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Meabh Mc Curtin

While sending its writers, poets, singers and artists around the world, Ireland remains a powerful muse. Cloon Keen Atelier 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. 

CK: What is it that’s so special about scent, do you think? 

MMC: 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.

CK: That’s what people are telling us they love about Róisín Dubh. It seems to make people feel, and think too. 

MMC: 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.

CK: That’s fascinating. How do you go from there to creating a perfume to capture that essence?

MMC: 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.

CK: 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?

MMC: 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. 


Posted By Cloon Keen

Blending the stories of nature and culture in one magnificent place, The Autograph Tree stands tall at Coole Park, once home of Ireland’s famous literary hostess, Lady Augusta Gregory. Some of Ireland’s extraordinary writers carved their initials there. Cloon Keen Atelier takes a closer look with Curator of NUI Galway’s Yeats & The West exhibition, Dr Adrian Paterson.

Cloon Keen Atelier: The Autograph Tree is a glorious copper beech, but whose initials appear on it? And which are most significant for you?

Adrian Paterson: The tree is really the centre of a network of collaboration, with roots deep in Irish soil. The most significant initials are probably WBY [W. B. Yeats] and GBS [George Bernard Shaw] – neither of whom really need any introduction. As carved on the tree, the letters GBS are, rather typically, trying to dominate the rest!

These sets of initials represent two figures that matter hugely to Ireland. Yeats and Shaw both helped to found a cultural revolution and created a space for artistic and intellectual freedom in their consistent defiance of censorship. 

Yeats in particular created the conditions for modern Ireland and recorded its difficult birth; Shaw is less indelibly associated with Ireland, but as recent books by David Clare and Fintan O’Toole prove, his revolutionary outlook could not have been formed anywhere else. 

And one shouldn’t forget figures like the writer Violet Martin, with a rather different aristocratic outlook to Gregory’s; and those who, like Gregory, were involved with the Irish language, such as J. M. Synge and Douglas Hyde. Also Robert Gregory: 2018 is the centennial of the death of this fine artist and aviator who inspired Yeats’s poems ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory‘ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. 

We can’t neglect figures from outside Ireland, either: especially Ethel Smyth the composer, who propositioned Virginia Woolf and wrote fine unappreciated music ahead of its time – fittingly she even cut a musical stave in the tree. Her presence here gives the lie to the idea that Gregory only had time for men: important men and women are both represented on the tree. 

CK: So why was Coole such a hotspot for Celtic Revival writers? And what about the landscape of Coole? How did it inspire these writers, what did it offer them?

AP: Coole was a locus really for two reasons: Trees and language. 

Let’s talk about trees first. The leisure and sense of tradition going back to the eighteenth century and earlier, inspired by its house and gardens, is symbolized by the planting of trees, which require continuity and inheritance, and devotion to land and ecology – so Yeats records Gregory’s sense of loss when lime trees are blown down by the storm, and memorializes so many trees in poems about the seven woods – chestnuts, sycamores, oaks, ash, and especially the hazel, traditionally a magic axle-tree. 

Coole is planted with both native and non-native trees; the recent efforts to rid parts of the grounds of non-native trees goes against its spirit, which acknowledges settlement, grafting, hybridity, and plantation. It mirrors, in some way, the mortgaging and destruction of Coole Park House.

Language matters in several ways: Gregory’s facility for the Irish language helped Yeats work with local folklore and song, and itself produced her astonishing translations like Cuchulain of Muirthemne and works of cultural anthropology like Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland. It gave sustenance to Douglas Hyde, whose Love Songs of Connacht initiated a new kind of translation – and of course all three worked there collaboratively on plays in Irish and English together. 

All this brings to mind Gregory’s fabulous library, and the peace and inspiration this provided as a setting for these authors’ reading aloud of poems and plays. Gregory’s own significance as a writer and historian of the period is repeatedly underestimated, perhaps in part because she displayed such modesty and integrity. 

CK: What about your own experiences at Coole? 

AP: My first time at Coole was a pilgrimage on a bicycle coming from Thoor Ballylee, another important locus. And like the migratory birds I’ll keep returning. 


Posted By Cloon Keen

tara breathnanch

Cloon Keen: Tara, you performed an adapted version of the Molly Bloom soliloquy to great acclaim in the 2017 Galway Theatre Festival! Could you tell us about the piece, and what it was like playing Molly?

Tara Breathnach: Very briefly, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy is the glorious celebratory conclusion to James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. The character of Molly embodies an uncensored feminine sensuality and strength, which is what drew me to her. She celebrates her womanhood, and is by turns poetic and frank. 

In Molly, a highly-charged sexuality meets vulnerability, and in performing Molly Bloom onstage, there is great joy in uncovering the layers of Molly’s character and discovering the wholehearted way in which she embraces her physical self. She is an Everywoman and is strikingly contemporary in her openness and curiosity—yet she has a soft, nostalgic connection with her younger self.

Cloon Keen: The character of Molly was inspired by a real person: Nora Barnacle. What was she like?

TB: Molly was famously inspired by Joyce’s lover and wife, Nora Barnacle, a striking redhead from Galway. Joyce was enamoured of her from their first meeting, not least because of her individuality: she was unashamedly herself, and never pretended to be other than she was. Nora/Molly was a free spirit, overcoming the constraints of a convent education to follow her true nature. In creating her character, Joyce had to invent an exotic girlhood to inform Molly’s free spirit. 

Cloon Keen: I see! So where does the phrase “mountain flower” come in? 

TB: In her soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, her youth in Gibraltar is invoked by the heady scent of roses, jessamine and geraniums. Molly is drawn by the powerful forces of nature and the pull of the sea as she discovers her first love:

and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The “Moorish Wall” where Molly has her first kiss is the Spanish Arch of Nora Barnacle’s Galway—which, of course, can still be visited today, next to the river Corrib. 

Cloon Keen: The character of Molly is an incredibly feminist one, isn’t it?

TB: Absolutely. Nora’s strength and sensuality transcended the confines of Edwardian Ireland. She said Yes; she journeyed to Trieste with Joyce, to the unknown, bound only by love and a desire for freedom. 


Posted By Cloon Keen

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