Donegal. One of the realest and wildest places in the Heart of the Wild West of Ireland whose slogan is “Up here, it’s different”. A bit of an understatement; that, in the best possible way!
Between the enormity of sloping mountains that peak sharper and broader than expected, a wild coast teeming with sound & life, and the feeling of being small; wide-eyed travellers moving through the welcoming arms of raw stone & salty sea, it speaks to one as a place of great adventure.
As the holiday season approaches, I am reminded of Donegal, but much more specifically, Kathleen Meehan. One cannot recall the trip to Donegal, or envision one with Wild West Irish Tours upcoming, without also picturing a warm lady with a big smile and clever hands: someone who spins artistry as inviting and comforting as herself and the home she keeps. One could argue that the spirit of Donegal is strongest by her hearth.
I think of her as I tug on my little black sheep’s wool cap, the exact color I had been hoping for, over my red hair almost every morning before work. Donegal is with me on the trains and in the much louder city. I can run my thumb across the ridges of the wool and feel a little bit more comforted by its existence.
The day I visited with the Wild Westies was a bright morning in September, when things were still green but the air a bit cool. It was a delightful surprise to be offered tea and delicious snacks to nibble on in Kathleen’s own home. Her wares were laid out around her living room akin to a rainbow of wool; anything from headbands to elaborate sweaters (or “jumpers”, if you will), plush socks and more. She even had books displaying the different types of wool; each hue more vibrant than the last. It was a delight to both the mind and the eye as we settled in to learn about who Kathleen is and what she does.
Kathleen was amazing – quick to answer questions and even provide incredible knitting demonstrations for all us curious Wild Westies. Her nimble hands made the work seem effortless – though every piece she makes is made by hand without the use of machinery. I, being notoriously clumsy and just a touch impatient, couldn’t imagine doing what Kathleen does. Her focus and dedication to the craft is unparalleled. She has a rare gift that absolutely deserves recognition & celebration.
For me, there was also a personal reason I was so looking forward to visiting Kathleen. It’s not something I initially talked about, but having grown up with a grandmother who was very much Irish, I knew seeing the knit items would remind me of her. My grandmother was always cold, that was a running theme – but she kept Irish wool, and wool in general, to stay warm. Nothing as beautiful or intricate as Kathleen’s work, but the patterns did bring up a feeling of family and nostalgia. I could so easily see the white wool jumper with cable-knit she used to own echoed in the array of offerings Kathleen had. My grandmother would’ve loved anything on display – I know I did.
Also, Kathleen in general instantly just felt like family. She had wonderful stories about each garment she had made – some just “for fun” because she liked the color of the yarn; others with specific customers in mind, some commissioned. She kept herself open to all possibilities and always accommodates her guests and customers alike. She doesn’t seem to limit herself in any capacity when it comes to creativity – and perhaps that is in part why her creations are so exemplary. Timeless, detailed, and boundlessly beautiful.
Wild Westie Tara Leigh Accavallo in a Kathleen Meehan special!
Kathleen herself has become a staple in our lives over here at Wild West Irish Tours – our signature tour, the Heart of the Wild West, wouldn’t feel as complete without her. It was such a pleasure to experience the pure art of knitting, genuine and by hand; authentic to the last purl. Countless Wild Westies from all over the world [even from stereotypically warmer places such as Texas or Australia] have something made by Kathleen. Her hospitable comfort extends beyond strands of wool and hearty tea – it arrives in the form of a loved one getting a surprise from the Heart of the Wild West; a piece of Ireland to call their own. It comes in the form of jumpers that feel like hugs delivered by one’s mother. It is as varied and wonderful as a rainbow over Slieve League.
Wild West Irish Tours Owner Michael Waugh in a Kathleen sweater [with a bonus hat made by Wild Westie Debbie Walker-Spies!]
We’d be delighted to take you to Kathleen’s house to see her wares in person – chat with her on a Wild West Irish Tour, and find the deep Donegal love that is woven into the fabric of this incredible woman’s life.
You’ll need her sweaters when you hike the glorious mountains of Donegal; when you face the wild Atlantic, and in general, via the words of the great Yeats, for “when you are old and grey and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire…”
Expect great things in simple places – and expect great people in simple places, too, as we celebrate the craftsmanship of the Irish people, into which heart and soul is poured.
Until next time, be well, and be warm!
– Sam Fishkind.