Jo Lewis from Inspirational Homes

inspirational homesHow did you start with the green door?

The idea from that came from renovating our cottage here 20 years ago. It took 7 years to get our house to the stage where we could live in it comfortably.  Such a huge amount of work was involved and we found, because we were new to the area, we didn’t necessarily know the best places to go for everything.  At the end of the process, I thought ‘gosh we’ve got so much information about sustainable building now that we could share this with everybody, it seemed like the most sensible thing to do.  I thought it would be great to have a website where people could put up any information they might have, a web site that is for those who are local, and one that’s localised.  For example straw bale building in America is a totally different experience to building with straw here, you have totally different weather conditions and different environments so it was important to make the website a local one that specialised in the North West of Ireland.  With that in mind, I approached Leader and they funded the necessary research.  I spent the summer of 2010 driving around Leitrim finding people who had homes that had any kind of eco status to them.  It was fascinating.  Anybody who was trying to build or renovate or live in a sustainable way was part of the world I went to visit.  I took photographs of what they were doing, wrote down notes and diagrams, and went back to edit at home.

 Was there an abundance of it?

Yes there were loads of interesting builds out there.  I visited forty homes, I couldn’t believe it.  A real nerve was tapped, a real source of energy, sustainable energy. for crona You’d go and see one person and they would say ‘Oh you must visit this other person down the road, they’re doing something similar in a different way’ so you would discover a variety of ways of building and making on different budgets, with different priorities. Some people might want a new sustainable build, but small and affordable and other people might have an old building they really want to hang on to for historical reasons and I’d document their struggle in how they managed to do that.  Some people are living off grid and others are living without septic tanks so it’s all very interesting.  All of this went on the website and it was launched organically really. Then I thought wouldn’t it be great to have an open house event. There had been one in London and in Dublin but there hadn’t been a rural equivalent. I asked the home owners if they would be interested in an open home event and I didn’t think that many would want to say yes, but they all said yes, every single one of them.  I had no idea just how popular it was going to be!

So I thought this is so generous. I went back to Leader and received some more funding.  Because we all live remotely, we like company when we have it.  So the home owners threw open their doors and the people came in their droves for the first Green Door in 2011.  It was so hugely popular, everybody had visitors and the feedback was really positive especially from the home owners.  You struggle to build or renovate to create something unusual and it might be successful or not, but you’ve got nobody to tell about your journey so when somebody interested actually comes around and says ‘That’s Fantastic’, if you have ten people coming through the door telling you that If you have fifty people telling you that, by the end of the day it’s a great feeling.   People being happy to share information that was the key to the success of the event.  The home owners all said how surprised they were that people were genuinely interested in particular things, about the heating, about the insulation suppliers and that kind of thing.  People were writing down advice, some people sat for hours in other people’s kitchens and just chatted.  So we really tapped into something there I think.  The home owners had put their sweat and blood into these builds to create a sustainable long-lasting home that was created or renovated with respect and friendship for the environment and this dedication really resonated with the visitors.  It’s all about seeing into the future and knowing that in the long run you’ll get payback.

mike and joWhat parts of renovating your own property were the most surprising, difficult or challenging?

Saving the old house.  If someone else had something similar, they’d probably have said, ‘just knock it down and lets start afresh, it would be cheaper and easier’.  It wasn’t in too bad of a shape, it’s a traditional three roomed cottage, several hundred years old, built straight onto the clay, no foundations. The walls were built well but at the top they were all getting crumbly, they were full of infill, rubbly stuff at the top so we had to put a lot of work into straightening the top of the walls, tying them together. A framework had to go around the tops of the walls and we used lime and sand mortar to fill it in to make it solid, and the straw bale extension with render on both sides fitted into that framework.  Then the roof went on top of that.  It has a lovely feel to it, it’s a curved room so it’s worth the challenges it brought us.  In America there are straw bale houses that are over a hundred years old so as long as the property is managed well a straw bale home should last forever.

Why Straw Bale?

Well when we were still in England working in the restaurant, Mike did a lot of research on the various methods of building and restoring in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. He took a course in straw bale building and when we moved to Ireland we drew up our plans and took them to local architect Colin Bell. He worked on drawings for the site for us from which Mike could build following his instructions. Colin is great at tying with self-builders, he works very well with them.  He offers and gives a lot of support and encouragement.  We brought in local craftspeople who were amazing in helping to build the staircase for example.

