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riGht Aoibheann, wearing a scarf of her own design, sits among her art collection. The bunny painting is by Atsushi Kaga, the mannequin is by Philip Jenkinson, the “howyanowloveen” neon sign she had made to order in Hong Kong, and the poster is from Inis Iorr’s Drop Everything. Below A vintage map of Iceland.

the darling of galway

Aoibheann Mac Namara, founder of the unique Ard Bia café, has the drive and energy to create a fascinating brand. PHOTOGRAPHY verity welstead

WORDS amanda cochrane


ell anyone you are writing a feature about what’s going on in Galway and you’ll be told you have to speak to Aoibheann Mac Namara. And they’d be right. Energetic, warm, friendly and very creative, Aoibheann has that enviable, almost indescribable quality that makes you feel you ought to be doing so much more with your life. Ard Bia is making an exciting name for itself – as far afield as New York, a place that is always on the lookout for talent. The story starts in 2001 in Aoibheann’s home town of Ardara, Co Donegal, where she set up her first Ard Bia café. She moved to Galway, which she describes as “a magical place, my home”, and today Ard Bia at Nimmos overlooks the Claddagh Basin on the River Corrib. It is the go-to eatery in the West, where travellers and locals alike flock to feel nourished and nurtured. 35

ABOVE the fridge acts as a noticeboard for photos and memories. the Vitali water cooler is from Connemara Hamper. RIGHT the dresser is from astór in galway and is filled with a selection of finds from fairs and markets. BELOW RIGHT the pub painting is by spanish artist jose yagüe, the horse is by Cian McConn, and the display case was designed by joana astolfi.

Everything on the menu is homemade, wholesome and hearty, with a Middle Eastern twist – Aoibheann often travels to exciting destinations such as Beirut, Turkey and Morocco – and the design is a quirky and charming alchemy of mismatched china, chunky wooden tables, spindle back chairs, displays of art and shelves laden with Ard Bia’s own range of preserves and jams. She studied history of art and architecture in UCD and went on to do arts administration in Galway. Pretty well known for her fond way of calling most people “darling”, hipster Aoibheann (she sports a brilliant close crop) is quite the mover and shaker. As well as running Ard Bia, she collaborates with emerging and well known artists curating regular exhibitions in the café – Cian McConn will be exhibiting during Galway Arts Week and Lebanese artist Rouba Mourtada will show her work in September. She is also about to set up her own ethical clothing label, co-wrote the very beautifully produced Ard Bia Cookbook and is considering opening a Brooklyn branch of Ard Bia. Good grief, just the thought would leave mere mortals feeling exhausted. “Sometimes I feel like I might prefer a simple life, but then I would probably get bored,” she says with a chortle of laughter. “I’m lucky. I’m my own boss. I have people from all over the world dropping into my restaurant and that’s so fascinating. But Ard Bia is more than a restaurant, it is a space – and within a space of openness, anything is possible.”


IMAGE INTERIORS & LIVING july-august 2013

this life

Aoibheann’s house, overlooking the River Corrib, hosts an eclectic mix of pieces. The drying rack was sourced online, the coffee tins on the shelf are from Greece, and the red sofa was bought in London.


What gave you the idea to set up ard Bia? ard Bia translated literally means “high food” in irish. the name derives from where it all began, in my small donegal town of ardara, where there were about 14 pubs, but there was nowhere for people to go to eat. so it began as ardara Food and later evolved into ard Bia. When and Why did you move to galWay? We had to close down ard Bia in ardara over the winter months, and i’d always thought of galway as a magical place. We opened ard Bia in the town and it mushroomed from there. We moved to nimmos, which had been an established restaurant for over 15 years, and rather than get rid of nimmos, we decided to call the restaurant ard Bia at nimmos. Both restaurants had strong identities and it’s been a successful merging of the two. did you plan to Work in the Food Business? no, never. i love food and creating food, but i’m not a cook. i liked the idea of creating a space where people feel enriched gastronomically and spiritually. however, my mum and granny were both good cooks, and i know good food when i see it. Who are your Food heroes? pretty much everyone who spoke at the recent Ballymaloe literary Festival. i love kamal mouzawak, because he’s all about inclusiveness and spiritual empowerment. and i greatly admire myrtle and darina allen, because really they are the founders of it all. hoW do you comBine your Working liFe With your love and interest in travel? i love galway, but it’s relatively limited, so my work doesn’t stop where my life begins. there’s a bigger world out there and i’m keen to be part of it. i go to places i’m interested in – i’ve just been to Bodrum in turkey and i regularly visit Berlin and Brooklyn in new york. i always come back with lots of ideas and generally something sticks. so our menu is mostly irish with a middle eastern flavour. Where is your Favourite place you’ve travelled? definitely Beirut. Food there is their lifeblood and delves into their whole culture. the food culture is so evolved, it’s magnificent. hoW do you comBine your travels With having a young son? i’m a single mum, so oni, who is five, always travels with me. he gets a lot of attention, 38

IMAGE INTERIORS & LIVING july-august 2013

this life

ABOVE The cup installation is by Dublin-based artist Jennie Moran. ABOVE RIGHT Aoibheann among her collection of vintage maps. OPPOSITE PAGE, TOP LEFT A goat’s cheese, almond and roast red pepper romesco open sandwich at Ard Bia. MIDDLE Ard Bia has its own range of relishes, oils and chutneys, which Aoibheann is planning to develop. BOTTOM Ard Bia is the perfect spot for a gossip over a hearty slab of Victoria sponge and a reviving pot of tea. TOP RIGHT The newly-designed upstairs area of Ard Bia is great for functions and bigger groups.

but he’s really up for that. When we travelled to Beirut, he went to school there and he was eating flatbreads in the markets. I hope travel and food will be part of his fabric. What Is your maIn role? I’m the giver outer! no, not really, my main job is tweaking and managing people. I’ve got a team of 25 and they’re amazing. I’m more involved in the conceptual work, such as arts sponsorship and events. We are working with Body & soul, which is very advantageous, as it says what we are all about. hoW are you plannIng to develop ard BIa? We are involved in lots of product ranges, such as pomegranate molasses and orange blossom water, and we are talking to stores such as Fallon & Byrne in dublin, but also looking at the uK and further afield. I don’t want to sell raspberry jam – there’s plenty of that out there already. hoW dId the ard BIa cooKBooK come aBout? a lot of people were asking us for a cookbook, so we responded to that. a friend introduced me to aoife carrigy and we met up and said let’s do it. two years on, and we’re producing an app from the book. people have asked me if I’m doing a second one, but I’m not. It was a huge undertaking. IF you hadn’t set up ard BIa, What else Would you Be doIng? I don’t think I’d be doing anything that I’m not doing already. I’m designing a range of ethical and multi-generational clothing, such as denim workwear and smocks, and working with a company in India. I am also writing, which I love – I did a piece on Beirut for The Irish Times and have written for Galway Now and ezine Drop Everything – and would like to write more. But mostly, ard Bia feels so right. What’s next For you and ard BIa? We get told a lot that there is nothing like us in paris or Boston and we are in talks with a number of people who are interested in the brand. We are talking to some people who are interested in us having our restaurant in their hotel in Brooklyn. It’s all at the beginning stages, but Brooklyn connects with me and is close to my heart. Ard Bia at Nimmos, Spanish Arch, Galway, 091 561114; 39