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


Holidays in Ireland are about resting but they are also about discovering another part of the country from your own. Visiting craftspeople at work in their studios is a memorable thing to do, and the Crafts Council’s new online map of Ireland, which highlights crafts studios, makes that a lot easier. You can also download some trails via smartphone apps.

You can now watch a video of a craft worker and then choose to visit their studio. You can also map a route to visit several studios on local craft trails in various counties. Here you will find artisans either working together in a craft village or in their own studios, bound together by geographical location.

Studio door is always open
Not many people welcome you into their working environment in such an open way as these artisans do. Many have shops alongside their studios, but a visit to a working studio gives you first-hand experience of the creative attention to detail drawn from surroundings that are refreshing and inspiring.

Many craftspeople enjoy the self- employed lifestyle; working hard but flexibly and often supporting their families on their incomes. Many have also suffered due to the recession (or due to mass availability of cheap imports during the boom) so welcome new customers.

So, stop a while, appreciate the talents and maybe even buy something that will last and hold the memories of your visit.

Sylvia Thompson is the author of Hands On: The Art of Crafting in Ireland
(Liberties Press, €25)

Sligo trail: ‘You can’t live in a place like this and not be inspired by nature’

The blacksmith

Michael Budd reckons there are more craftspeople and artists in the northwest of Ireland than anywhere else in the country. He moved here from England with his wife, Tiffany Budd, a self-taught goldsmith, 13 years ago and they haven’t looked back.

Although not technically on the Made in Sligo craft trail, Budd’s forge in the village of Castlebaldwin is on the N4 for Sligo, so it’s a perfect stop-off en route to holidays in this county of lakes, forests, mountains and sea.

“You can’t live in a place like this and not be inspired by nature. The dramatic landscape seeps into you. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to live in a city again,” he says.

Budd converted the disused garage to a forge about a year ago, having previously been based in the Sligo Folk Park in nearby Riverstown.

“I needed a bigger place,” he says, taking off his headphones and turning off equipment in the big open space filled with handmade tools, forged gates and decorative sculpted pieces made from mild steel.

“We use mild steel now because wrought iron is so expensive. All my work is traditionally jointed and I prefer hot forging than drilling or using angle-grinders, which I have to use sometimes,” he explains.

It takes about two weeks to make a gate using these traditional methods, compared with a day to make a fabricated gate. “It will be 10 times more durable, though, and last about 200 years,” says Budd.

“A lot of people say ‘you must be the last forge in Ireland’, and that might have been the case 20 years ago, but now blacksmithing is a growing craft.

“There are about 150 working forges in Ireland. I get students coming here from the National College of Art and Design, and others who want to do one-to-one workshops in blacksmithing.”

While tourists don’t generally buy Budd’s work – given its size and weight – he does occasionally get commissions from holidaymakers.

“I recently got a commission from someone from London,” he says. “I think it’s good for visitors here to see craftspeople at work. We all have our part to play in a community.”

The couple have recently bought and moved into a restored cottage in the Sligo countryside, and they have long-term plans to hold workshops and to run courses in disused stone buildings next to their house.

Such aspirations are typical of craftspeople, whose homes and workplaces merge to provide incomes that sustain their self-employed lives.

The goldsmith

When we meet, Tiffany Budd still has all her tools and jewellery in boxes. “I’ll have a temporary workshop set up in a few weeks and will be ready for visitors to call by appointment,” she says.

She is a member of the Made in Sligo craft trail (there are 15 craftspeople on the trail at present), and was previously based in the Roundabout Gallery in nearby Collooney, which recently closed. She makes rings, pendants, cufflinks, earrings and brooches – each of which is a once-off piece.

“My inspiration comes from the geometry and cellular structure of plants. All my pieces tend to have a three-dimensional shape,” she explains. “My grandad was an engineer and a painter and he told me not to try to make money from the arts, but I ignored him.”