Tell us about your Supper Club, the menus are tantalising.

Three years ago Mike came up with the idea of trying a Supper Club.  We thought we’d do one and see how it went so we sold out for that one night.  Then we thought we’ll do it again and this time we did it two nights in a row, because we have to change the whole layout of the house, the living room becomes a dining room.  There are twenty five each night so our house becomes a restaurant for those weekends.  It’s just the two of us but we work well together. We worked together in professional kitchens for years so it’s good fun. I love the hosting end of things, the meeting and greeting.  Mike does most of the cooking (apart from the desserts which I prepare), it gives him his outlet without having to open a restaurant.

Inspirational Homes exists because of the huge creative sector living in this part of Ireland. They came to this area because housing was affordable and the landscape pristine, wild and beautiful.  Green Door and Inspirational Homes exists because those creative types who came to live here were and are passionate about sustainable living, eco considerate building and restoring, locally sourced materials and employing and collaborating with skilled craftspeople. It continues to grow and gain a following because of this demographic, which is unique in Ireland.  When the Organic Centre became established in 1995 it drew more like minded people to this area, then the Sculpture Centre became established which drew even more again so more creative people wanted to settle here.  Then The Glens Centre attracted artists involved in performance, music and writing.  The Bee Park works directly with these people and liaises with the arts centre to create a good environment for everyone living here.  It’s a great place!

Inspirational Homes
Networking for future-proof homes    

Green-Door Weekends

Festival of Rural Architecture and Design



Steve Farrell from Benwiskin Brewery

benwiskin barley flip

Who what where inspires you?

I’m very weather dependent so I find a good sunny day is the most inspiring thing for me

How did you get into brewing?

While studying and working in New Zealand. I studied oenology there and worked at the wonderful boutique winery Moana Park before gaining further experience as chief winemaker for Sanchez Muliterno and Hermanos del villar in Spain. With a young child about to begin school, coming home to Ireland felt like the most logical thing to do, I decided to change tack and become a brewer and started trying out different ideas using my winemaking background to inform the process.  There Is a lot of satisfaction creating new brews it is also exceptionally relaxing and zen like, very few things get me going like creating a brew. You are actually creating a living entity.

How has the locality of the North West of Ireland influenced your approach to product creativity?

This neck of the woods has soul, the quality of produce from organic foods to the best beef and lamb in Ireland is all grown here. Glencar water has been rated the fifth purest in the world.  Everything about here should and does influence you, it’s a beautiful place a place full of nooks and crannies, a wild place full of myth and mystery.

How does New World wine making differ to Old World, do you have a preference?

They are getting closer to each other, countries like New Zealand and Australia were instrumental in bringing scientific techniques to the making of wine while the Old world wineries were very dependent on Terroir. Quantity was the mantra for wine making for a long while during the 1980’s, but since the mid ‘90s old world methods were combined with the New World approach of sophisticated lab work in winemaking to ensure that the ripened fruit is showcased and prepared in the best way possible resulting in better and better quality at all ends of the price spectrum.

Rossinver Blonde5How long did it take to come up with the recipes for Clooneen Red and Rossinver Blonde?

It seemed to take for ever but through trial and error I think we came up with the right balance. Trialling it out on the good folk of Manorhamilton was key and I think we have a very Manorhamiltonian style of beer now what with the quality of water we have here and key advice from the locals (although slurred after many trials).  The Clooneen is what I would consider a decent blend of both Irish Red and English Pale Ale styles while not being as bitter as American Pale Ale styles.  Rossinver is a Blonde Ale which is milder in style and ideal for summer drinking with its fresh citrusy notes.

Any new products in the pipeline?

There are always new ideas in the pipeline and I have a book full of brews that need to be trialled.  The prime aim is to get the brewery going here in Manorhamilton and when that is up and running we can experiment with small batches

Which breweries do you admire and enjoy tasting?

I like them all, I think a lot of the beers in Ireland are very exciting and you can almost taste the enthusiasm.  The breweries closest to us such as Carrig, White Hag, Donegal Brewing and Black Donkey all have their own unique styles and are truly well worth trying out.

Did the giant of all breweries Guinness have any influence over your craft?

