Donegal

Do you love gin? Do you love Donegal? Do you love to support entrepreneurs? Then this one is for YOU!

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Laura Bonner, founder & CEO of the Muff Liquor Co

If you answered yes to all (or indeed any!) of the above questions then this blog is for you.

Laura Bonner is one of my neighbours in rural Inishowen, Co Donegal and she’s about to go live with her crowdfunding investment campaign via the Crowdcube platform on Tuesday 24 September.  If you’ve ever fancied owning a piece of an Irish craft gin company then read on.

I knew Laura’s father long before I knew Laura as the Bonner family company installed our new windows way back when we bought our house in Greencastle 15 years ago.  I then spotted the Muff Liquor Company gin bottles creeping in behind the till in my local Centra in Moville & thought to myself – how on earth are they going to make a cheeky name like that work for their product?!!  Time passed & I was really delighted to find that Laura was joining my Back for Business group in January of this year.  Back for Business is a programme sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland that offers support to people who’ve come home to Ireland from other parts of the world & started a business (check it out if you’re thinking about coming home & have a burning desire to start something – I’ve included the link).

Since January we’ve become firm friends.  I love Laura’s hustle & her generally sunny outlook on life.  She faces every challenge she encounters in business head on & with an air of optimism.  Earlier this week I called up at her Moville HQ to conduct this interview & if I’m honest – to coat-tail (is that even a word? – but if it isn’t you know exactly what I mean don’t you?) on some of the excitement fizzing in the Muff Liquor team around the impending Crowdcube campaign.

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Laura & me at the “bar” in Moville

This is my interview with Laura.  I hope you enjoy the read & even more I hope you’ll believe in & invest in her fabulous company.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t … (By the way, I can confidently predict glorious success this week as when I was in London on Thursday & casually mentioned Muff Gin to a friend of mine, he quickly opened up his What’s App to show me a photo of a bottle of Muff Gin … taken last week at Exeter Rugby Club by the Muff Lickers he’s friendly with 🙂  )

(MM) Tell us briefly your reasons for starting The Muff Liquor Company Laura & give us a bit of background.

(LB) I’ve known since I was 19 that I was going to own The Muff Liquor Company and produce potato vodka. That was always my dream. My Grandad Philip McClenaghan was a potato farmer and he used to make poitin ((MM) if you aren’t Irish & don’t know what this is, follow the link… ) in his barn and I thought there must be a business in this. I went to college and had a solid career which I loved but the feeling in my stomach wouldn’t leave so in 2017 I made the move home and in February 2018 we launched the business with our premium potato based Muff Gin followed by our premium Muff Vodka.

(MM) Do you think it helps to come from a family of entrepreneurs?

(LB) Yes absolutely. I admire my Dad, my brothers and my sister so much. Their determination and work ethic has given me the drive that I have and taught me life

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A bit about Granda McClenaghan

values not only directed at work but that I believe you need in order to succeed.

(MM) Like me you’ve always worked as a woman in a man’s world – do you see that as a drawback or an advantage & tell me why.

(LB) I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t experience certain comments or backlash from a few male peers back in the day but I knew my worth and I always knew their comments were related to their own insecurities. The roles I have had and now have are predominantly male roles but women are being recognised throughout the world as empowering leaders and I predict that trend will continue.

(MM) I’ve met some of your wonderful international team & I know you’re very proud of them.  Why do you think the team & culture is important to get right in a startup?

(LB) I’m an extremely positive person, some say a little too positive but I have to work on that daily. I attract like-minded people and I believe it’s important for everyone in a startup to be on the same page otherwise it won’t work. Starting a business and running a business is difficult but having an amazing team around you helps and I have that. No one got anywhere in life on their own.

(MM) Have you found it difficult to find people for your team and do you place a lot of importance on networking?

Muff 1(LB) No, I’ve been quite lucky. I know in seconds from meeting people if they are for me in work and in my personal life. There have been two occasions where I went against my gut in the last two years and both failed so these days I’ll always listen to myself. I love networking, I love meeting people and I love hearing their stories plus I like to help people so if I can, I will.

