Turf at the Top

Emma O'Neill visits Brian McGirr's Island Turf Crafts

A business that makes giftware out of turf? It sounds like an outrageous idea but it’s exactly how Brian McGirr from Island Turf Crafts based in Coalisland, Co Tyrone has carved out a successful craft business with retail outlets worldwide.

Island Turf Crafts produce giftware, which are handcrafted from 5,000-year-old Irish turf from some of Ireland's oldest boglands. McGirr started making crafts 26 years ago as a part-time hobby, ten years later Island Turf Craft was established with premises at Coalisland Enterprise Centre. McGirr describes how it all began:

‘I originally started to carve the products out of mahogany but wanted to use something a bit different, so came up with the idea of using turf instead. It was quite similar in appearance with the dark, rich appearance and it turned out to be an excellent alternative.’

An ex craft teacher, McGirr started out working from home and then began selling his products through established sales channels:

‘I operated out of the garden shed at home to begin with and people used to come to my house to buy things. I then got the opportunity to sell them through Hall’s Gift Shop in Belfast and the owner of the shop would keep me informed for what was popular and what wasn’t.

'I then went to craft and gift shops in tourist areas around Ireland and persuaded them to take my products. The turf craft was really popular with tourists because they were so different and also they were just the right size to fit in their suitcase and take back home with them.’

Turf is made up of decomposed vegetation accumulated in waterlogged places for thousands of years. One-sixth of the Irish countryside was once covered in turf boglands. McGirr describes exactly what turf is composed of:

‘Turf consists of a mixture of roots, leaves, flowers, seeds of heather, grasses and sedges. Occasionally the trunks and roots of trees such as Scots Pine, Oak, Birch and Yew can also be present.’

Turf was traditionally used in rural Ireland as a major source of home heating fuel in the 17th and 18th century and was handcut into sods and dried out. The turf for the crafts is all sourced locally from boglands near Coalisland on the shores of Lough Neagh.

The turf is processed with a mixture of glues, compressed into moulds, dried out in a kiln, sandpapered, shaped with intricate Celtic designs and then coated with varnish to seal and finish the product.

The craft products have a unique antique brown finish, which highlights the fine and intricate detail of the delicate ancient Celtic designs. The extensive range of Celtic inspired turf gifts includes ornaments, clocks, picture frames, paperweights, harps, jewellery, religious goods and a selection of popular Irish souvenirs.

Island Turf Craft has been given a presidential seal of approval, as on a visit to Northern Ireland in 1995 the then President of the United States Bill Clinton purchased several pieces for his wife Hilary and daughter Chelsea from the gift store in the Hilton Hotel Belfast where he was staying.

McGirr regularly attends trade shows to sell his products and has built invaluable links and sales contacts, through meeting with buyers from across the world at Showcase Ireland in the RDS in Dublin and at the New York Irish Gift Show.

He is particularly proud of securing coveted sales positions in the Kilkenny stores in Galway, Dublin, Killarney and Cork which showcase Ireland’s finest giftware and craftsmanship. Island Turf Craft’s busiest and most successful sales vendor is at the Duty Free store at Dublin Airport, which sees thousands of travellers through its doors every day, all looking to take a special gift from Ireland back home with them.

Island Turf Crafts boasts an extensive showroom, which displays the diverse collection of craftworks as well as a Bog Museum, which reconstructs the lifestyles and habits of prehistoric Ireland, excavated from 5,000-year-old Irish boglands.

It exhibits artefacts, which reveals the rich and varied history of Ireland before and after the Ice Age. The museum captures the era of Cu Chulainn and Queen Maeve and the Red Branch Knights in Ireland with craft pieces carved with pagan carvings and traditional Irish designs. The indoor bog also includes relics ranging from bones and large antlers of the Great Irish Elk, to medieval prehistoric battle swords.

Guided tours of the showroom and museum are available upon request where visitors can view the team of talented craftsmen at work. Coach trips can also be arranged to the source of the turf at the nearby boglands to meet the turf diggers. McGirr welcomes group and educational visits to the unique craft outlet with full facilities including large car park and restaurant facilities available onsite.

For further information or to arrange a visit to one of Ireland’s most innovative craft products visit www.islandturfcrafts.com or telephone 028 877 49041.