If you mean from the time I lived in Dublin, possibly, you cant ignore Guinness especially when you live in an apartment block called ‘The Maltings’ right next door and I used to walk past the old derelict storehouses with barley growing out of the cracks in the walls in still, however that would be that.  I am working on a stout at the moment called ‘Ballagh Black’ which will be a much more intense version of stout than the normal Guinness drinker would be used to.

How does brewing differ from winemaking?

Quite different, the only similarity is fermentation.  Winemaking is very dependent on timing when fruit is ripe, what the quality of fruit is like and patience is necessary whereas with Brewing you can start any time although again ingredients and patience are crucial.  Fruit for winemaking has got to be harvested early in the morning before the sun has risen in order to keep the temperature of the berries down as bringing down the temperature of your juice is quite an expenditure in wineries.  In Brewing it is quite the opposite as we need heat for both the mashing of the grains and the boiling steps and this can be the majority of expenditure in breweries.  Fermentation in red wine making and brewing take about the same amount of time but white wine fermentation can take up to 3 weeks.

Any advice for aspiring brewers?

Just do it.  Get an all grain kit and treat it as fun, it’s not as difficult as it may seem and the end result is a product you will enjoy if not only for yourself.  It’s a great thing to do and truly soul satisfying. Sláinte


Interiors Designer Gráinne McGarty


mcgarty design roc group interior


Tell us  a little about yourself.

A Dub who spent many summers in the countryside with a keen interest in drawing and looking at wild flowers.

What fires your imagination, what things take your breath away?

At the moment North Leitrim takes my breadth away. Nature re-emerging with it’s smells and sounds. I like to photograph my surrounding and old buildings, taking note of interesting textures that could be applied to an interior space. Visiting art galleries and museums are constant source of inspiration.

How did you get into design, was it something you always wanted to pursue? 

Theatre and Set Design was my initial focus and the course was Environmental / Spatial design. Design is a very varied area but I specialised in Interior architecture whilst also studying Furniture, Set design, Exhibition design and Fabric printing. I loved the different stages of interior architecture and trying to grasp the technical drawing aspect to it, and model making which I came to love. The fabric printing element was exciting too, starting with sketches and bringing that image to fabric using screen printing.

What is your favourite part of the design process?

All of it, with the exception of the sometimes tight schedules ! I enjoy meeting clients, whether they be shop owners or business owners/ managers. So many can be very passionate about their businesses and their field. Observing how they currently use a space and how we can work together to improve it. I find it fascinating how the small details of a clients daily routines can inform a design. After this I love the development of ideas, sketching, forming the technical drawings to ensure it all works from a spatial point of view. I still get a real kick from being on site and the smell of fresh plaster !

 In what way does interior design differ from architectural design?

Interior Design /Architecture is really the remodelling of an existing space where architecture in the main is creating new buildings. The projects can vary from designing an office starting with an empty shell with no walls, or working with an existing space. Interior environments are very dependant on the materials used to create a particular atmosphere in tandem with lighting which is also critical. The flow of movement within a space is the key to it’s success. Increasingly, as we spend more time indoors in our work environments it becomes important to analyse the relationships workers have and the interplay of functions within the spaces.

Which designers do you admire?

Many designers have inspired me over the years. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is one who gave consideration to all elements within a space. I spent time in Finland and visited some of Aalto’s building’s and it has stayed with me. His attention to detail from lighting design to the handle one touches entering a building produced a people focused design approach. Another was Zaha Hadid who died suddenly just a few weeks ago was an architect of incredible vision, and her hand drawings with unbelievable. Another is Eileen Gray, who is now receiving well deserved recognition for her contribution to architecture and design.

Any design form you dislike or think is bad design?

Lighting Design is an area lacking in many interior spaces I feel. In many cases, particularly residential design, the rooms of the house are placed incorrectly in terms of orientation. It is important to maximise natural light during the day. Artificial light can dramatically alter ones mood within a space, and the correct colour temperature of lamps is key. I have worked on several healthcare projects recently and found this to be an area that was lacking. Colour is also an area which very often receives little attention in interior schemes and can be highly influential to our mood and use of the space.

What cities are your favourites from a design/ architectural perspective?

Berlin and the Potsdamer Platz which is a collection of buildings by different architects creating a new quarter, with wonderfully exciting spaces. Another city I love is Venice where the layout has informed the way the city is used. Having to walk around with no cars and the related noise and pollution creates a special atmosphere and wonderful public spaces.

