Following the 2019 ILDN National Enterprise Awards, Ray Lucey spoke to outright winner Margaret O’Connor about Notions, Lady Gaga and entrepreneurship

A thrilled Margaret O’Connor from Co Clare was still taking in the news that she had won the 2019 ILDN National Enterprise Awards when Changing Ireland spoke to her.

She really hadn’t expected to win outright, having entered other competitions in which her hopes were dashed.

“It’s really nice to win because I am representing the girls and the boys who are from farming backgrounds and isolated areas who want to do creative things,” she said. “I am just so surprised; it’s nice to be recognised in your own country.”

All of the 17 finalists had inspirational stories, but Margaret’s stood out.

Margaret O'Connor and Minister Regina O'Doherty

Margaret O’Connor, pictured at the ILDN National Enterprise Awards ceremony with Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty. Photo: Allen Meagher.

As people gathered around to congratulate her, she told us how she set up her own company when she went on the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA) scheme.

“Moving home from London was a massive step, coming from the hustle and bustle to rural Ireland. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to take the plunge and, without [Clare Local Development Company], I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

“There was a gap in the market, and Clare Local Development saw that and that’s why they gave me the opportunity to do the Back to Work Scheme,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the scheme, I wouldn’t be here. I’m so grateful for it.”

A designer from birth?

Margaret (33) began her designer career at the tender age of 11 by making little woollen men with tiny hurleys and helmets.

“I was really into Clare hurling,” she said.

As an adult, she spent years studying and working abroad before becoming a success at home. Based in London, she made a name for herself. For instance, she worked with Philip Treacy – also a hat-maker – in preparation for a British royal wedding in 2011.

“I studied in Kensington and Chelsea and got my millinery papers. I really grafted though for a long eight years,” she said.

She was trained by some of the leading lights of the millinery industry, such as Yvette Jelfs, Kristen Scott and Sarah Cant. She recalled “working with Noel Stewart during London Fashion Week doing all the high-end stuff”.

Years earlier, she had studied sculpture and painting, but made a career decision after seeing an exhibition by Philip Treacy: “After that, I had the lust for making hats.”

“I was constantly trying to hone my craft and trying to have my own voice. It’s great working for big designers, but you have to have your own story.”

Through the BTWEA, she opened her own shop, Notions, in Ennis two years ago. She hopes her award will “encourage other young people like me”.

Hatter to the stars

A major milestone in Margaret’s career was when Lady Gaga wore one of her creations to an Isabella Blows exhibition in London. Finbar Furey is also a fan. This happened shortly after a period of setbacks and Margaret truly believes that “sometimes a knock can be good. I think it makes you more determined to prove everyone wrong”.

Did she think she was in the running for the ILDN National Enterprise Award?

“No, because I’ve been to three awards lately and I lost every one of them.” Now, Margaret is shooting for the stars and wants to work with them more.

“Some people have small dreams that turn into big dreams. I was told not to go to art college; that I wasn’t good enough. I want to have my hats in films… Have credits in a movie that wins an Oscar.”

However, she is very conscious of serving a wide audience, and not just the stars. She prices her work as affordably as possible and also rents out headpieces.

Drop into her shop in Ennis and see for yourself.