Weaving magic from Hungary to Ireland
2008-01-17 15:45:11 -

 In the latest instalment of Metro Eireann’s Meet The Boss, SANDY HAZEL speaks to Barbara Bereczki of Natural Willow, importer of willow products from Hungary 

Barbara Bereczki has been living in Cork for the past three years, having departed her native Hungary in search of a better life: “Hungary is a poor country,” she explains, “The average salary is about 200 [euro] a month and yet the prices are the same as in Ireland, so there is a reason for emigrating to make some money, but also to improve my English.”

At first, Bereczki worked in a hostel as a cleaner and waitress. “I then got some work with a mobile bathroom pod company,” she says, “I was a cleaner, tiler, plumber, everything. Then I was offered a supervisor position which was good.”  A stint at Aldi proved a good experience for Bereczki: “I liked it there, I was on the till as a cashier and it was good for my language skills.”

Then Bereczki and her boyfriend decided to do something for themselves. “We wanted to have work where there is no boss, where we are the boss of ourselves. We took our Hungarian-based family business and said we would import and sell here in Ireland. We call it Natural Willow.”

The business is linked to a long-established willow weaving craft business. “In the south-east of Hungary this is a traditional industry. Bekesh is the area where willow is grown and basket making and weaving has been done there for generations. I believe that fewer and fewer people in Ireland practise this type of basket making now, but that it used to be also an Irish tradition.”

This type of craft is labour intensive and sometimes the raw materials can be expensive and scarce in Ireland, so basket making has become an artisan activity with baskets often seen as a luxury commodity. Bereczki saw the potential for importing the finished product from Hungary and began doing markets in Ireland.

“We started trading in the markets and found that it was not easy in the beginning. We saw there was no profit in wholesale and decided to do retail. Although Irish people like contemporary designs we find that traditional shapes of baskets also sell well. Transport and delivery is our biggest cost at the moment, so getting the baskets to market is important. We do markets at Kenmare, Mitchelstown, Ban-try, Ennis and sometimes other markets in other counties. We have also done the Christmas fairs.”

The most popular design at the moment is a miniature tractor made entirely from willow. They are decorative but many of the willow creations are practical: baskets for laundry, logs, shopping or picnics.

“We can also make to order – any size and specifications,” says Bereczki. “We can help a client to create a piece. We also do furniture, chairs, tables, shelves, cupboards, everything can be made out of willow.”

Bereczki says that willow is popular in Hungary as it is a totally natural product and renowned for its strength.

“My mother has had one of these shopping baskets for nearly thirty years. It is not broken or anything. They are brilliant value for money.”
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