Aoibheann MacNamara – creative entrepreneur.
Owner of Ard Bia at Nimmos and co-director of The Tweed Project
How would you describe yourself?
I'm a creative entrepreneur. My background is in art; I got involved in the restaurant business by accident.
How does art/culture influence your daily life?
The pursuit of an aesthetic life is the key thing for me and by extension, whatever business I get involved in.
Do you find you have to make sacrifices for your work/creativity?
No, I would never compromise. My creativity is tied to where I work, where I live. It's tied to the things I do, the projects I engage with, the food we produce. Fortunately, because I'm in the private sector, I'm not confined.
Have you always had a passion for that side of life?
I don't really know how it came about. I used to live in Donegal as a child and there was nothing going on back then. But I remember buying Elle magazine once a month and it introduced me to travel through the pages and from that I began to etch this life out. I studied Art history and Archaeology in UCD, then did a post-grad in UCG in Arts Admin. I travelled the world then for a bit and when I came back to Ireland at around 26, I was very despondent. I had been working with Nick Jones in Soho House in London, which was incredible. Moving back to Ireland, the Celtic Tiger had just kicked in; everyone had mobile phones and great jobs and nothing had happened for me. I really hit a wall. Then I went to a buddist centre for a month, started making soup, opened my own place in Donegal, for €70 a week, and that was the beginning of Ard Bia. That became a platform for stuff to happen; rather than me knocking on doors, I became the person that people came to. Everything clicked into place then and it was great. But I thought it would never happen before then.
What drives you?
The pursuit of an aesthetic life, to travel to interesting places. Obviously, when you're a mother, you have to put that in perspective for your child, what you're trying to do. There's a very interesting world out there. There's a vast world out there and it's coming to us here in Galway. Every time you meet someone, there's an opportunity to share or to learn something. Because there are no parameters on the business I do - the sky's the limit. It's exciting, and that drives me - meeting people and what that brings.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
I get a lot of people asking me to do things, to get involved with different projects and when I do, it's from in here. It isn't an intellectual decision. Everything you do should be from the heart. A lot of people are wrapped up in market research, in MBAs and all of that. I don't think Richard Branson works like that. I believe he works through instinct and if you're in touch with that, it's a great guide for you - you won't always get it right, but it's much easier to be in tune with it than your head.
"Every time you meet someone, there’s an opportunity to share or to learn something. Because there are no parameters on the business I do - the sky’s the limit. It’s exciting, and that drives me - meeting people and what that brings."
Who/what has been your greatest influence?
I have to say Mary Nally would be a great influence for me and I for her. She's someone I greatly admire - she thinks outside the box, and she's achieved great things in a difficult enough climate.
You come across as the type of person that doesn't see obstacles...
I don't have any obstacles. Some people say; ‘It's all very well for you - you're a successful business woman, you've been educated, you come from a middle class background'. And I do understand that there are huge obstacles for other people; I don't want to be blasé about it. But with those parameters, there aren't many obstacles - we're living in the most extraordinary part of the world.
Describe your life journey thus far?
I'm happier at 41 than I was when I was 21. I desire to be happier at 60 than I am today. Life is a process; there's so much to learn. I hope to be happier the older I get. I want to have learnt stuff and helped people - that's what you have to hope for.
With Ard Bia at Nimmos, you've created an exceptional space where food, art and culture collide - was this your vision or is it something that happened naturally?
I don't think that food for me exists independently of all these things. When you go to the most wonderful restaurants in the world, there's a subtlety and a dynamism to them where all of those things collide and that's what make spaces more interesting. If you're just serving food and that's your only motivation, it's not going to be a very interesting space. I'm serving social cohesion, astheticism; I'm serving many different things - not just food. We're serving an ideology, a community exchange and that's what a space should be. Not just food. Food is just one element of eight in there. I think more and more we need food in a context that is owner-run.
The Tweed Project is one of your latest projects with business partner Triona Lillis - can you tell us about it?