The furniture maker

Fergal Spain is working on a huge dining room table in his workshop at Knocknahur, Co Sligo, when I visit. It is made of American white oak, and has been crafted completely by hand over the course of six to eight weeks – a rare thing in these factory-finished times.

“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,; visitors welcome. People are welcome to visit the workshops of goldsmith Tiffany Budd (087-6113777, and Fergal Spain (087-9288968, 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.

The potter

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.

The award-winning ceramic artist from Limerick says: “We all started work in the recession. We don’t ask for much. We work hard and I’ve been surviving making pots since I left college in 2006.”

Morgan’s fine porcelain tableware in pale blues and creams has a subtle flowing form that works in both contemporary and period-style dining rooms.

Earlier this summer, she opened up her exhibition space to create a Makers’ Market, where the work of other local craft makers is for sale alongside her ceramics. Now visitors can see a wide range of pottery, jewellery, furniture, leatherware and prints. A group of potters also runs children’s workshops behind the exhibition area.

Morgan enjoys mixing the retail work with making pieces. “There are four of us who share looking after the shop. Thomastown is a very special place. It’s a hive of music, arts and craft, and people don’t really get to see how much goes on here,” she says.

There are plans to turn the former courthouse into an arts centre. “It’s mainly Irish people who come here but we’d like to encourage foreign tourists too – to offer pottery or glass-blowing workshops – but we really need a boutique hotel or luxury hostel for people to stay in,” she says.

The basket maker

Arriving at Heike Kahle and Klaus Hartmann’s basket-making and pottery studios in Baurnafea is a good demonstration of how resourceful people can create comfortable lifestyles almost anywhere. Their home and studios are well off the beaten track of north Kilkenny.

However, like many other craftspeople, their home and work lives blend together much like the buildings on their rural plot of land – their house, their beautiful garden and small willow plantation, their interlinked studios and their on-site craft shop.

Originally from east Germany, Kahle and Hartmann came to Ireland 20 years ago to work as “wwoofers” (volunteers through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, working in exchange for board and lodgings, and never left.

“I think it was because the Wicklow farmer Denis Healy showed us Ireland from a different angle than a tourist’s one. We didn’t feel like we had much of a future in Germany at the time. Klaus – my boyfriend then and husband now – was a nurse and I was a biologist.

“We went to work in a Camphill Community [where workers and people with disabilities live and work together] and opportunities came up to learn basketry and pottery, which we both took.”

Looking back now, having raised their two teenage sons in Ireland, Kahle says their crafts allowed them to completely share work and home life. “I teach basketry night and day courses and Klaus works part-time with Castle Arch pottery in Kilkenny city. It was a huge advantage that both of us were flexible. We won’t get rich with this work but we’re fine,” she adds.

As she shows me around the orderly pottery studio – with both a gas-fired kiln and a timber-fuelled one – and her airy basket weaving workshop, the impression is of life lived apart from the technologically driven age. Even the baskets themselves – different ones for beach combing, picking berries, drying herbs, collecting mushrooms, eggs and cut garden flowers – remind one of a softer pace of life.

“I love the fact that what I do has a low impact on the environment,” she says. “I grow and harvest my own willow without chemicals or toxic dyes. I work with simple hand tools that don’t need electricity and what I make will eventually revert back to nature.” Jerpoint Glass, Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny,, 056-7724350, open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm; Sun noon-5pm. Karen Morgan, Market Street, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, 086-1663691, open Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm. Baurnafea craft workshop, Baurnafea, Co Kilkenny, 059-9726947, visits by appointment

Heike Kahle’s baskets are on show at the Grennan Mill Craft School exhibition in Thomastown, Co
Kilkenny, tomorrow until August 18, 10am-6pm daily. Jerpoint Glass work will feature in the Made in Kilkenny Connection Made in Butler House, Kilkenny, tomorrow until August 18, 10am-6pm daily. Karen Morgan’s Makers Market exhibition and workshop

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