Glassmaker who learned his art in Waterford Crystal

 

Domhnall Ó Broin Domhnall Ó Broin was among the most dynamic international glassmakers of the 20th century. After rising to become Waterford Crystal's first master engraver and co-founding Caithness Glass at Wick, Scotland, Ó Broin emigrated to the United States in 1966, where he directed the operations of the Pilgrim and Fenton glassworks in West Virginia.

He won several awards, created presentation pieces for the German chancellor Ludwig Erhardt and Prince Philip, and became internationally recognised as one of the world's most respected glass technologists. He died recently in Costa Rica, aged 71.

Born in Waterford on March 11th, 1934, Domhnall Pádraig Ó Broin joined the local glass company, Waterford Crystal, aged 16, in 1950. As the first apprentice recruited by Waterford after its re-establishment in 1947, he trained under the Czech-born designer/engraver Miroslav Havel, who appointed Ó Broin as his assistant. Ó Broin spent two years from 1952 studying glass design and chemistry in Sweden, including a period at Orrefors Glasbruk, before returning to Waterford to complete his apprenticeship.

Ó Broin left Waterford again in 1955, first to study glass technology as an Andrew Grant Scholar at Edinburgh and Sheffield universities, then glass design at Edinburgh College of Art under Helen Munroe Turner. Two of his early pieces were included among work by Henry Moore, Louise Nevelsen and Reginald Butler in the British Artist Craftsmen's Exhibition, 1959-60, which toured the US for 18 months.

While still a student at Edinburgh in 1958, Ó Broin was introduced to Robin Sinclair, the future Viscount Thurso, by Henry Monroe-Wilson of the Scottish Design and Industry Council. Sinclair wanted to establish a new commercial enterprise in western Caithness to help to arrest the declining population and rising unemployment in its ailing fishing and farming communities. After examining the pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica for ideas, he had decided to found a glassworks. Sinclair had originally envisaged a £500 investment but the true figure was one hundred times greater: £50,000. However, with Sinclair and Ó Broin's funding eventually secured, Caithness Glass became a reality. Its factory, designed by the architects of the Scottish Industrial Estates, opened at Wick in June 1961.

During the early period, glassmaking experience at Caithness was provided by Venetian, German and Austrian craftsmen backed by local apprentices. As Ó Broin explained at the time: "I have brought in foreign glassmakers to start the factory but I have tried to develop the glass in a purely Scottish way." In 1962, with its workforce reaching 40, the leading Scottish glassmaker Paul Ysart was recruited from the neighbouring Monart glassworks at Perth to become Caithness's factory supervisor and training officer.

Ó Broin's Scandinavian-orientated designs for Caithness were produced in soft Celtic colour tints inspired by local scenery: Loch, Peat, Soot, Flint, Moss and Heather. "We make something like 300 different items, from tiny liqueur glasses to large fruit bowls," Ó Broin told a local newspaper in 1965. "Our specific aim is to establish a factory producing bold glassware in the modern idiom. We have got to be at least as good as Orrefors."

The Caithness project certainly fulfilled Sinclair's original objective. In 1965 its payroll reached 76, including 30 glass blowers, and the company secured its first large orders from the United States and Sweden. By the mid-1980s, Caithness had around 170 employees, most drawn from local communities, at its sites in Wick, Oban and Perth, with around 100 of them working at Wick.

Ó Broin held several positions at Caithness, including those of its sole designer, 1961-66; technical director, 1961-65; and managing director and sales director, 1963-67. It was during this period that he was commissioned by the British Council of Industrial Design to create presentation pieces for Mr Erhardt and Prince Philip, both of which he engraved personally. He was elected to the Society of Glass Technology in 1960 and the Society of Industrial Artists in 1964.

"My father obviously took a risk with Domhnall, an untested art student, but they hit it off straight away," recalls John Thurso, Mark Sinclair's son and the incumbent Westminster MP for Caithness. "Domhnall was so passionate about what he was doing. The company was always financially precarious but his designs were innovative, modern yet classical. They have stood the test of time and helped to create substantial quality employment. He made a great impression on the county and left an enduring a legacy."

Ever the wandering spirit, Ó Broin left Caithness at the end of his contract in 1966 and emigrated to the United States. He spent four years as general manager of the Pilgrim Glass Company at Ceredo, West Virginia, where he doubled the company's output and sales. In 1968, his art object, Tube, won Best in Show and Best in Glass at the Annual Allied Artists' Exhibition, West Virginia.

Moving on again in 1970, Ó Broin served for 10 years as the manager of manufacturing for Fenton Art Glass in Williamstown, WV. Aside from supervising production at Fenton, he drastically reduced the atmospheric pollution and energy consumption of its furnaces. Under his stewardship, the amount of gas consumed annually at the plant halved to 243 million cubic feet between 1971-77 while maintaining the same level of output.

His passion for glass, design and his efforts towards energy efficiency and technical excellence were recognised in 1977 when he was elected chairman of the American Society of Glass Sciences and Practices.

Ó Broin left Fenton in 1980 to establish his own consultancy. The Domhnall Ó Broin Company assisted glassmakers across the US and Europe, and in Mexico, China and India. His clients included British furnace specialists Sismey and Linforth, and German laboratory and technical glassmakers Putsch and Co, and Lindner Gmbh.

Ó Broin's expertise covered all manner of aspects of glassmaking, technical and human, on subjects as diverse as training standards and the quantification of unit costs in the handmade glass industry. He helped to develop new colour recipes and energy recovery systems, conducted equipment troubleshooting, union negotiations, cost competitiveness and efficiency studies, and liaised between glassmakers and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental regulators. At one time he was required to obtain US security clearance to resolve problematic specifications for lasers for the Sandia National Laboratories, a branch of the US Department of Energy.

After retiring in 2000, he was an active member of the International Palm Society and the Heliconia Society. His interests also included pre-Columbian archaeology, the Irish language, fishing, bird-watching, travel and crossword puzzles. He died in Costa Rica on October 9th, six years after his wife, Nancy O'Donnell Ó Broin.

Domhnall Ó Broin: born March 11th, 1934; died October 9th, 2005