Maeve Filbin | Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Michael Quirke is in the same position I left him in when I first visited his small shop on Wine Street three years ago: hunched over a red block of wood, mallet and chisel in hand, attention fixed on his work. He is careful but intentional with his strokes, giving physical form to the stamping, whinnying horse coming to life beneath his hands. The door swings shut behind us with a wooden clap and a gust of wind, sending a spray of sawdust into the air. The dust settles slowly, like little flecks of gold in the late afternoon sun shining through the front window. Quirke pauses only for a moment to lift his head in greeting, revealing clear blue eyes, a round red nose and an impish grin beneath thick tufts of white hair. His fraying navy fisherman sweater and faded wax vest are stained with varnish and dusted with a fine layer of wood shavings, making it hard to distinguish man from material, as if after many years of woodcarving the shop had simply swallowed him up.
Without wasting time on preamble, Quirke returns to his square of wood and plunges straight into storytelling. The County Sligo is girded by the opposite-facing purple crags of Ben Bulben and heathery hills of Knocknarea, two rock formations hewn from limestone and home to Irish history and legend. A Sligo native, Quirke took up the family business as a young man, continuing his father’s work as a butcher until the year 1988, when he transformed the shop and began carving alder, ash and birch instead of meat. Since then, Quirke has been sharing the stories of Sligo with a world that has all but moved on from legend and lore.
He tells us all of this without pause and without looking up from another block of wood, now taking the form of a kind-eyed, woolen sheep. This is the same story he told me three years ago, but I hang on to every word as if it’s the first time I’ve heard it. He places a calloused hand on a finished piece sitting on the counter — a three-faced woman pulled from the stained wood — and begins the legend of Maeve, or Mebh, the warrior queen of Connacht. Quirke points one knobby finger towards the horizon, where the sun is setting over Knocknarea. He tells us that Queen Maeve is believed to be buried at its summit under a cairn of loose stones, standing upright in full battle armor, facing her enemies in Ulster. Casting a surreptitious glance over his shoulder — as if checking for unwanted onlookers — Quirke digs around in his vest pocket and pulls out a pencil stub, then sketches a crude map onto a loose scrap of paper from the cluttered work bench. With another conspiring look, he presses the drawing into my hands and informs me that he’s just given me directions to the Sidhe Fae, the fairies that dwell within the hills of western Ireland.
I thank him for the stories, for the map and for the magic, and feeling drawn to “she who intoxicates,” ask to buy the carving of Queen Maeve. Quirke pats my hand gently and insists upon commissioning a new piece of the warrior queen, which will be ready by the first warm days of summer. Untethered from modern technology, Quirke drifts far beyond email, social media and even a fax machine, running operations with a single landline. He explains all this as he scribbles the phone number to the shop on the back of his handwritten business card, which reads: Michael Quirke, The Woodcarver and Wordweaver to the Power of Myth.
With promises to return in early May, we step back out onto Wine Street, amazed to find that a fast-moving, ever-changing world still existed outside of Michael Quirke’s woodcarving shop. I know that when I return in the following months, and if I were to visit sometime in the following years, Quirke will be in the same position I left him in upon last entering his shop: hunched over a block of birch or ash, mallet and chisel in hand, preserving the stories of western Ireland in both wood and word.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.