It’s not easy to create something unique, but Gabriel Gillespie, who lives in Edenderry but is originally from Donegal, has been making St Brigid’s crosses like no other for years now.
Traditionally, a St Brigid’s cross is usually small and crafted with rushes made by children in schools for the saint’s feast day – February 1.
How this Irishman’s craft stands out is he has gone a step further, using metal wire to create lasting crosses made in county colours.
Gabriel Gillespie has been giving these handmade St Brigid’s crosses for free to friends and family for years, telling them to put them above their doors. He has always felt attracted to the image of the cross.
Mr Gillespie explains: “We all know the story, every house would have a St Brigid’s cross on them to keep them safe from fire and everything else. Last year, with Covid, I was working from home and I had a bit more time in the evenings and I wasn’t travelling to work, it’s two hours every day, I found this metal wire and that’s when I had this notion to make a Kilkenny cross, black and amber, I don’t know why.”
From there he perfected his method and has been making crosses in county and club colours for people across Ireland. It’s still early days as it was really mid-November, 2020 that he started building on his sales but even so he has a few tales to tell about the interactions he’s had with customers – part of the process he particularly enjoys.
Mr Gillespie was a plumber in Dublin – having moved there from Donegal – before the recession, where he met his wife Teresa. They now have three daughters Maeve (7), Grace (5) and Rose (3) and he works full-time in addition to making St Brigid’s crosses in the evenings and on weekends. He named his business Meenavean after the area in Donegal his father and grandparents hailed from.
It wasn’t always easy as he says he’s made hundreds, with the first ones being “way off the mark”.
“There’s quite a few tricks you have to learn and practice to be able to make them. I would have made loads of them and let’s say they wouldn’t be as nice looking as they are now.”
Mr Gillespie then went about getting a patent on his design and sold his old 1993 motorcycle to put into his new business.
He said: “I couldn’t afford lawyers or solicitors or whatever so I had to read up on the legislation for design patents with the IPOI (Intellectual Property Office of Ireland), I applied and I got great help. Because I’m not from a legal background they gave me a few tips along the way. People are very caring!”
However, he says the reason he got the design patented was to leave a legacy, “With the patents there’s a date and confirmation that it was a lad from Donegal who made them”.
“I think the nicest crosses of the whole lot are the traditional ones made of rushes and reeds and the actual tradition of the making of the crosses on February 1 and what they symbolise in relation to St Brigid and also to protect the home and the people that made them from fire and disease: that is paramount to me.
“I’m lucky in the sense I can make them now at a time where I have access to nice coloured metal and stuff, at the time people first started making them they only had rushes. What those people did with reeds and rushes, they probably hardly had food on the table, was brilliant.
It was in his grandparents’ house that Mr Gillespie says he noticed he was always drawn to the St Brigid’s crosses they made.
“When I was a child visiting my grandparents and you’d be sitting there looking around, looking at clocks or looking at all the old stuff you know, in your own world, but I would always be looking at the crosses that they made. I suppose I was drawn to the cross, I think a lot of people are drawn to the cross,” he said.
“I have been drawn to making them, there is something driving me to make them, even before I sold a cross. I have buckets in the shed, I’ve been making them for years, I don’t know why that is and I can’t explain it. I do know one thing: I really love making them, I really do.”
Looking to the future, Mr Gillespie adds: “I’m going to keep making my crosses anyway, I’ve been making them before the start of this [pandemic] and that’s not going to change. I like knowing who it is for, if somebody trusts me to make something for a mother, a father or son or daughter, I like thinking about where it’s going rather than just making a Dublin cross for the sake of a Dublin cross.
“I hope I don’t lose that, if somebody wants to message me or email me that’s no problem. It takes me a few hours to make one and assemble so it’s not something I’m making in two minutes, putting it together and boxing it and posting it, it’s all handmade. It all takes time.
“It gives me a great buzz to know you’re making something nice for some good people. This started out from friends and family but I’m on a journey and I think it’s only starting.”
A version of this interview first appeared in The Irish Catholic Newspaper in March, 2021. The interview has been repurposed with the explicit permission of Chai Brady and The Irish Catholic newspaper.