Once upon a time, when I lived in Dublin, I dreamed of owning a Donegal Tweed overcoat: tailored, to the knee, single breasted, with a 100-year guarantee (isn’t that how long they last?). Specifically, the coat of my dreams was to come from Kevin and Howlin, a traditional outfitters on Nassau Street, down the side of Trinity College. Morning and evening on my walk to the Holles Street office, I stopped – or at least I slowed – to take in their window display. I’ve never been minimalist in my approach to anything, not least shops, and I loved how replete Kevin and Howlin’s window was; how their rails, shelves and presses heaved with stock. Donegal tweed represents all of Ireland, it can be sedate with earthy shades reminiscent of the Bog of Allen, but it can dance, too, with the crimson, green and mauve of Valentia Island’s fuchsia hedges and purple-blue slate, and it can blaze with the fervour of Slemish’s whin bushes in May. Hooded capes, waistcoats, and three-piece suits; overcoats, flat caps and hacking jackets, I longed for a piece of tradition to last me a lifetime. I’ve never acquired it – not yet. Edinburgh’s equivalent shop might be Walker Slater on Victoria Street, and I find myself replaying old habits as I slow when I pass by to admire their array of Harris tweed. Walker Slater has more polish to it, a look of the new millennium that its Dublin cousin (for better or worse) hasn’t bothered to adopt.
I thought about both shops when I spotted a stylish tweed jacket in the window of a charity shop this week. Cropped and waisted, darts at the bust, riding-style flap at the back, heather hues, and moleskin at the collar: lovely. I bought it for M. (knowing it was too small for me). Buying it pushed a button in my mind that freed a memory of M. and me being taken to thrift shops in North Belfast as children when we were visiting our city granny. Even back then, I would happily rummage while M. found a quiet corner in which to read and escape the aura of the disregarded. Promises were made to us both that we could spend 20p afterwards in Hector’s variety store across the road if we were patient. That thought, in turn, dislodged another – a scrap of a Ciaran Carson poem about a Belfast thrift shop that was buried as deep in my mind as a jacket at the bottom of a bag of jumble. I rummaged on the internet trying to find this nameless poem only to discover, with great sadness, that Ciaran Carson died earlier this month. ‘Stylish in his bones,’ one obituary said, and it went on to describe how the late poet loved traditional hand-made suits and shoes, antique tweed jackets, silk shirts and good ties. This description didn’t surprise me, and now I admire him all the more.
When I moved back to Belfast from Dublin, one of my subversive workplace acts was to read a poem at the end of each fortnightly team meeting. As the instigator, I at first chose the poems. I’d paste a favourite at the foot of the agenda and we would close by reading it. Initially there was awkwardness, disquiet at reciting poetry on the back of some dry discussion on end of year spend targets. Then it was embraced, it even became mildly competitive, team members jostling as to whose poem would be read next. One week D. brought in a Ciaran Carson poem. ‘He went to the same school as me – thirty years before I was there, mind you,’ D. told us. ‘Our English teacher invited him in one day to talk to us about life as a writer and poet. He read to us from his work. It was class.’
Ciaran Carson was class, and classy too, it turns out, him and his tweed jackets. I’m still on the lookout for mine.
Apparition, by Ciaran Carson (09.10.48 – 06.10.19)
The angelic old woman at the Friday morning second-hand market
Licks her finger and thumb and plucks little balls of fluff from off a jumper.
She smooths out the wrinkles in a linen blouse and holds it to the light
And light shines through to meet the nearly-perfect sky-blue of her eye. Then
She dangles a 1940s pinstripe suit at arm’s length, as if measuring a corpse.
It reminds me of the character I met one night in The Hole-in-the-Wall Bar
Who was wearing a beat-up World War II flying-jacket frayed and split at the seams.
One arm was nearly hanging off. ‘Just back from Dresden?’, cracked the barman.
‘Don’t laugh,’ spat the character, ‘my father was killed in this here fucking jacket.’