In 2009, owner Denis McMurray retired. Two years later, with a name change to benefit from Connemara’s international reputation, the company started production once again under Kieran O’Donohue in the teeth of the economic crisis. During its heyday in the 1970s, it employed 20 people; it resumed with two full-time staff – production manager Ivan Brezna and marketing and sales manger Patricia O’Toole, along with four part-time tufters. None of the four carpet-makers – James Mulligan, John Gerard Walsh, Tony Walsh and Tony Coyne – had found permanent work during the company’s hibernation.
None, however, had left Connemara. “Obviously, if they had not been interested, there wouldn’t been much point going any further,” says O’Donohue. However, they were and quickly agreed to come back onboard. The McMurrays have acted “as regular and appreciated advisers” as the company began its new path in difficult economic times.
Since its resumption, the company has begun the painstaking work of rebuilding a list of clients, many of whom had gone elsewhere during the two years when it was out of action. The staple diet of clients, however, was no longer around. State contracts both at home and abroad were rare as governments, reeling from the economic crisis, saved where they could. Some successes have been achieved – a luxurious yacht, SY Destination fitted out with one of the Connemara Carpets creations was crowned Best Superyacht Refit in the world last year.
“It is all about finding new clients. We are at the top 1 per cent in terms of quality. Even though we are in difficult times, you have to recognise where your product belongs in the marketplace and never dilute the quality,” says O’Donohue.
“Obviously, there is no hope of getting State work. We believe our quality matches the best in the world and, at that level, there is very little resistance about price,” says O’Toole.
However, contacts are everything. “People buy from people. It is about building up relationships with clients and the people – like designers – who work for them.”
While the company specialises in making carpets of any size, it has now teamed up with English designer Alan Tilbury on a 12-strong range of rugs – the first three of which have been completed. The new designs were given their first outing during London Design Week – a key platform for a company which always sold more outside of Ireland than it did inside the country. Tilbury’s connections with Connemara and O’Donohue date back 23 years, when he first started to give lectures on design in the furniture college in Letterfrack, near Moyard, run by O’Donohue.
In his time in Connemara, Tilbury brought his students to Kylemore Abbey where the Benedictine nuns had noticed that children were not attracted by the beauty spot’s gardens. Eventually, the problem was solved with the addition of handcrafted toys: wooden xylophones, peep-hole walls, while they can rest from their playful labours on a full-sized sheep made from twisted rope. Stroking the 14mm-thick rugs that he has designed for the company, Tilbury enthuses about the craftsmanship: “This has all been hugely satisfying.”
The standard pile heights offered by Connemara Carpets run between 12 and 16mm deep – in contrast to the 6/8mm produced by mass-market carpet-makers, though even 40mm piles can be manufactured. Proud of the company’s quality standards, O’Donohue says: “Hotels with our carpets would get 18 to 20 years out of them in the highest-traffic areas of their buildings, even longer elsewhere, up to 40 years.”
Prices are confidential, though visitors to the London exhibition appeared not to balk. “Nobody has said, ‘That’s a lot of money.’ In fact, they have said, ‘That’s very reasonable’,” says Tilbury. Former English Arts Council chairman Sir Christopher Frayling, a friend of Tilbury’s, was effusive in his praise when he dropped in: “It is like an Oriental carpet, exquisite craftsmanship.” He became a customer.
Mark Hennessy: London Editor of The Irish Times