Thanks to its fame as the craft capital of Ireland, Kilkenny has more than its share of craft makers and, wanting to get my hands dirty, I set out on a bright and breezy autumn day to see what I could do. By the end of 48 hours, I had blown glass at Jerpoint, made a mini gold ingot in Castlecomer, and got up to my elbows in clay in Kilkenny city. There was also time to go for a walk in the Millennium Forest, enjoy a fine dining feast, and spend a night in the historic dower house of Kilkenny Castle. How’s that for a crafty mini break?
Just opposite the entrance to Mount Juliet, and in the heart of the Kilkenny countryside, the Jerpoint Glass Studio was set up by Keith and Kathleen Leadbetter in 1979. Today their son, Rory Leadbetter, blows the glass alongside a small team. I'm greeted by Molly and Sweeney, a pair of friendly Labradors, and follow them through a courtyard, flanked by multicoloured glass garden ornaments.
Inside the workshop, chairs are set out, but all is quiet save for the roar of the furnace. This glows a hot orange and is heated to a whopping 1,135 degrees. James Long is starting the process. A daub of molten glass is attached to a rod. More is added, colour is introduced in the form of iron oxide to create a green base and Leadbetter swings the rod with a practiced move born of years of experience. The blob of glass lengthens. Rolling and blowing to create shape, before my eyes, a jug is born.
Watching something liquid turn into a perfectly formed solid is magical and the smooth skill of Leadbetter and Long is mesmerising. When my turn comes, we’re not doing anything as extravagant as jug making. Instead, my task is to blow the biggest bubble I can. The rod is surprisingly heavy and the trick is to blow gently when the glass is more molten, adding puff as it hardens. Without anything to compare it with, I’m rather proud of my bubble. It seems pretty damn big to me. The rush of warm air, back up the tube from inside the bubble, is an odd sensation.
Leadbetter expertly detaches the bubble from the tube and then hands me a squirty bottle of water. I shoot my bubble till it bursts and, if anything, feel even more satisfied than before. Next door, the shop is a treasure trove of perfect glass pieces and other gifts. The classic Jerpoint wine glass starts from €34.99. You can also shop for seconds, which to my eye seem pretty perfect themselves. Glassblowing takes place at Jerpoint from Monday to Friday. See jerpointglass.com for opening times.
Carl Parker Jewels
It’s a short drive through more lovely countryside to the Castlecomer Discovery Park, where the courtyard is home to craft workshops and studios. Carl Parker was one of the first to move in. He originally studied sculpture but switched to jewellery because, as he says, “I wanted to be really good at something”. His award winning designs prove he made the right choice. When I arrive, a little wooden dish is filled with bits and pieces of gold: broken chain links, a bent pendant, some unidentifiable scraps.
We light an oxy propane flame, and Parker adjusts the oxygen to turn it blue. It will heat to the 1,000 degrees you need to melt gold. You'd want even more heat for platinum. Goggles on, we nudge the pieces until they melt and fuse into a golden ball – it's a little like Terminator II, when Robert Patrick's character reforms itself after being blown apart. Parker gently pours the molten gold into a mould to create a mini ingot. I run it through a machine that reminds me of a pasta maker and bash it about a bit with a hammer. Stick at it and you'll get the makings of a ring.
We weigh it to discover that at 18 carats it's worth about €750.00. "I save everything," says Parker, who is fascinating and great fun. "That dust literally is gold dust." Switching to silver, we bend a rod to make a ring shape. It's harder than it seems, but very satisfying. More hammering produces a clasp for the stone and we discuss birthstones and favourite colours. Parker can repurpose pretty much any precious metal, so people come to him with family jewellery, or with rings that no longer serve their purpose. Anyone can watch him at work in his studio, but if you commission a piece, you can join him in helping to make it too. From €280.00. carlparkerjewels.com
Aisling McElwain Ceramics
Award winning ceramist, Aisling McElwain makes truly delicious bowls, mugs and other china treats from her Kilkenny city studio, where she also runs regular workshops. On my second Kilkenny morning we start by tying on our aprons. Ceramics is a messy business. It’s also very physical. McElwain gives each of us a block of clay and we thump it about a bit before using rolling pins to smooth it. “Clay has a memory” says McElwain, encouraging us to roll in different directions. Fortunately, she says, “it’s also very forgiving”. This latter is useful, as I keep managing to stick fingernails in where they are least wanted.