(MM) You’ve been quite vocal about how difficult it’s been for you to borrow money from the Irish banks as a new startup.  There’s a bit of a fashion in Ireland (north & south) for banks to position themselves as “friends” to startups.  Do you think they should be more transparent about what they’re really offering?

(LB) Yes, I’ve found it extremely difficult and frustrating. Very disappointing to have institutes that don’t understand our business’s potential as they see us as high risk but if they did their research they would know that the global market has grown rapidly in recent years with the craft spirit market expected to reach USD 80.43 billion globally by 2025 according to the latest report from Grand View Research Inc. It would be great to have Ireland leading this charge as the spirits we as a country are producing are phenomenal.

(MM) Related to that last question, as a Donegal based startup you’re very familiar with the support currently offered by the Irish government.  What more could the government do for rural businesses & especially for Donegal based startups?

(LB) Every new business once established should be contacted by their LEO as by the time I contacted them I was too late to access many of the grants available to Irish startups.

(MM) What advice would you give to anyone else thinking about starting a business in

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This sign in the Muff Liquor HQ made me laugh … a lot!

Donegal?

(LB) I love Donegal, it’s my home. I want to create jobs locally and grow my business here. It’s harder for sure but like anything – if you care enough you’ll make it work. My only advice would be to contact the LEO office before you start and get the startup help offered from the very beginning.

(MM) You’re raising money via the crowdfunding based platform Crowdcube.  Any advice for anyone else going down this route?

(LB) I didn’t want to do it, I felt I should have been supported by our Bank and to have to part with equity at this stage is a hard pill to swallow.  However, it was our only option and so far it’s been great.  I’m looking forward to welcoming our new investors, fans and ambassadors. We’re really enjoying the campaign and the response has been incredible. It’s great to have interest from people who can see our potential and believe in us and know that we’re going to do it!

(MM) How can anyone reading this blog get involved in supporting you via your Crowdcube campaign?

(LB) Our investment opens officially at 9am Tuesday 24 September.  Anyone who’s interested in grabbing a piece of the action & becoming another fan of Muff can pre-register via our website at https://www.themuffliquorcompany.com/invest

(MM) Last one Laura – back to that company name – how did you come up with it & have you had any negative reactions?

Donegal people are used to hearing about Muff village.  Since we started using it for our spirits, the name & its connotations are already raising eyebrows across social media.  I’m confident all that will change after everyone gets a taste of our Muff Gin & becomes a Muff Licker themselves.  The name represents the cheeky identity I wanted for the company but I’m sure it’s the taste of our products that everyone will remember; not the name.

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Laura at her desk – both phones never far away!

I Am in My Mother’s House

Anyone who knows me well will know that our move back to Ireland has been on the cards since way before Christmas.  At first we were going to move in March, then it was April and eventually we booked the Liverpool – Belfast ferry for 17 May because we knew that without a firm marker in the sand, the drift would continue.  London is a hard place to say goodbye to but the pull of Mother Ireland is very strong.  In my case there was another strong driver – a desire to spend more time with my own (nearly) 87 year old mother.

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Mum back from hospital at her kitchen table

I increasingly felt as if I’d short changed my Mum in recent times.  During the Learning Pool years my Mum used to say to me that she’d seen me more frequently when I’d lived in London – even though my Derry office was only 10 or so miles from her home.  That’s one of the realities of building a successful startup I’m afraid.  The amount of time it consumes really takes its toll on your family.

Then on the morning of 13 May, just as I was about to walk into a board meeting on my last planned working day before the “big move”, I received a phone call to say that my Mum had had a fall in her home the night before, had been lying on the floor all night long & was just being taken by ambulance to Letterkenny hospital.  I spoke to my sister who jumped into her car & headed for Donegal.  As I made that call my stomach turned over and I felt the guilt that had been hovering somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 12 months or so land with a thud.

