The crafty way to see Ireland
A visit to an artisan’s working studio is a memorable experience that will enhance any Irish holiday, and new trails and maps make them easy to find
“I treat every piece individually and I go to see all the timber I buy. What’s attractive in nature is also what’s attractive about something that’s handmade. Machines will make things dead straight or dead flat. The important word in that is ‘dead’,” he says.
Most of Spain’s furniture is privately commissioned. He recently won the Shackleton Thomas furniture award at the annual RDS national crafts competition for a beautifully crafted wine rack integrated into a side table.
If you inspect the walnut and zebrano wood piece, you can see the attention to detail. “The variation is what’s attractive about handmade furniture, and each piece reveals itself over time,” explains Spain.
People who visit his workshop are most interested in the process of making pieces by hand. Spain even makes many of his own tools.
“It’s mainly Irish people who visit – people who are interested in serious craft. Quiet elegance is what I am trying to achieve,” says Spain, who studied furniture-making and design at Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking in British Columbia.
On the Made in Sligo craft trail, he welcomes visitors by appointment. “The trail heightens awareness of craft and allows us to generate publicity together. We made a group video of different craftspeople at work, which we wouldn’t have been able to make on our own,” he says.
Blacksmith Michael Budd works in the Forge, Castlebaldwin, Co Sligo (087-6688400, michaelbudd.ie); visitors welcome. People are welcome to visit the workshops of goldsmith Tiffany Budd (087-6113777, tiffanybudd.com) and Fergal Spain (087-9288968, fergalspain.com) by appointment
Kilkenny trail: ‘We won’t get rich with this work but we’re fine’
Kilkenny is the county we most associate with craft in Ireland. The creative presence of craft makers at work in the Castle Yard studios, opposite Kilkenny Castle, and the sale of Irish craft in Kilkenny Design shops are both a national and international success.
The Kilkenny Craft Trail was one of the first in Ireland, mapping routes to eight craftmakers’ studios, from Castlecomer in the north to Thomastown in the south.
This trail has recently morphed into the Made in Kilkenny craft trail, but you’ll still see older signs pointing you to studios in places such as Bennetsbridge, where Nicholas Mosse pottery has a well-established presence with a shop, cafe and viewing area to observe potters and decorators at work.
We set out to visit three studios of the 28 on the Made in Kilkenny craft trail to explore the work and energy of new and more established craft workers who have chosen this county of lush undulating pasture land, cut through by the river Nore, as their homes and workplaces.
The glass blower
Our first stop is Jerpoint Glass, near the small village of Stoneyford. Although its entrance is just opposite the luxurious golf and country house hotel at Mount Juliet, the mood could not be more in contrast.
Driving down the avenue, you quickly see how the working environment of Jerpoint Glass is integrated into the family life of the Leadbetters. First you notice the carefully maintained home and garden, and only then do you see the glassblowing studio, the craft shop and gallery. Once inside, you can bear witness to the hot furnace of molten glass, the blowing irons and the ovens where the finished pieces are left to slowly cool.
It’s almost 35 years now since Keith and Kathleen Leadbetter set up their glassblowing studio in a Dutch barn at the back of their home. They have seen good times and bad, and changing tastes, but the quality of the functional and decorative glass pieces has an enduring quality.
One of the couple’s four adult children, Rory Leadbetter, has mastered the craft of hot glass-blowing. It’s a magical experience to see how he and co-worker James Long turn a blob of glass into a jug with pouring spout and handle in just minutes. “It’s all about balance and timing and not letting the glass cool down too much,” says Kathleen.
Jerpoint Glass is renowned for high-quality glasses, vases, jugs and candlesticks, as well as large decorative bowls, paperweights and perfume bottles. Coloured glass is now much more in demand than the classical clear glass that originally put Jerpoint on the map 30 years ago.
“We find that the children of people who bought Jerpoint Glass years ago are now coming back to buy it,” says Kathleen.
Thomastown is, like Kilkenny city, synonymous with craft. Grennan Mill Craft School and the Craft Council’s Pottery Skills courses have been attracting students to the small town for more than 20 years. Some never leave, which gives the place a more bohemian air than might be expected in this part of Ireland.
When Karen Morgan set up her studio in a former haberdashery shop on Market Street three years ago, people said she was crazy.