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.
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.
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.