'Hooking Our History'

Rug hookers express Irish-Newfoundland connection

Published on May 15, 2010
Frances Ennis and her daughter Laura Coultas show several smaller rugs they've hooked. - Submitted photo

From the stained glass window of a cathedral to an Irish lullaby, images inspired by the topic of the Irish-Newfoundland connection have been translated into more than 30 original hooked rugs by a rug hookers collective from St. John's.

The project, "Hooking Our Heritage," will be on display in Tors Cove at the Five Island Art Gallery beginning Sunday.

From the stained glass window of a cathedral to an Irish lullaby, images inspired by the topic of the Irish-Newfoundland connection have been translated into more than 30 original hooked rugs by a rug hookers collective from St. John's.

The project, "Hooking Our Heritage," will be on display in Tors Cove at the Five Island Art Gallery beginning Sunday.

"What we said in the beginning is that this had to resonate with you as an individual and it had to have some kind of Irish-Newfoundland significance and so people just chose something that meant something to them," said Frances Ennis, a contributor to the project and the woman who, over the last two years, taught rug hooking to many of those involved with "Hooking Our Heritage."

The Irish-Newfoundland connection, a topic pulled from the annual Festival of the Sea, was expressed in family history in some cases - for example in "Poppy Simms' Cooper Shop" by Joanne Simms and Kathleen McCormack. One of the coopers, located on Pleasant Street in St. John's, married a Simms from Cork, Ireland, the rug hookers stated in an explanation of their piece.

"Coast to Coast" by Louise Webb considers the geography, the Irish-Newfoundland separation by sea. Marion Counsel, meanwhile, created a rug showing an Irish wake.

"Every person who did their rug, they found a way to make an Irish connection. For example, the two who did the berry picking one ("Berrypickers" by Barbara O'Keefe and Marilyn Cameron), what they did is they did a bit of research to try to see about berry picking in Ireland and one woman who was from Ireland said, 'I don't know ... there's not many blueberries in Ireland. I don't think that's very Irish.' But they went to work and found out there were in fact blue berries over in Ireland, but they were called (blue) herts. Interestingly enough, that's what my father used to call some blueberries," Ennis said.

Maxine Ennis and Sarah Ennis worked with language, as Maxine was a language teacher. "So she did 'Failte,' 'Eirinn go Brach' and a few like that."

The youngest of the group of rug hookers, Maya Morton-Ninomiya, was nine and worked on rugs for the project with her mother, Melody Morton-Ninomiya.

For their rug "Cosmosaic," the mother-daughter team considered the background of their family heritage, realizing Irish was but one part. The Morton-Ninomiyas' family tree includes Swiss, German, Scottish, Mushuau Innu, Irish, Japanese and Newfoundland roots.

So the pair divided a whole rug into four separate images, each inspired by a different location from which the creators' history can be traced, including Ireland. "They did a fantastic piece that kind of depicts a typical home in each of those settings. It's very nice," Ennis said.

Coultas said all of the rugs were developed over the course of about a year, during which the collective of rug hookers met regularly.

"We decided, because people wanted to come together every couple of weeks anyhow, we decided to rent The Lantern (on Barnes Road). So everybody chipped in and we met every second week at The Lantern," she said.

The meetings were a chance to work out snags, discuss ideas, socialize and share materials.

"In terms of materials, we would talk about what kind of colours people wanted, always with the encouragement to use recycled materials," Ennis said. Sharing odds and ends meant hookers could avoid purchasing materials.

Rug hooker Mary Anne Murphy found her needed materials through the sharing, creating "Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden."

"Where I was doing the fairies, I needed sparkling stuff and it's not always easy to find sparkly stuff. But I got all kinds of it," she said. "I never bought any material. I used wool, I used t-shirts, I used jersey, probably jersey."

Murphy said her 36 inch by 28 inch rug came together quickly, despite the detail involved.

"It almost gets compulsive. You get at it and say I want to get this little piece finished, I want to get this flower finished, so time can really whip by," she said.

However, if there was a key piece within "Hooking Our Heritage," it would have to be the 42 inch by 68 inch rug designed by project leader, Ennis and titled "Forty Shades of Green - Penny Rug."

The rug was completed by the work of over 250 people who dropped into the Five Island Art Gallery and added a stitch or two to one of the 167 circles on the rug. The gallery is owned and operated by Ennis' daughter, Laura Coultas.

"We had this big frame so four people could sit in at the frame and mom did little circles as the pennies and people would come in and we'd show them how to hook. So whoever would come in would just hook a little from the penny. Some people did a full penny, most people just did a few stitches. We took their picture and they would also write in a book," Coultas said.

A slideshow of pictures of all of those who helped create the rug - started early in the summer of 2009 and finished just three weeks ago - will be shown during the "Hooking Our Heritage" exhibition.

The "Hooking Our Heritage" rugs will be available for viewing at the Five Island Art Gallery (7 Cove Rd., Tors Cove) beginning on Sunday. The gallery operates from Monday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A tour of the collection around the Irish Loop is being considered for this summer, with the collection then being travelled to Ireland to be displayed during the 2010 Ireland Newfoundland Festival in September.

The rugs created for "Hooking Our Heritage" will be for sale in Tors Cove and in Ireland. Sales will help support the trip to Ireland. Requests will be made to purchasers in Tors Cove, before the Irish exhibition that they hold off claiming the rugs until they return in the fall. However, the rugs will be let go to purchasers should they desire to have them immediately.

The group is considering creating replacements for those rugs taken out of the collection before leaving for Ireland.

Currently, the group has explanations of the inspirations for all of the existing rugs in the "Hooking Our Heritage"projects and Ennis said the group intends to seek out a publisher for a book about the project, potentially to include photos and information from the Irish exhibit.


Irish Heritage in Song

Some of the women involved in the "Hooking Our Heritage" project are also involved in choirs and otherwise musically inclined. Considering this, rug hooker Marion Counsel created a song for the project that includes a starting verse, running into familiar Irish melodies such as "Tou Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra." Counsel's starter verse is as follows:
We are 'Hooking Our Heritage'/ capturing dreams
Hooking Irish and Newfoundland scenes
Making connections from Ireland's shore To Newfoundland and Labrador
Source: Rug hooker and
"Hooking Our Heritage" contributor Mary Anne Murphy