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Ireland: In Pursuit of Craft
“It would be fair to say that there is a broad political consensus that crafts are an important party of our cultural heritage.“-Joe Hogan
There is so much to make a trip to Ireland serious fun-lively cities, a fascinating history, heart-melting countryside in myriad shades of green, friendly people with lilting accents and sly wit-for "awesome," they say "deadly"-and literary landmarks to remind visitors they are in the land that produced Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and Wilde. Though not immune to the current downturn, Ireland has been enjoying a prosperous economy that has encouraged international investment and immigration. An important aspect of that economy is tourism, and among the attractions is an increasingly self-confident craft scene. A significant number of sophisticated designer and makers are producing high-quality work in all disciplines, and a growing number of galleries are representing them.
In Dublin, Ireland's metropolis, one can see Calatrava's James Joyce Bridge spanning the Liffey as well as the 19th-century Ha'penny Bridge, stroll along Georgian streetscapes with handsome 18th-century brick buildings enlivened by brightly painted doors, drop in to view the fabled Book of Kells at the Trinity College Library, visit a cluster of museums including the remarkable Decorative Arts & History branch of the National Museum of Ireland, and then relax with a pint of Guinness stout and join in the music at the Brazen Head (established 1198) or visit the Guinness Storehouse to see how the famous brew is made. To observe craftspeople at work, the place to go is the seven-story Design Tower, on the Grand Canal Quay, in a waterfront neighborhood once considered derelict but now undergoing development. This handsome 1862 building, once a sugar refinery and now owned by Trinity College, has, since 1978, housed brick-walled craft studios for around 20 makers who have space to themselves while enjoying the camaraderie of fellow artists.
To leave bustling Dublin and head out on a circuitous route going west, south and then back east, is to realize that even with the Celtic Tiger economy of the last two decades, Ireland is still predominantly rural-the industrial revolution didn't arrive until the 1960s-and that wherever you travel, you're never very far from the homes/studios of craftspeople.
"The landscape, monastic sites, Bronze Age artifacts, industrial archaeology and plant life have all inspired my work," says Kevin O'Dwyer, a silversmith who is noted for his rocking teapots, presentation pieces and sculpture, at his tranquil home and well-equipped shop in Durrow, Tullamore. Beyond his own work, O'Dwyer is a prime mover in an ambitious public project close to his home-the development of Sculpture in the Parklands-a 50-acre component of Lough Boora Parklands, a 2,000-acre harvested peat bog that is being reclaimed for nature, recreation and art.
Continuing northwest along the bumpy roads to Connemara, County Galway, the landscape is gentle but rugged, with sheep grazing and dry stonewalls making gray patterns against the intense green. Then lakes and mountains come dramatically into view, and you arrive in Lough Na Fooey at the home and studio of Joe Hogan, who for more than 30 years has been making traditional baskets and nontraditional ones, most of them from willow that he harvests from his property. If you love turned wood, you might make your way south to Abbeyfeale, County Limerick, where Liam Flynn creates the double-lipped oak vessels that have won him wide recognition.
In Leap, County Cork, you'll find the home/studio of Sara Flynn, whose specialty is extremely thin-walled porcelain vessels, limited in palette to white, black or red, which she throws on the wheel and then alters while they are still damp. An enterprise on a different scale greets you in Riverstick, at the studio of Joseph Walsh, a furniture designer/maker known for commissioned large-scale work.
Very few of these artists or others in Irish craft would disagree that the epicenter of the field is the inland city of Kilkenny, northeast of Cork. It is here that the Crafts Council of Ireland, founded in 1971, has its headquarters-in Castle Yard, the former stables of Kilkenny Castle, an imposing Norman fortress. In addition to offering workshops and grants to craftspeople, the council, through the National Craft Gallery, its flagship space, sustains an ambitious exhibition and publication program to showcase both Irish and international work.
A stroll around Kilkenny's winding streets reveals quaint historic buildings as well as the gallery Red Aesthetic, carrying a roster of Irish and international jewelry artists, as well as ceramics and glass. On the outskirts of Kilkenny, in Thomastown, lives Sonja Landweer, a distinguished Dutch artist who has lived in Ireland since 1965 and is noted for her ceramics, bronzes and inventive jewelry.
Once you've come full circle to Dublin, it's little more than 100 miles north to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where you can see what peace has wrought in the decade since the troubles that had roiled Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century were resolved. In Hillsborough, on the city's outskirts, you can meet the McCrory family-Michael and his daughter, Cara Murphy, create innovative silver hollowware in a shared studio, and Deirdre, Michael's wife, is an enamelist. And Newtownards, is home base to Karl Harron, probably the foremost proponent of kiln-fused glass in Ireland. In Belfast itself, a hub for designer-makers is Space CRAFT, a year-old gallery and shop run by County Down crafts, a decade-old membership organization. Located in the busy downtown, Space CRAFT carries work by established and emerging makers.
It's amazing to contemplate the concerns of craftspeople-their desire to do the work they love in peace and make a living at it-against the still visible background of political turmoil. A drive around Belfast vividly demonstrates the strange allure of "disaster" tourism-areas where once you could easily fall to sniper fire, a housing project where British helicopters landed on the roof, rows of political murals left as reminders of bitter struggle.
A popular Gaelic expression goes "What's the craic (pronounced crack)?" meaning, What's the latest, what's happening? Spend at least a week in pursuit of crafts in the extraordinary settings where they are made and you'll agree that in Ireland they are surely part of the craic-and definitely deadly!