Small sector crafts growth potential

Irish craft and design is worth almost €500m to the economy and employs about 5,800

Irish craft and design is worth almost €500m to the economy and employs about 5,800

FROM NEXT month, passengers passing through Dublin airport’s Terminal 2 will be greeted by an exhibition of contemporary jewellery from some of Ireland’s up-and-coming designers.

The display, located in arguably one of Ireland’s best tourist shopping thoroughfares, is the latest initiative by the Craft Council of Ireland to mark Year of Craft, a year-long campaign to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the council’s founding which will showcase and promote Irish design.

Despite its somewhat twee image of tweed jackets and quaint pottery, Irish craft and design is being targeted as one of the potential growth areas in the Irish economy.


A report last year by Indecon Consulting found that the craft sector – which includes pottery, glass, jewellery, textiles and furniture – is worth almost €500 million to the Irish economy, and employs an estimated 5,800 people.

The report also found the sector had strong growth potential, estimating the value of the industry to the Irish economy could rise to €700 million, with employment rising to about 7,600 jobs.

According to Laura Magahy, chairwoman of the Crafts Council of Ireland, the industry is a small but vibrant one. “Irish craft businesses are characteristically small in scale and geographically widespread, so there isn’t the kind of concentration of industry that characterises other sectors. As a result it is difficult to quantify, and tends to go unnoticed if jobs are created.”

The council has almost 2,500 clients on its register of craft enterprises, and 70 member organisations. The close to 6,000-strong workforce scattered around the country represents a kind of micro-industry, according to Magahy. While a significant proportion of the council’s member organisations are small enterprises with one or two staff, others such as well-known pottery brand Nicholas Mosse employ about 85 people, 65 of them in the pottery itself.

One of the main remits of the council, which is funded by Enterprise Ireland, is to develop business opportunities for the sector. Magahy herself was appointed chairwoman two years ago by the then minister for trade Mary Coughlan, with the express aim of developing the commercial strength of the industry.

Central to this commercialisation strategy, says Magahy, is the discovery and development of new routes to markets.

For the smallest enterprises this usually entails direct selling through craft fairs and other events. This year, small Irish craftmakers have had the opportunity to sell their products directly to consumers at retail stands at events such as Bloom in the Park and the Tall Ships Races.

For bigger businesses, the main route onto retail shelves is through trade shows. Each January, Showcase Ireland’s Creative Expo takes place at the RDS, attended by buyers from about 40 countries. Last year, €20 million worth of Irish craft products were sold at the event.

A key strategy for the council during the Year of Craft is to develop Irish crafts’ presence internationally and to tap into the lucrative niche market for luxury goods.

Among the Irish designers who have made inroads internationally is Drogheda-based knitwear designer Edmund McNulty. His wool sweaters for men, made from mohair, merino wool and alpaca, first caught the eye of Japanese buyers 12 years ago, but in recent years the business has grown significantly, with McNulty receiving huge orders for product from Japanese retailers. McNulty uses mainly home-workers who knit at their homes on the production side, and at two factories in Ireland. The work is then finished by hand in his Drogheda studio.

Candle-makers Max Benjamin, which has a significant retail presence in Ireland, is currently undergoing a phase of expansion into Britain. The Enniskerry-based business which is run by Mark and David Van den Bergh recently won a contract with English department stores John Lewis and Fortnum Mason, and expects 50 per cent of sales to come from Britain and Germany over the next few years.

Colm de Rís is another Irish designer who has managed to break the export market.

Having attended a trade show in the US three years ago, approximately 50 per cent of his turnover now derives from the US. He has appeared a number of times on shopping channel QVC, which is broadcast to almost 100 million consumers. His work is also included in US catalogues and displayed in retail stores in the US.

All the work is hand-made in Dublin, where de Rís employs two to three people. “The potential of the US market is huge. It’s a matter of scale, and how big you want to build the business. The opportunity for growth is definitely there” he says.

The question is, can individually hand-made pieces compete with ubiquitous mass-produced craft items, such as clothes, jewellery and ceramics, particularly in a recession? Magahy insists the industry has managed to hold its own.

“Like every business, it’s been hit – but it’s quite a resilient sector. Unlike other parts of the economy it didn’t experience huge surges or huge knocks.”

She claims the high price point at which these hand-made products are inevitably offered is not an issue. “People are taking more care about what they’re buying now, and want something that is high-quality and will last.”

The recession has also prompted domestic consumers to buy Irish, she says.

McNulty agrees. “Because it’s such a big market, there was no point in trying to compete with a mid-market product. Focusing on a niche product has worked.

“I think that’s where a lot of people go under – trying to focus on mid-market, more mass-produced product. They then get enormous orders which they can’t finance, and the business falters.”

For the future, one key objective for the council is to increase visibility to consumers, Magahy says. But has Irish craftware suffered from an under-representation on Irish retail shelves?

“No, there are a growing number of specialist craft and design shops which stock individual craft design products, and specialised websites which are growing in popularity,” says Magahy. “This year we had a significant retail presence in flagship shops like Brown Thomas, the Kilkenny shop, and Shaws in Waterford, as well as pop-up shops in venues such as the Royal Hibernian Academy.”

The upcoming exhibition and retail presence in Terminal 2 in the run-up to Christmas, showcasing Irish jewellery designers such as Alan Ardiff, Christina Brosnan, Lesley Frew and Filip Vanas, is one way in which the council hopes to market contemporary Irish jewellery, particularly to the tourist market.

After the exhibition, five Irish jewellery designers will attend the Inhorgenta festival in Munich in February, which attracts industry professionals from almost 80 countries. Events such as this will help to ensure Irish design gains international traction, says Magahy.

“Apart from some of the bigger names over the years, the Irish design industry is still largely focused on the national market. Our next aim is to bring Irish design out to the rest of the world.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent