wold in England—I adore what Amanda Brooks does and she stocks the Tweed Project. Secondly, the world’s smallest shop in a Moroccan souk where my great friend sells very old textiles which I recondition to make more contemporary pieces—he is the personification of an angel. I can’t give out more details because he is too special! Lastly, Tulsi Shop in Puglia—I lust after every single ancient kaftan and workwear piece that these women produce. They represent another time and place.

Most treasured travel memento? My Iranian carpet bag with leather straps. It represents an element of what has been so sadly lost in that country—the old stuff and the magic.

Why do you travel? To be transported out of the mundane, to be shaken up, to engage with cultural diversity, to remember that we are all in it together and that we are all humans—and to teach that to my son.

Cliodhna Prendergast is a professional chef, writer, and producer living and working on the west coast of Ireland. She is a food writer for The Sunday Times, and one half of Lens and Larder, photography and food styling workshops telling visual food stories with international photographers in extraordinary Irish Country Houses. Cliodhna is also an avid wild food gatherer.

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