Irish craft road trip
Words Jeanette Farrell & Mark Hooper
Photographs Brian Doherty
Hole & Corner goes on the road to discover some of the finest makers in Ireland to discover a refreshing approach where balance is paramount and craft is a narrative informing everything they do…
Established in the aftermath of the Irish government’s ‘Design in Ireland’ paper published in 1961, the Kilkenny Design Workshop (KDW) was created by WH Walsh as the first government-sponsored design agency in the world, tasked with recruiting artists and designers from across the globe to teach at their headquarters in the stables of Kilkenny Castle.
That mantle has since been picked up by the Design and Craft Council of Ireland (DCCOI), using Kilkenny as its base to sell Irish design on the global market.
For Karen Hennessy chief executive of DCCOI, the Scandinavian approach, which heavily influenced the original 1961 report, still resonates: ‘People love their homes there and aren’t constantly trading up to bigger and better; where each object that you have within your home is important and has significance,’ she says. ‘I think Irish people have an understanding of that much more.’
Though not a commercial venture, the Design and Craft Council runs a Ceramics Skills and Design training course in the idyllic maker stronghold of Thomastown in Kilkenny – an essential place in the story of Irish craft. Set up and run by Stoke native Gus Mabelson since 1990, to address a gap in the employment market for highly skilled potters, the school has operated amid the peaks and troughs of the Irish economy in a renovated mill on the banks of the River Weir. ‘In 1995 there were 22 jobs on the noticeboard for 12 graduating students,’ he recalls. ‘They were snapped up. There’s always been a big demand for handmade ceramics; Ikea wasn’t even on the island and there were no industrial competitors, so a lot of people bought functional, handmade pots.’ The mill that was gradually repaired and renovated over the years by Mabelson and his team. Buoyed by the calibre of graduates from Thomastown and a network of highly skilled makers that dot the country (including the renowned Nicholas Mosse close by), Mabelson enthuses that ‘ceramics in Ireland has never been stronger’. And if anyone would know, he would.
Waterford, on the southeastern coast of Ireland, has long been synonymous with crystal cutting thanks to the crystal and glassware giant that took its hometown as a brand name. Anike Tyrell’s visionary project, J Hill’s Standard, began with the impulse to restore crystal cutting to the region after Waterford Crystal temporarily closed in 2009 (after a takeover it has now relocated close to its original roots), and to save a skill set and a legacy that was very close to extinction. Together with master cutter Eamonn Terry, who trained with Waterford Crystal as an apprentice in 1970, the pair operate from a workshop in An Ring, in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht.
Named after a renowned whisky bonder from the 1890’s who lived in the port town of Kilrush, Country Clare, JJ Corry is a new whiskey brand from The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Co, set up in September 2015 by Louise McGuane with the stated aim of bringing back the lost art of Irish whiskey bonding. Using leftover barrels of bourbon, port, rum and Bordeaux (just as the original JJ Corry did), the unique aged casks are housed in a purpose-built rackhouse on McGuane’s farm, taking advantage of the unique coastal microclimate of Cooraclare.
It’s probably quite safe to say that there’s nowhere like Galway City, perched on the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean – and there’s certainly no one quite like Aoibheann McNamara and Triona Lewis of the Tweed Project. With no longterm plan apart from the beautiful linen shirts and tweed trousers they envisioned on themselves, they launched in 2014 and very quickly realised that they ‘had created a brand without knowing it – and that it was a very strong brand,’ as McNamara explains.
Taking place biannually on Inis Oírr in the Aras Islands, Drop Everything could well be the perfect festival. As its founder Mary Neally explains, ‘It’s focused on people who do. I’m trying to get away from the super-programming of festivals these days, with every minute of the day scheduled within an inch of your life and 14 things that you want to see on all at once. There’s only one thing on at any given time. The aim is to alleviate the ‘fear of missing out’ stress that seems to be over all of our lives. On island time it’s ok to be late, there’s no such thing as missing anything, everyone is where they should be – you might be at the talk on graphic design, or you might be standing on a shipwreck at the other end of the island, swimming with a dangerous dolphin or having a pint and a chat with a barman. I just invite the people to come and the island takes care of the rest.’ The next festival takes place from 25-27 May 2018.
Legendary among the community of makers the length and breadth of Ireland, Horgan settled in Leenane, Connemara in the 1970s with his wife Delores and set about teaching himself basket weaving while planting a forest of willows. From his workshop, warmed by a turf fire, he still makes functional baskets to order, but his more artistic designs have been displayed in galleries internationally. Weaving a ‘skib’ – a basket traditional to the west of Ireland – in colours that seem almost unearthly (but occur naturally around this part of the world), the dexterity of his craftsmanship is mesmeric. ‘When I came to live here I was able to make baskets, but I didn’t know much about traditional ones,’ he says, ‘and the only person in the 1970s left in Ireland making baskets in this way happened to be my neighbour. Tommy came down and showed me his donkey creel – and as he was the last person left in the country to make these, it was really touch and go for a while.’ Now, with at least half of the students on his courses coming from abroad, Joe’s reputation as Ireland’s master basket weaver ensures the legacy of his craft.
The husband and wife team of Gearoid Muldowney and Jo Anne Butler run Superfolk out of their dockers’ cottage in the quayside town of Westport in Mayo. Their homeware products are sold mainly online through retailers like twentytwentyone, Makers & Brothers, Future Kept; ‘very few but all very good,’ says Gearoid. ‘We can only produce a certain amount of items and we can’t go beyond that yet, so online is great,’ he adds. ‘We know exactly who we’re selling to – and it’s all sorts of people.’ With an upcoming trip to the Arctic Circle to meet and learn from Finnish makers who work in the most isolated of places, the landscape that surrounds Superfolk feeds into the very essence of their product, bringing them closer to their consumer than their remote location would suggest.
Launched as ‘a curation of everyday design and craft’ by brothers Jonathan and Mark Legge, Makers & Brothers is a predominantly online retail venture that also hosts a series of pop-up events globally, with an emphasis on ‘the simple, beautiful and sometimes nicely odd’ – and always with an Irish flavour. ‘It shouldn’t be about polishing the life out of it,’ says Jonathan. ‘That’s not the nature of Irish design; craft is a narrative. We came very much out of a frustration with how we saw Irish craft and design being represented, particularly internationally.’