How does Ireland rate in this perspective and in particular, rural towns?

Irish Architecture is in a good place with lots of interesting work carried out over the last 20 years. I suppose it needs to filter down to smaller towns. A Town Architect has proven to be a huge asset to towns such as  Westport. A master plan with a vision for the town, focuses the energies of community groups and business owners. Also a design template with regard to design guidelines for shop exteriors and signage is a helpful tool for a small town to ensure future development adheres to the overall plan. Cork County Council produced an interesting document 15 years ago specifically related to housing and is an interesting guide to planning new housing. 

Is there any Irish building/Street or town you would love to re-design or alter in some way?

One that comes to mind immediately is the main street of Sligo which I would pedestrianize and populate with trees, shrubs and flowers. Seating could then be brought out onto the street for cafes and informal gatherings,creating spaces to linger.

Talk us through the design process from initial consultation to seeing your vision in 3D.

I meet a client and view the office, shop, hotel etc and walk through the space getting a sense of problem areas. I then establish a design brief where client’s requirements are listed. From here I develop a concept scheme with sketches and then onto a design scheme and at this stage there are several meetings to establish the definitive layout. Three Dimensional Visuals are an important part of the presentation method either hand drawn or computer generated. A technical drawing package follows to tender the project and appoint contractor or trades people as appropriate. Finally building work commences, with site visits and visits to joinery work shops and other suppliers. Very often projects are rolled out over several years so it’s important to have a strong vision for the project at the start.

This week we feature Poet Monica Corish

Poet Monica Corish discusses, among other things, her extraordinary new book ‘A Dying Language’, which will be published by the Irish Hospice Foundation Press. Poems from the collection have won the North West Words Poetry Prize and been shortlisted or commended for a number of awards, including the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. They have been published widely in Ireland and the UK, including in Poetry Ireland Review.

Monica Corish

Tell us a little about yourself.

I started out studying science. After graduating from college I travelled in Africa. Later I trained as a nurse and worked in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Angola. In 2005, the same year that I moved from Dublin to Kinlough, I developed chronic cervical and lumbar disc injuries and had to give up nursing and working overseas. Now I am a full-time writer and writing workshop leader.

You will be launching your new book ‘A Dying Language’ at this year’s festival. Can you explain the theme to us?  

In May 2011, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Because my sister and I are trained nurses, we, along with our siblings and extended family, were able to care for her at home until her death in November 2011. For six months I travelled every week by train from Sligo to Limerick, writing my way through those journeys, coming to terms with what was happening, making sense of the changes in my mother, the strains in our family, and my own reactions – the writing of the poems helped to contain my grief.

In the year following my mother’s death I realised that, although the poems are very particular to one death, one family, one set of relationships, they also have a universal quality. It has been suggested to me that the collection describes a particularly Irish way of death, and I can see how that might be true.

Was the process a difficult one, meaning was it actually difficult to craft the work, to mould it?

Writing the first drafts wasn’t difficult. During a harrowing season of my life, the writing – a kind of intensive, intentional journaling – gave me some ease. But crafting the first drafts towards completion was challenging – I knew it would be hard to be objective about this material. I was fortunate to receive generous funding from the Arts and Disability Forum to be mentored by the poet Gréagóir O’Dúill. Gréagóir and I worked intensively over a nine-month period, scrutinising each poem together, tempering, tightening, exploring where I was holding back, deciding what could be stripped away. It was a rigorous process that strengthened the collection and sharpened my editing skills. I’m deeply grateful for the experience.

Finding a publisher was also a challenge. Although I did well with individual poems, I could not find a poetry press that was willing to take on the full collection. (Doghouse, the press that published my first collection, closed its doors in 2014.) It might have been different if I was a better-known poet, with an established, dedicated readership. One publisher told me honestly that, while he found the work strong, he believed he would not find an audience for it. So I was delighted when the Irish Hospice Foundation Press agreed to publish the book. After all the waiting, I believe this may be the best possible outcome.

The process of caring for a dying parent is an intense one. How do you think it changes a person?

I think it depends entirely on the individual, her or his relationship with her parent, her relationship with illness and death, and the type of death the parent experiences. An unexpected or tormented death is a very different thing to a death that is expected, even embraced.