I'm from Ardara in Donegal, which is the epicentre of tweed. John Molloy (of John Molloy Woollen Mills) was there making jackets for Samuel Beckett, and his son and grandson are now working with us. We're one of only two clients of theirs in Ireland - 98 per cent of their clients are International and that was a real motivation for me. The tweed was being exported, it wasn't being manufactured and kept here, so in order to change that, we produced The Tweed Project. We're contemporising and internationalising the tweed and linen and producing it for the world as a heritage brand. Triona's an extraordinary business partner; incredible on design, but completely and utterly committed to the same things as me. I don't believe in one career, one life, so I'm happy to be involved in other projects.
Any projects in the pipeline?
Mary Nally and I are doing a ‘guide to the world'. We get asked so much where to go, and what to do, and while there's lots of tourism guides out there, there's very little for those who are interested in niche locations. So we're really happy to share our places to go and things to do. I'm also hosting some cookery classes in my new home, some styling workshops, little events here and there.
It sounds like the lines between work/home/lifestyle in your life are blurred
Totally. I never start working and I never stop working. When I travel, I stay with somebody in Airbnb in Marrakech who's an amazing stylist, so we've been working together on shipping stuff over. There's no agenda, things just happen. I go to Inis Oírr, then suddenly I come back with ten hats that Bríd has knitted, and that I customise. It all just happens.
Are you content with all you've created or is there a sense of ‘right, what's next?'
I'm lucky that it happens for me, but I have to stop myself from doing that. I have to be very careful that I don't keep taking stuff on, because that's easy. I have to make time for Oni and other things. So I have to be conscious about pulling back, because you can just keep going and what's the point?
At the same time, I have created a lovely flow in my life. We moved into the new house with no TV, no radio, no internet - I've come off a lot of social media. I'm trying to reduce all that because my son is growing up and we want to be together. And nothing is more important than that. I mean, they're telling you little stories and suddenly you're thinking about work while they're telling you this story and you're thinking; ‘There won't be these stories forever'. There's a lot of distractions, and you can also create a lot of distractions, so you have to be conscious of that. I can put people together and make things happen, which is very exciting, but you have to pull back from that and do nothing. That's very important too. I know I'm very fortunate though. I meet a lot of people whose careers haven't kicked in for them. And I know how painful that is because before I opened Ard Bia, my career hadn't kicked in either.
What impact do you see culture having on Galway City?
I love what Galway has become. I think that Galway has changed in an extraordinarily positive way in the past eight months. There's the whole ‘Food Capital of Ireland', which is categorically true and which is very important culturally.
Even if the bid for 2020 isn't unsuccessful, it will be a huge move forward. There's so many things going for Galway culturally. The new look Arts Festival is extraordinary; Paul is phenomenal. I love going to Ladies Beach and being able to get a coffee in the lovely Jungle Café. I love the West End; I love Urban Grind. I love the influx of people; I can really see the influx of international people coming through the door in Nimmos, the fallout from The Gathering, and especially now the year of design. I love the new space that the Arts Festival has for the visual arts. When I walk in there, I feel like I'm somewhere else. Baboro is also amazing - all these things are very close to my heart. There's no other place I'd rather live than here.
"There's no other place I'd rather live than here"
What's your vision for Galway as a cultural utopia?
I would like the Palace Cinema to open - it needs to open. That we do not have an art house cinema is unbelievable. I would love that the market gallery become a consolidated space for the town, but not just a space, but a space with a significant curatorial background with serious international vision. Galway was featured on the ‘Top 25 European Cities of the Future' list in fDi Intelligence's study of the most promising investment locations in Europe two years ago. It was was also ranked at the top of the list of "Micro European Cities". We got the Unesco City of Film last year. We have so much going for ourselves geographically, with Connemara and Clare and the six beaches that we have here, so we need to have an International vision married with local commitment. Let's not be afraid of embracing internationalism.
Your favourite cultural city/place in the world?
It has to be Reykjavik- they understand culture like nobody does. To understand their unbelievable approach to the arts and culture, I sent Oni to art summer camps last summer and one class based on ‘Connectivism - water and movement'. If they're teaching their five year olds this kind of stuff, it's no surprise that they become such evolved creative people in every thing they do. Their whole approach to life is unbelievable.
What's your ultimate happiness goal?
Happiness is hard to achieve, but I do think I'm happy; I have a fantastic life, fantastic friends, fantastic work that I adore and beautiful surroundings. Simple life is the most important thing - pared down, simple life.