We roll the clay into large tubes, as McElwain explains how much they will shrink, first in drying, and then in the kiln. It’s a useful tip, as I seem to be making a behemoth vessel, rather than the dainty cup of my dreams. Working with clay is soothing and time flies. People find it so enjoyable that McElwain is thinking of introducing prosecco for evening sessions. I make two mugs, decide against handles, and use the extra clay for a tealight holder.
We learn techniques like “slipping and scoring”, which could also be shorthand for getting noticed on a night out. And I get a certain amount of mug envy, as Kirsten Ivors, opposite me, has carved a very nice tree design into her mug. Ivors and McElwain are collaborating on Tinnock Farm scented candles. Made of soy, you can stick your fingers into the soft wax for an instant hand cream. One is burning in the studio and, trepidatiously, I try it. It works. McElwain will glaze and fire my mugs, and post them on. The whole process takes about three weeks, so it’s the ultimate in delayed gratification.
A 2½ hour workshop costs €50.00 per person for four people. See online for upcoming workshops, or enquire about bringing your own group at aislingmcelwain.com, where you’ll also find stockists of McElwain’s own work: prices from €12.00 for an espresso cup.
Eat, sip, stay and see more
Being on the craft trail is hungry and thirsty work. Refuel with coffee and crafts at Crafted of Bennetsbridge (facebook.com/CraftedBennettsbridge), try work-of-art sweet treats at Cake Face in Kilkenny City (cakefacepastry.com), or rest your weary feet at the Kilkenny Design Centre Foodhall, with a feast of a buffet above a large craft shop (kilkennydesign.com).
To work up an appetite, we walk in Kilkenny's Millennium Forest (millenniumforests.com), and then it's dinner at Campagne, Kilkenny's Michelin Star restaurant. There, the chefs work similar wonders to the Leadbetters, McElwains and Parkers of this world, but they do it with food (campagne.ie). Then we head to Butler House for the night. The original dower house to Kilkenny Castle, Butler House is an atmospheric four-star hotel, where I get a heavenly, and very well-crafted sleep. Rooms from €94.00 (butler.ie).
Kilkenny abounds with makers. And while not all offer workshops, many have open studios so you can see craft in action. Ceramists Rosemarie Durr and Andrew Ludick share a studio at the Castlecomer Discovery Park, where Selina Gittins also has a studio offering courses on furniture painting and renovating (eclecticinteriors.net). Find more at Made in Kilkenny (madeinkilkenny.ie), and don't forget to check out the National Craft Gallery, plus more makers in the castle yard, just between Butler House and the Kilkenny Design Centre. A perfect spot.
Add foodie fun to the mix as Savour Kilkenny comes to town with a five-day programme including cheffy demonstrations, talks and a mega-artisan market. There’s also a Savour Your Wellness series and a Children’s Programme, so all ages get to choose between gourmet, gourmand or pure as the driven snow, with recipes for everything along the way.
Chefs and experts include The Happy Pear, Edward Hayden, Rosanna Davison, Derval O'Rourke, Rory O'Connell, David Gillick, Kevin Dundon, Domini and Peaches Kemp, Kevin Thornton, Finn Ní Fhaoláin, Eugene McSweeney and JP McMahon. There's also a cook-off featuring hurling heroes Jackie Tyrrell and Paul Murphy, so get ready for a food fight extraordinaire.
This is the 12th year of the festival and it's a truly eclectic programme. On a more serious note, the Darkness into Light Bowls Exhibition has all proceeds going to Pieta House. Savour Kilkenny runs from October 25 to 29. All activities are free, but some booking is required, savourkilkenny.com.