So I can only speak for myself: I felt very blessed to be able to care for both my mother and my father at home in their final months and days. (My father died in July 2013. His death was very different to my mother’s: less of a tragedy, more expected, even welcomed by him, after a chronic and debilitating illness of many years’ duration.) It wasn’t all easy by any means, but the residual tangles and snarls of our child-parent relationships burned away, and we came into an easy place together. Now that they’re gone I don’t feel “sticky” around them; I feel washed clean.

I suppose I’ve become more familiar with Death as well. There is a poem in the collection, “Give Me the Death I Need”, that begins with the lines:

I want to be able to hold death

tenderly, like a baby.

To say it’s only death, old friend,

old trouble…

I can’t say I have arrived there, but I’m closer to that stance than I was before I cared for my dying parents.

What poets do you admire and why?  Which writers inspired you to write?

I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties. Soon afterwards, I came across Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Rogha Dánta”, translated by Michael Hartnett. It was a lightbulb moment for me, the realisation that a woman I identified with could be a poet – an Irish woman, writing about a life and a world that I recognised. Studying for the Leaving Cert, our poetry textbook was “Soundings”, and Emily Dickinson was the only woman poet in the book. While I loved her poems, Emily’s life was not one I could imagine for myself – too reclusive, too strange, too far away. Our English teacher, Miss Hyland, also introduced us to Sylvia Plath’s poetry. It was powerful, different to anything I’d heard before, but there was such tragedy there – this was definitely not a life-story I wanted to emulate. I love that Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill always seems to be enjoying herself, at play, even when her poems are sorrowful or fierce.

And now? It changes and shifts with time. The poets on my bedside table these days are Rumi, Carol Anne Duffy, Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sinead Morrisey, Mark Doty… Why these poets and not others? Because something in me resonates to their words, but is also surprised and challenged, pointed in new directions; or perhaps for the same reason that I prefer apples to oranges. I also love a good anthology: anything out of Bloodaxe, or compiled by Niall McMonagle, is sure to be a delight, and a doorway into new poets.

When writing, do you have a particular approach? Is there a system attached to your professional day?

No. If I can – if I’m in a spacious period in my life – I will spend a few hours in bed in the morning, scribbling, reading, rubbing word-sticks together, hoping for fire. If a piece sparks I will work on it further, get it into the computer, bring it to my critique group, see how it develops over time, maybe send it out to a magazine or competition. But I’m not a systematic person – unless I have a deadline, in which case I can be fiercely systematic – so many pieces, both dross and potential gems, languish in the notebooks. At other times, when I’m busy doing my taxes, promoting workshops, worrying about money, everyday hassles, then the river of words can go underground. But I don’t fret any more – I know it will come back.

You are in relationship with another writer, Tom Sigafoos. Do you discuss or critique one another’s work?

We do – we are very fortunate. We are each other’s first, gentle, ideal reader, but we are also robust in our critiques of each other’s work. And we are both good at knowing when to completely ignore the others critique!

You are very much involved in community work. Describe how you approach giving a lecture of a course on writing? Is it stressful or nurturing?

The method I use in my workshops is called the Amherst Method, developed by Pat Schneider and described in her book “Writing Alone and with Others”. It’s a tremendously nurturing way of working, not only for the workshop participants but also for the workshop leader. I write with the group, read my work, take the same risks they do. Occasionally there are stresses that grow out of group dynamics, but these are rare.

What I do find stressful is promoting my workshops. If I never had to engage with social media or digital marketing again, I would be a happy woman. However, needs must – writing workshops are my bread and butter. If I won the lotto I would still lead some workshops, but I would absolutely pay someone else to promote them.

How important is funding and recognition to a writer?

They have been immensely important to me. Funding buys me time to concentrate completely on writing, or on compiling a collection, and that is a pure delight. I feel very fortunate to live in Leitrim, where the Arts Office supports a valuable range of funding and other initiatives – it’s not like this in some other counties. As for recognition – whether it be in the form of awards, publication, or readers’ responses – it lets me know that I’m not just talking to myself. Also, success breeds success – one form of recognition opens the door to others; being published in a prestigious journal or winning a prize can greatly increase the chances of receiving a bursary; and contrariwise.

Talk us through a typical working week

There is no such thing.