St Patrick

St Patrick

Fast forward a month.  Mum is out of hospital and I’m living with her in her house in Donegal.  I’ve been here since the day I stepped off the ferry in Belfast.  I spent a 2 week stretch here before back in 2013 when Mum was recovering from a hip replacement operation.  That was the longest period of time I’d spent with her since leaving home for university in summer 1977.  I don’t know if anyone else reading this blog has returned to live with an elderly parent.  I think it’s more usual for the parent to make the move – but my Mum doesn’t want to go anywhere else.  She’s happy here in her own home, with her dog and surrounded by all her own things and I can understand that.

To say it feels strange is an understatement.  I’ve swapped the life of a carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly – dipping in & out of stuff as I please – for someone who needs to be solid & reliable.  Someone who needs to be the same calm, patient, pleasant and well-organised person every day.

Every morning at breakfast I can clearly see my great-grandfather’s teacup in the display

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Great grandfather’s teacup

cabinet – and he died in 1934.  I stumble across random things from my childhood several times a day – my plastic radio moneybox from the early 1960s stashed next to the weed killer in the garden shed, a dusty pink bonnet I can vaguely remember wearing for best as a 3 year old – now faded but still with its quality lining and fake fur trim intact.  People who were dead long before I was born stare back at me from frames on the walls.  I look for the family resemblances in their faces.

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My moneybox from 1963

When I wake up in the morning, the first things I see include St Patrick in all his glory and then a photo of my Mum, my sister & I taken in November 1986, heading out for my Dad’s 60th birthday celebrations.  On that evening he had less than 18 months to live but none of us knew that at the time.

So what have I learned so far.  The time has been brief but the lessons are big ones.  I’ve learned that sometimes the things that seem important aren’t the things that are important.  I’ve learned to slow down – on any number of fronts.  I’m having to learn that patience is my friend.  Patience is something I’ve never had much of or thought I had much need of – urgency has always been my motto.  I’m learning not to over analyse and to take each day as it comes.  I’m learning to accept that someone else comes first and that their needs are far more important than mine.

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My bonnet – still pretty

I’m learning to appreciate the little things – a story long forgotten suddenly retold, the fun of a fox coming down the hill and through the fence and so close to the kitchen window that we could see its whiskers, the daily magpie versus jackdaw battle over the breakfast leftovers, the relief of listening to someone you’re caring for getting a decent, unbroken night’s sleep, a brief walk along the shore with Mum’s dog, reading real books late at night (there’s no broadband here).  There’s a lot to be said for remaining in one place for a period of time.  I watch the ever changing views of Lough Foyle and the moving colours of the hillsides and the big Donegal sky through every window.  I inspect the strawberries, tomatoes, gooseberries and bilberries every day for progress.  I go to the back door in the evening & look at the glorious Donegal sunsets.  Everything has slowed right down to a snail’s pace.

It’s not all good.  The standard set of hospital tests conducted in the days following her fall identified the presence of a tumour in Mum’s right lung.  I will never forget the 20 minutes I spent with the kindly, nervous doctor as he explained the significance and likely consequences of that to me or the phone call afterwards with my sister from Letterkenny hospital car park.  I didn’t intend to tell her on the phone but I couldn’t help it.

I thought I was coming home to enjoy the company of a less independent parent who’d just given up driving so was more housebound than she likes to be.  To drop in a couple of times a day in passing for a cup of tea and a yarn.  To collect my Mum to nip to the shops in Derry or go out for lunch.

Turns out I was wrong.  My role instead is one I am sharing with my sister.  We are learning to be a perfect tag team.  Good cop and bad cop.  Happy and sad in equal measures.  Decision makers and gatekeepers.  Our shared role is that of final companions, comforters, amateur nurses, cooks and cleaners, encouragers, tea makers and entertainers of visitors, providers of conversation when there isn’t much going on.  We are the oil that keeps the various wheels turning as time slowly passes.  It’s a role that we, as many others before and after us, are embracing to the best of our ability – grateful to our spouses and families for their support, grateful to circumstances that mean we have the time and opportunity to be of service in this very special way, grateful to the Irish health service for everything it and its agents are doing for us, grateful that we have each other.

