discovers Margaret O’Connor’s mischievous street art millinery popping up in some unusual spots.
Co Clare milliner Margaret O’Connor is buzzing like a Spitfire while describing her hats which currently adorn the heads of some of the bravest and bold of Irish society.
The award-winning milliner has become known as one of the country’s most creative and intellectually-compelling hat designers, but it’s a whole different story when you’re scared of heights, your clients have heads three times the average size, and their personalities are as cold as stone.
For you see, O’Connor’s Spitfire Bird installations are turning heads as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival as she brings her extraordinary hat-making skills to some of the city’s most well-known statues.
O’Connor says that the subject of history always held a fascination for her as a child. She also had a model Spitfire plane hanging from her bedroom ceiling and had notions of being a pilot. The two ideas, along with her considerable design skills, led her to envisage herself flying over the city of Dublin dropping hats onto some of its most well-loved and notorious residents. From Daniel O’Connell to Oscar Wilde, Countess Markievicz to Molly Malone, Dublin statues are getting a millinery makeover.
It’s been a challenging and exciting project for O’Connor and one which has taken her out of her comfort zone both creatively and physically — not least because she has a fear of heights — something she hadn’t thought of before embarking on the project.
“I hadn’t considered the fact that I would have to climb up to measure the heads of some of the city’s tallest statues,” says the milliner on the phone from her shop in Ennis, Co Clare. “I was terrified; but then something clicked in my mind. I had to remember David Bowie’s words of advice to creative people about pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. I began to realise that the project was far greater than my fear.”
One such statue is that of Daniel O’Connell, the head of which measures 157cm in circumference — about three times that of the heads of O’Connor’s regular clients. “When I saw the size of it up close I thought ‘Bloody hell! What have I got myself into!’” she laughs.
For the head of The Emancipator, Margaret has created a rather tongue-in-cheek “pirate hat” reminiscent of the ones that children make from newspaper. The “paper” for the hat is actually a waterproof printed map of Co Clare sourced by Laurence Brennan and Mary Howard and specially made for the project.
O’Connor says she is particularly interested in engaging the children and young people who will encounter her creations around the city.
“I want to get people talking about the statues and about what these people achieved in the past. I also feel that millinery is seen as quite fashion-orientated — something for the catwalk or for music videos (she recently created hats for the Palo Santo mini film by British band Years & Years) — but I want to get people thinking differently about the hats and the symbolism attached to them, the materials I’ve chosen and why.”
Creating hats for a client that’s very much alive and well is one thing, but creating a hat for someone from the past is a different matter entirely. O’Connor says that she found the creation of bespoke hats for the different characters both exciting and creatively liberating. “I could put myself into the person’s shoes and think ‘how would they feel with this hat on their head?’, ‘would they approve of my design?’. I had to imagine myself as that person. It stimulated me mentally — these people are normally totally beyond my reach but I felt like I was really connecting with them.”
One of O’Connor’s favourite statues to work on was that of Clare man William Smith O’Brien, the Irish nationalist MP and leader of the Young Ireland movement whose statue can be found on O’Connell Street.
“He was sentenced to deportation to Tasmania in 1848 for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion,” says O’Connor. “This inspired me to design a hat with laser cut plastic text in Irish.”
She chose the expression “Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón!” meaning “Often a person’s mouth broke their nose!” in recognition of his punishment by deportation and his later enforced exile from Ireland.
I ask O’Connor if making the hats for the statues presented any problems for her in terms of their construction. Despite some of them being required, by perspective, to be much larger than usual, she says that they were also required to be more sturdy than usual. Some of the hats are very oversized — such as the one made for Molly Malone which features a very wide brim with beads and fringing, however O’Connor admits that even when making hats for her regular, flesh-and-blood clients she always ensures that her hats are sturdy as well as beautiful.
“Many people have been saying ‘but what about the rain?’ and so on, but when I make any hat I always have in mind that it should be sturdy enough to last 40 years. That’s what I was taught when I worked with Philip Treacy,” she says. “Some people aren’t precious with their hats or don’t know how to handle a hat, this is real life, so the hat has to be durable.”
As part of the Spitfire Bird project the milliner made a rainbow striped hat to adorn the head of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, and, when first placing it on the head of the statue for the pre-festival photoshoot, was overwhelmed by members of the public who whooped and cheered.
I felt very emotional when the crowd cheered, thinking about how Wilde was arrested for being gay. Imagine how he must have felt to have been ridiculed for who he was? I can identify with it in some ways as a creative person. There is always the fear of rejection, of people thinking your ideas are rubbish. I know that I can fail but if we all did nothing, because of the fear we’d be laughed at, we’d never do anything. I hope that Oscar’s hat might be empowering for some of the people who see it
While trying on the hat she’d made for Countess Markievicz on nearby Townsend St, O’Connor was cheerfully upbraided by passing youths demanding a hat for Markievicz’s infamous hound Poppet.
Dublin’s dog lovers need have no qualms, however, as, heeding their advice, O’Connor has also created something for the Countess’s beloved, but annoying, cocker spaniel. Sean O Faolain once poetically described Poppet as a dog that needed a good kicking. Thanks to Margaret O’Connor’ Spitfire Bird project it’s not a boot he’s getting but a sparkling sequined top hat instead.