Every July a little piece of Kilmacanogue is transformed into a perfect patch of Provence.
WORDS Ali Rochford PHOTOGRAPHY Nathalie Marquez Courtney
It would be delightful to say “follow the sweet-scented air” from the N11 and you’ll arrive at a private oasis of freshly cut and planted lavender, but the reality is only marginally less dreamy. Detour by Avoca and within moments you’re at Fragrances of Ireland’s French-style market for The Lavender Harvest party, which runs on weekends throughout July.
A celebration of summer and scent, here you’ll find lavender bunches, soaps, golden oil, embroidered linens, lavender sachets and even furniture polish, from Granny Cox’s family recipe. The seeds of the festival were sown 20 years ago when David Cox, managing director of Fragrances of Ireland, and his wife Orna decided to plant a field of lavender within sight of the office.
Originally, the business was started by David’s father and uncle in 1983. “They could see people visiting Ireland and there was virtually nothing for them to buy,” David says. “They got permission from the WB Yeats estate to use the poem the Lake Isle of Innisfree, which is all about going back to nature, to Ireland – ‘a hive for the honey bee, And live alone in the bee loud glade’– so the first perfume was called Innisfree. It’s really quite evocative for a perfume.”
North Wicklow might not seem a very suitable location for a lavender plantation but, like the new perfume business, it thrived. “As it happens that field is particularly good for lavender. This valley would have had glaciers going down the middle of it, meaning it is full of grit and sand so it drains quite well, and lavender doesn’t like being waterlogged. If you are going to grow it, it needs to be well drained in full sun. That’s the thing I repeat every ten seconds at the Lavender Harvest Party,” he laughs.
A big part of the harvest party is selling lavender plants so visitors can experience the joys of growing it for themselves. “We mostly sell Hidcote and Munstead, the regular English lavenders, but we always throw in a couple of weird and wonderful ones just out of interest. It’s a plant that never fails to be popular, everyone loves it.”
And they are always on the lookout for other products to fit the theme. “We try and keep a farmer’s market feel although it is still evolving. We met a group of Syrian refugees who used to have a business in Aleppo. They left and set up a business in France importing soap from Aleppo, which is where soap began thousands of years ago. They are charming people and we bought some of their soap to sell at the lavender sale.”
The perfume business is ferociously competitive – a big-spending, high risk, celebrity-drenched market, says David. It can be hard for a product like Inis to tell its story. “Although perfume is good fun, it’s also hard work and it’s commercial.” The lavender festival is a change of pace for the family-run business, something fun to look forward to in summer.
“Lavender grows perfectly well for us in Ireland, almost as well as it grows anywhere, with the exception that when it comes into flower it loves lots of sun. Rain can ruin the flowers,” he says. “We want a nice dry July and then life is good… it’s a celebration of summer really but if it does rain so be it. It is an Irish summer after all.”