Cork's stickmakers club branch gets to grips with turning wood

Roger McNamara and Dick Dineen show off their shavings. Pictures: David Keane

At the ripe old age of 95, Francis John Geary is the oldest member of Cork’s Celtic Stickmakers group. 

At the evening’s meeting at The Lough Scout Hall, Francis seems happier to sit and chat, enjoying the social element of the club, with his hands resting atop his own walking cane, as stick makers around him work on their craft.

When I ask if he made the cane he’s using, there’s an outburst of laughter around him that he joins in on. “No, that’s a bought one,” he admits, joining in the merriment.

The Celtic Stickmakers Club was founded in 2006 in Portlaoise, and there are branches all over the country, but Cork boasts one of the most active clubs in the country, according to co-founder Joe Sheehan, with well-attended weekly meetings at The Lough, and several workshops a year, complete with competitions.

Joe got involved with stick making through his love of carving; he used to teach carving to scouts before organising Celtic Stickmakers meetings in Cork. 

He says it’s a hugely accessible and satisfying craft.

“All you need is a penknife or carving knife, and a stick,” he says. “Most people come in and start with a simple stick they can use themselves, and over time we try to entice them into trying new skills. 

"A lot of people come in and get ideas from other people and share them.”

Up to 30 members attend Cork meetings, but it’s an informal atmosphere and people come and go as they please. 

What may be less easy-going is the competition; there are local and national competitions with up to 19 categories of stick.

Pat O’Sullivan is ushered forward: He’s won the national shield for best ornate stick for three consecutive years and he helps teach novices.

And I am nothing if not a complete novice. Pat starts off by explaining how sticks are cut and then seasoned, long before they’re able to be carved. 

For most types of wood, it’s important to cut the sticks in late autumn or early winter, when the tree’s sap isn’t rising; this stops the wood from splitting.

“I started off here in 2008,” Pat says. “I got interested in carving blackthorn, but they were always splitting on me. I came down and learned that it was because I was harvesting the sticks at the wrong time of year.”

Stick making is not a pastime for the impatient, then: It’s over a year from the time the stick has been gathered up until it will be used. 

As well as blackthorn, holly, rose, and gorse are popular.

Pat works with pyrography tools, which burn designs into the wood, scrimshaw, which is the mariner’s art of whale-tooth etching now carried out with animal bone and horn materials, painting and carving to complete his intricate handles; motifs are largely derived from the natural world and include depictions of animals in the wild.

For competitions, the stick must be absolutely straight; this is achieved by steaming the wood to bend it. After that, your creativity can be unleashed. 

Joe Taylor of Celtic Stickmakers (Cork Branch) filing his stick at The Lough Scout Hall
Joe Taylor of Celtic Stickmakers (Cork Branch) filing his stick at The Lough Scout Hall

Pat says he examines the stick’s own natural features to decide how he’ll craft it: Ornate handles he’s fashioned include a pheasant’s head motif, a field mouse nibbling a blackberry, and an otter catching a trout.

Being a nature-lover seems as important an attribute as being patient; stick making has a strong link to countryside traditions like hunting, shepherding, and hillwalking. 

Everything from the countryside rambles to cut sticks right the way through to observing and replicating the features of animal species seem to make it a country tradition, and yet the majority of the Cork stick-making group are city slickers.

Pat grew up in Mallow but has lived in Cork City for over 35 years. 

“I’d be a big fan of wildlife,” he says. “It’s only when you go to carve something that you look at it in detail.”

Would I like to try my hand at carving? I certainly wood! Pat is in the process of carving a fox head out of limewood using small, curved carving knives. 

He looks on nervously as I pick one up. 

“Now don’t get your fingers in the way,” he warns.

It’s tougher than it looks to follow Pat’s lead and shave smooth slivers of wood off the future fox. But it’s engrossing, and you can easily see the addictive potential of it. 

Our reporter Ellie O’Byrne gets instructions from Pat O’Sullivan of Celtic Stickmakers at The Lough Scout Hall
Our reporter Ellie O’Byrne gets instructions from Pat O’Sullivan of Celtic Stickmakers at The Lough Scout Hall

Pat, who used to work as a chef, says he found it an excellent de-stressing pasttime when he started.

Looking around the room, it’s not hard to spot it’s a male-dominated hobby. 

But there is one woman present working away on a beautiful 42in hazel hiking stick, and she’s more than happy to take a break for a chat.

Rosemarie Nagle was, it turns out, the first female member of Cork Celtic Stickmakers when she started coming two years ago. 

“I’ve always loved woodwork and I’ve done a bit of wood turning and I’m very hands-on with things,” she says.

“I’m doing a variation on the barley twist; I’m trying to get it as smooth as possible so I’m working all the way around with this file,” she explains. 

Rosemarie will finish off the stick with three coats of Danish oil which, she says, will give the stick a shelf-life of at least 15 years.

Although she’s one of a few women members, Rosemarie says she doesn’t understand why; there’s absolutely no barrier to women getting involved and she’s been as welcome as any other club member.

“They’re very encouraging and they all look after me,” says Rosemarie. “I’m very welcome and there’s loads of help and advice. 

"I basically do this for the love of it. It’s very, very relaxing and the sticks I make are beautiful in my eyes.”

Cork Celtic Stickmakers will have a stall with demonstrations, displays, and a novice competition at Cork Summer Show, Cork Showgrounds, Curraheen, on Saturday and Sunday, June 15-16

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