I’m from Rathangan in Co Kildare, which is right on the edge of the Bog of Allen. As the crow flies, I’m only two fields away from the bog. When I was growing up, “bog man” wasn’t a compliment, but the bog was always part of me.
I always loved art in school, but it wasn’t really perceived as a realistic option. When I left school, I became a mushroom farmer. In my mid-20s, I went off with a friend one day and found a couple of pieces of bog oak. I was always absolutely amazed by it. I brought them home and cleaned them up. I threw them in my mother’s shed, but they were always in the back of my mind.
A few years later, I found some other pieces and did them up and gave them away as wedding presents. People started coming to me looking for pieces and, naively, I thought, God, maybe I could make a living out of this. That was about 25 years ago.
It’s amazing to think the bog oak was actually a growing tree. Here, but in a totally different world. The bogs grew between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago. The tannin in the oak reacts with the iron in the bog, that’s what actually blackens it. So it’s a very different colour, but still very much belonging to this place. If I see a gash where a plough hit it, I leave it on it, or a sign of it, because that was its first interaction with modern society. A big steel plough. Bang. A kind of a rude awakening.
Originally, I’d find a piece and I’d nearly decide straight away, or I’d have a good idea. Now, I’m looking for the wood to suggest what it should be. I push myself to go outside what is naturally apparent. I think that was the best thing that happened to me because I had to push myself rather than pushing the bog oak.
I’m taking soething rough and ugly and trying to make it gentle and beautiful. I’m very proud of that
The very first thing I do is clean it with a wire brush to get rid of all the loose stuff and find out where the weaknesses are. Then I’ll design a rough outline of what I want to do. You slowly develop the piece with a distinct enough idea of what you want at the end, but also being willing to adjust as the flaws or character exposes itself in the wood. The problem is, it’s very hard but it’s not structurally sound.
I’m handling something precious, but I handle it pretty roughly. I use every single kind of electrical sander I can find, but at the end of the day, your hand is the best. It will flow with the wood. There should be no evidence of mechanical tools on the piece. The form does change as you polish it up as well. There are different points that might become more highlighted than you expected, but you work with it. It’s a blessing and a challenge, and a pain in the ass sometimes.
It’s amazing to think of a tree growing 5,000 years ago as the first farmers were settling into this country. It died and was buried and now it’s come back. The same tree but totally different. It looks petrified, almost disturbing, like it has been dead for 5,000 years. But when it’s well worked and polished, sometimes you think it’s a piece of cast metal, or it’s a solid lump of coal or it’s a diamond. It’s magical.
It goes from quite a masculine, hard tough form to a gentle feminine flow. I’m taking something rough and ugly and trying to make it gentle and beautiful. I’m very proud of that, but at the same time, I don’t change it totally.
Do I like this life? Yes, is the bottom line. It’s hard to make a living, but I’m married to a great girl and she has a proper job; without her support, there is no way I could do it. But, on the other hand, I was always able to do the school run and the homework, and that was important as well.
I’m blessed at the end of the day. I’m very happy. I’ve been very lucky, and I enjoy what I do. Really, what more can you want?
In conversation with Joanne Hunt
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