Selfie in hospital with Mum

Hospital selfie – Mum, Trish & me

It makes me sad when people say to us “Your mother has had a wonderful life”.  We have a saying here in Ireland – the longer you have them, the longer you want to keep them.  And that’s the place I’m inhabiting right now.  A place of transition that’s neither one thing or the other.  A place that isn’t quite real or of our usual world.

I have no knowledge of the road that lies ahead but I’m scared of it.  I’m scared that I won’t cope or won’t be good enough or strong enough.  I don’t want to let my mother down.  I don’t want to let my sister down.  Deep down I know we will manage.  We always do, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, be a bit kinder to those nearest to you today.  At the end of the day, all of that other stuff is of no consequence.  It’s people that really matter in this life.

Why did I write this blog?  Three main reasons – maybe some of you will have some words of wisdom for us, maybe it will help another person in some small way and lastly, it’s less painful than telling everyone I know individually on a one-to-one basis.  Thank you for reading.

Addendum – 26 August 2016

We lost Margaret last Friday morning, 19 August.  She passed away peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital on the morning of her 87th birthday.  Trish & I were both at her side.  She had a remarkable life full of adventures and laughs.  We had an incredible last summer with her in Donegal.  We went out most days for a drive and for lunch, entertained a lot of visitors and most of all we had a lot of fun.

We’re very fortunate to have been able to spend that precious time with Mum & it’s brought us closer together as sisters.

Thank you to everyone who’s read & commented on this blog & on my Twitter feed or on Patricia’s Facebook.  Thanks also to everyone who came to the wake & funeral & to the people who’ve kept us going since May with support & love.  We appreciate each and every one of you.

Last but not least, thanks to the nurses of Surgical 1 in Letterkenny.  Despite your resource shortages you never let that get in the way of your care for Margaret or the incredible kindness you extended to us.

Every cloud has a silver lining – oh yes it does

Mary_and_trish_with_mum

Last week, dear readers, I nearly killed my Mum.

Don’t worry – I haven’t started some peculiar matricide pursuit; it was an accident – but unforgivable never the less.

I took my family to Rome for a break & the temperature last Wednesday in the square in front of St Peter’s Basilica was a scorchio 44 degrees C.  Poor Mum collapsed with heat stroke inside St Peter’s & I eventually had to send for the doctor.  All’s well that ends well & she’s fine since returning to Donegal where our Irish summer temperatures are a good 30 degrees lower.  It didn’t half give me a scare & the stuff that went through my head in that hour & a half I’ve pushed away somewhere so I won’t have to think about it again.

The outcome was that Mum couldn’t go back out in that heat for the next few days – so my sister & I (that’s all of us in the photo) took it in turns to stay in our apartment with her.  No internet, no books apart from Rome guides in English, no English speaking programmes on the tv – how on earth would we pass the time?  Guess what – we resorted to conversation & I have to tell you it really wasn’t that bad.

I spent hours lying on the sofa listening to Mum telling me stories about things that happened in her lifetime & stuff she’d heard about when she was a child.  Some of it I’d heard before but a lot of it was brand new.  I heard about:

·         the Donegal friend of my grandmother who’d gone to see someone off to America and got on the boat herself, taking her mother’s elastic sided boots that she’d borrowed with her – my grandmother had to go back & break the news to the girl’s mother (I remember the same woman returning to Donegal for the first time in all those years when she was an old person when I was a child)

·         the day the soot fell down the chimney covering my sister who was in her cot beside the fire – moments before my grandmother was due to arrive to visit us in Yorkshire

·         all the jobs my father did as a teenager between leaving school & moving to England

·         the details of my parents wedding which had a guest list of 6 people plus the priest – my Mum is the only one of that group still alive

·         an escaped prisoner that my grandmother had given sanctuary to whilst my grandfather was in hospital in the early 1960s

·         stories from Mum’s working life as a clippie on the buses of South Yorkshire Transport between Doncaster & Barnsley in the 1950s

and loads of other interesting stuff.  We covered a lot of ground & it was thoroughly enjoyable.  So it’s true – every cloud has a silver lining & being offline for a few days really isn’t that bad.  Tell me some of your silver lining stories please.