IRISH PERFUMER MEABH MC CURTIN ON DIASPORA, NOSTALGIA AND IRISH IDENTITY.
While sending its writers, poets, singers and artists around the world, Ireland remains a powerful muse. Cloon Keen spoke with Paris-based Irish perfumer Meabh McCurtin, creator of Róisín Dubh. We talked about diaspora, nostalgia, and making a place that captures the essence of creativity, and of home.
Cloon Keen: We’d love to know more about you. What took you to Paris, and how did you become a perfumer?
Meabh McCurtin: It’s funny but I would say that chance had a big part to play in it. My life has been so peppered by chance encounters. I was always a very curious child, aware of my surroundings. I would have said I was more focused on the sensory world. I didn’t know that perfumery existed, though I was tuned into smells and certainly I remember my mother’s perfumes. While studying biochemistry in Lyon years later I met a scientist who was mapping the regions of the brain affected by scent, and he put me in touch with an independent perfumer in Geneva. I went to work as his lab assistant and he taught me the basics of perfumery. On the side I also worked in a spice shop and for a chocolate maker, which, funnily enough, really helped develop my sense of smell as well.
Cloon Keen: What is it that’s so special about scent, do you think?
Meabh McCurtin: Smell bypasses the rational part of the brain; it goes straight to the emotional. But then we think about what we’re feeling, so it’s a double sense. That’s why I think narrative is so important in perfumery; it helps to give meaning to something intangible, both during the creative process and also for the people who wear it once it’s in the bottle.
Cloon Keen: That’s what people are telling us they love about Róisín Dubh. It seems to make people feel, and think too.
Meabh McCurtin: We were looking at making something celebrating the Irish diaspora, how historically they’ve been such an important part of Irish literary and artistic culture, and from that also came the idea of Ireland as a muse. Róisín Dubh, the little black rose, is a character in an ancient Irish song, but she is also an analogy for Ireland itself. That led us to the Irish writers who lived in Paris, and who gathered at The Grand Hotel Corneille, a pension in the Latin Quarter. My mother is an English teacher and our house is full of books by Irish writers. Growing up I was always hearing about these characters and I loved the idea of them, Joyce, Beckett, Synge, going abroad and creating this community.
I went to the cafés they went to, the restaurants, trying to understand their lifestyle and that era, the 1920s and 30s, and the society they were living in. I love the idea of being in Paris, of walking in their footsteps, and stepping back into the past.
Cloon Keen: That’s fascinating. How do you go from there to creating a perfume to capture that essence?
Meabh McCurtin: We were looking for something that would capture the sensuality in their writing, so I used a special quality of rose called Rose Essential as the heart of the fragrance. Then I built in a suede and ink accord, which, together with the rose, forms the main axis of the fragrance. The suede-ink accord is a nod to the fact they were writers, and it balances the rose, which is feminine, sensual and poetic,
adding a drier and more masculine note. Then I explored their bohemian lifestyle: it sounds like they had a whole lot of fun! They were living outside the normal codes of conservative society, so we put some patchouli and olibanum, trying to capture that libertine feeling. In the end, that makes for a very unisex fragrance, which is modern, but also captures a sense of the past.
Cloon Keen: You talk about those writers having a whole lot of fun. How much do you think Ireland was in their minds, as they made their way
in bohemian Paris?
Meabh McCurtin: Joyce and Beckett were both very conscious of their Irish identity, even though they lived abroad. The song, Róisín Dubh, ties into that story of representing Ireland, and also of fighting for Ireland. Women were at the heart of that, I’m thinking of Countess Markievicz, and the women who fought for Ireland as part of Cumann na mBan. Irish women weren’t always recognised for the part
they played in the struggle, but they were active participants as well as muses. Writing plays a key part in any revolution, and the cultural movement that springs up around it. In Róisín Dubh, the rose can also represent the whole poetic side of that movement.
Based in Paris, I like to think of the exiles, who create worlds to inhabit away from home. I went to the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, which has this beautiful library, and I read Beckett’s letters. It makes me feel more at home, thinking about the people who were at home here before me, and the paths they took. It makes me feel very proud to be Irish.