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Donegal: Meet the makers

From landscape to larder, Donegal's natural resources have long inspired artisans. Meet some of the producers who are preserving traditions by hand

Published 5 Aug 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:01 BST
Eleanor Hanna, Hanna Hats

Eleanor Hanna, Hanna Hats

Photograph by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Eleanor Hanna

General manager, Hanna Hats

A tweed flat cap often conjures up images of country walks and a day at the races, but for Eleanor Hanna it's hand-me-down family history. "My grandfather began as a tailor in 1924," she explains. "When demand for custom-made suits declined, he started Hanna Hats. My father inherited the business and now it's my turn, with my uncle, brother and sister by my side." 

Eleanor adds that quality is paramount. "We use the finest Donegal tweed, woven exclusively for us." Inside, ceiling-high shelves are stacked with teetering piles of headwear: there are stud-fastened flat caps, feathered deerstalkers and wide-brimmed walking hats in herringbone and patchwork tweeds. The earthy shades are redolent of the local landscape — mossy greens blend with rich golds and browns to match Donegal's moors and mountains.

Cranking up behind us is the pressing machine that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Doctor Who Dalek. "This irons out the final product," Eleanor explains. "But the real magic happens next door." I follow her to the production room, where some dozen-or-so craftswomen sit at sewing machines using swift movements to bind and stitch the final shape. "When I began we foot-peddled these machines," remarks Tony, a 79-year-old employee who was trained by Eleanor's grandfather. "We began in a hut with room for just me and him."

After trying on many shapes and sizes, I settle on a dapper brow-sweeper in dun and beige colours of the countryside, fittingly named Donegal Touring. When I ask how long my hat will last, Eleanor retorts, "Too long! Yesterday, a customer came in with one he bought here 42 years ago." I look forward to donning my new statement piece for decades to come.

Brendan O'Reilly 

Owner, Donegal Brewing Company

As Donegal's first microbrewer, Brendan O'Reilly has a pioneering streak and worthy credentials. The son of a publican, he grew up around the casks and kegs of Dicey Reilly's, a homely pub in the quaint riverside town of Ballyshannon. Since 2011, the shiny stainless-steel tanks of his microbrewery have occupied the old coach house overlooking the pub's beer garden, where Brendan concocts a core range of five craft brews swigged across the county and beyond. His Donegal Blonde has an easy-to-drink crispness, while local surfers lap up Mullys, a red ale he named after the waves that crash on nearby Mullaghmore. Sláinte!

Michael Griffin

Bogwood sculptor, Raw Studio

What's bogwood and where do you source it? 
Bogwood is tree material that has been preserved under peat for anything between two to 9,000 years. I collect it mostly along Donegal's shores and in the local hills. It's unusual because of the abundance of shapes that are preserved within the wood.

How did you start working with it?
I began nearly 20 years ago, when I found a piece while fishing. It looked interesting and I just started gathering pieces. I had no training but I liked working with my hands. My first sculpture was a seagull, inspired by the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull

What's the process? 
I work mostly with local bog oak, which is black, and bog pine, which is red. The wood needs to be dried for at least two to three years, although larger pieces can be up to 15 years. I love finding different shapes within the wood
— these natural forms guide how I shape and smooth the wood.

What inspires your sculptures?
My sculptures are mostly inspired by the Donegal landscape. But by people too — landscapes are part of our personality. Those from flatlands are mostly level-headed. Us Donegal people, we're a bit wild. Up and down, always a storm brewing. That's reflected in my work — it's full of movement.

Follow @zoevemac

Published in the Donegal 2017 guide, distributed with the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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