Meet the Kildare woman leading the willow coffin revolution

Basket-maker, artist, and sculptor, Paul Finch, with Beth Murphy, display some of the Caskets crafted at Willow Wonder, Redhills, Kildare. hoto Tony Keane.
Coffins made from willows – grown and crafted in Kildare. A new concept to challenge the traditional ornate heavy polished wooden casket. So where did it all begin?

Coffins made from willows – grown and crafted in Kildare. A new concept to challenge the traditional ornate heavy polished wooden casket. So where did it all begin?

A chance encounter in the Kildare Town Heritage Centre some months ago lead to the discovery that one of the first Irish workshops to teach people how to make willow coffins was being organised in Kildare town.

Local artist and basket maker, Beth Murphy happened to drop by while the Leinster Leader was catching up on tourism initiatives. Beth mentioned she was planning on holding a workshop in April. Fascinated by this new idea, I invited myself along to find out more.

As the morning of the workshop dawns on Friday April 11, Beth explains:“More and more people are thinking about how they would like their last impact on this earth to be, and they want to have a sustainable, locally sourced product, made with locally grown organic materials, grown in a way that fosters biodiversity, and is environmentally friendly rather than from some tropical timber imported from half way across the world.”

“A client of (her website) arrived at the door on a Sunday morning and requested a willow coffin for his wife who was ill in hospital and had about three days to live. She loved willow and had previously bought garden sculptures from us, I was saddened by the fact we could not help her husband at this time. When a course on making willow coffins came available, both Paul Finch and I booked on.

“It was a full-on three-day weaving course, which did not include the finishing elements, such as sealing, lining and all the trimming. Of course, being a skilled basket maker helps, just like anything, it’s a craft where you can see skill in the finished product. It hurts me when I see a badly-made coffin – the skilled weaver works very tightly and accurately, and the end piece should be strong without movement and definitely not noisy.”

On seeing the finished product, it was surprising to see how strong the willow is. There is no creaking or give when prodded or pushed.

“This was new territory for us, so I decided to visit the local undertakers to get their perspective on our willow coffins. Richard Persse from Persse Funeral Directors was very helpful and sent us away with typical lining, trimmings, what the finishing standards would have to be for the finished coffin to be ready for use. We use organic cotton lining and a muslin trim with a shredded paper stuffed pillow,” she explains.

It can be hard dealing with death and personal grief, but the artist found comfort in helping others.

“On a personal level, I was amazed how comfortable I felt around this new territory. When you make coffins, you open up a new path, people share their losses and you hold a space for them to do so, this is not something you learn on a coffin making course. It’s a subject we don’t talk about generally, and being in the business of coffin making inspires people to chat light heartily about a time in our lives that is of huge emotional loss.

“We are living in a time of choices; we can choose to be cremated now. One of our coffins was used by Thompson’s funeral directors from Waterford last year in a cremation. Thompsons highly commend the craftsmanship in our coffin. You can choose if you want to be buried in a green graveyard – this is something we are researching for Kildare at the moment I personally feel every community should have a green graveyard, no concrete, and no headstones, a native tree planted to mark the spot, green woodland, less cost and better for the environment.”

Growing up on the Rathbride Road, Beth’s connection with the local landscape is enduring. Her parents Paddy and Ann Murphy are a great support and she thrives in her surroundings.

“The Curragh plains were my playground. I grew up in the firs. I was fascinated by the stories of the Wren Women,” she said.

In fact, she is still artistically inspired by them today. Willow Wonder is now up and running 12 years, but her first foray into the arts came through the Bealtaine Festival in Newbridge, which lead to her being commissioned for public art projects.

“Anne Kelleher was a great support to my work in the early days, and I was delighted when she requested a Living Willow Arbour for Kildare Education Centre in memory of much loved and respected environmentalist Dr Anne Behan back in 2005. Later that year I was requested to plant a living Arbour at St Bridget’s Well, and in 2006 Joe Lacey from Coill Dubh National School, having seen my work in The Education Centre, requested a living willow piece for the school, I have been working with the teachers and students and parents from Coill Dubh to date to develop their much loved playground.”

Her biggest living willow project to date is a labyrinth in the grounds of Hope Castle, Castleblaney in Co. Monaghan, which measures 16m x 16m.

This EU-funded project began life as a cross border peace initiative and involved five separate towns working on individual projects for their local area. A huge tourist attraction, World Labyrinth Day has been celebrated there for the past four years.

Willow Wonder is based on the premise of holding on to past traditions. Beth grows 15 varieties of willow at her home. She runs workshops in basketry, living willow sculpture and creative art with willow. She also creates private commissions, public art and works with the schools through Kildare County Council on living willow projects and biodiversity through the Green Schools programme. She is also a member of the Irish Basket Makers Association,

The willow coffin making is another branch of the business. She warns that often willow coffins are imported from places like Thailand, and the purchaser may be unaware they are not Irish, or even made from willow at all.

“We need to create jobs, why not sustainable jobs? This course will empower people to work with sustainable materials for a better environment. Shop local, support your local community, meet the maker. All too often people say to me ‘they had a willow coffin’ and it was made in Ireland, unfortunately we don’t have the same rules and regulations as we are working towards in our food industry,” she stresses.

Willow coffins can also be provided for clients’ pets.

Two of the men on the workshop come from different backgrounds. Michael wants to learn the trade. The former quarry worker from Cavan has been unemployed and is hoping to make a business out of making willow coffins. Another man from Portlaoise has basket making in his blood and is trying his hand at making coffins.

As the views stretch out across Kildare with the Willows wafting in the breeze, one can see how you could fall in love with this lifestyle which is so entwined with nature.

For further information, contact Beth on 087 6462528 or email or