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Irish Crafts
by Irene Rawlings

Combing the Irish countryside for local crafts can turn a simple vacation into something far more memorable — a series of encounters with some very hospitable Irish folks. The search for the beautiful and unusual will almost certainly take you into such well-publicized craft centers as Kilkenny Design Workshops in Kilkenny (Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny Town, and on Nassau Street in Dublin), the Ballycasey Craft Workshop near Shannon Airport and the Powerscourt Towne House Center on Clarendon Street in Dublin. There are also smaller, lesser-known craft centers like the Spidall Craft Center over looking Galway Bay and Tower Design Guild in Dublin. But the most fun is visiting the artists in their home studios.

Craft guilds in several of the counties — Mayo, Kilkenny, Connemara, and Galway — have produced maps indicating the whereabouts of local artists' studios. Still, the winding, unmarked country roads — some as bumpy as washboards — can make finding these places something of an adventure.

Most artists will take the time to chat and to offer a cup of the characteristically smoky Irish tea with milk. They also sell their "seconds" or samples out of their studios. These pieces are irregular but, in a way, that makes them even more charming. For example, I bought several spongeware bowls from Nicholas Mosse's studio at less than half their normal retail price. The stenciled tulip design was applied a little off-center but, to me, that's what "handmade" really means.

Ireland's cool, damp climate has made sweaters a necessity and, making a virtue out of this necessity, the Irish have turned knitting into an art form. Traditional hand-knit Aran fishermen's sweaters are available all over Ireland. Skilled home knitters (there's a little studio in nearly every village — ask at the pub or the post office) seem to enjoy doing a host of subtle variations on the traditional cable and popcorn stitches not only in the usual creamy white but in other natural wools as well. Most of the hand-knits cost between $125 and $300. I particularly enjoy the designs of Toke Stevens (Medlicott Street, Newport, County Mayo) who can knit as fast as she talks.

The new, young designers translate the traditional Aran stitches into up-to-date styles and shapes. Glynis Robins, for example, uses silk, cotton, wool and linen to knit very uptown sweaters. She works mainly in the natural colors of the fibers — gray, brown, and white. Her loose-fitting sweaters cost about $250 and the matching hand-knit skirts cost from $200 to $275. They are available at the Designer Shop (6 Wicklow Street, Dublin).

Helena Ruuth knits silk, cotton and linen into gently nubby sweaters that feel good next to the skin. Her color palette is a blend of pastels and neutrals. Wool pullovers cost about $200. The mohair ones are about $150. Ruuth's studio is at Landsdowne (Church Road, Bray, County Wicklow). Her sweaters are also available at the Weavers Workshop (Main Street, Clifden, County Galway).

Fine Irish cotton lace, a cottage industry since the 1840s, has all but died out as an industry and is difficult to find except in a few shops or private homes. Dierdre Ryan (The Lace Lady, 129 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin) has yards and yards of antique and modern lace. What's more, she can tell you all about the history of Irish lace. Ttons of it went down on the Titanic — bought by passengers when the ship put in at Queenstown (now Cobh) — on the second day of its maiden voyage. She can also put you in touch with working craftspeople. Limerick lace, one of the most famous, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the local nuns who insisted on teaching it in their schools. For information about craftspeople, contact Original Designer Lace (Tait Business Centre, County Limerick) or Lady's Lane (Dominic Street Limerick). In Northern Ireland, many women still crochet the Carrickmacross lace in their homes. Contact LEDU Business Center (17-19 Linenhall Street in Belfast) for their addresses.

Weaving has enjoyed a long tradition in Ireland, mainly because of the excellence of wool in sheep-rearing areas like Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Wicklow. Irish tweeds are world famous. The young designers, however, are coming up with an entirely new range of textures and colors, using silk and linen as well as wool.

Perhaps the best-known weavers in Ireland are Avoca Handweavers, a company that has been in business since 1723. The Avoca weavers use rich, saturated color combinations — Mediterranean blue and emerald green, for example or soft, misty blends of pink and gray in their scarves, throws, and blankets. The price range from $40 for a gossamer mohair shawl to $100 for a twin-sized blanket. They are available in many shops throughout Ireland, but it's most fun to visit the mill store (Kilmacanague, County Wicklow) where it's possible to buy "seconds" and samples at a fraction of the cost.

Cleo (18 Kildare Street in Dublin) is also worth a look. It is a shop that specializes in clothes made from natural fibers — wool, linen or Irish cotton — from designs that are drawn from Ireland's past. Linen poet's shirts, hand-woven blankets and scarves, and long, woolen capes that look like those worn by Meryl Streep in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Often there is a craftsperson in the shop to explain the craft and take measurements for made-to-order clothing.

Cushendale Woolen Mills (Greiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny) is a tiny mill that has been in the Cushen family for five generations. The mill employs six people (three of them are named Cushen, the others are in-laws) to produce handsome shawls, blankets and yard goods in mohair and in wool. The colors range from emerald green (what else?) to bright pink to soft brown and pale blue. Prices range from $20 for a jaunty mohair tam to $250 for a queen-sized blanket. The mill shop also sells odd yardages of fabric in what the Cushens call their "experimental" patterns. For example, I recently paid $40 for 4 yards of loosely-woven wool in a brown and white chevron pattern.

Joyce Daugherty works with mohair and nylon, weaving them into thick but lightweight scarves and shawls. Scarves begin at $60 and are available in her studio in Powerscourt Town Center in Dublin and at the Weavers Workshop in Clifden.

Maire Ni Thaidhg is a handweaver who works in a combination studio and shop at the Spiddal Craft Centre. Her weavings, in wool and cotton, are as light as a spider's web. Striped and plaid scarves start at $30, stoles at $40. She also weaves small wall hangings of the view she sees outside her studio — a vista across Galway Bay to the hills of County Clare. These wall hangings measure about 3 feet by 2 feet and cost about $150.

Castlebar in County Mayo is the place for hats. Lina Stein (Castle Street) creates handmade ladies' hats — cloches, broadbrims, and little, tiny cocktail hats. Just across town on Breaffy Road, Hats of Ireland (established in the 1940's) makes men's hats out of soft, yet hard-wearing Donegal tweeds. The various styles of men's hats get their names from the part of Ireland where they evolved — Leenane, Moy, Corrib, Connaught, Killarney and Achill.

Every village in Ireland seems to have a potter. The one I enjoy visiting most is Nicholas Mosse (Annamult Cottage, Bennetsbridge, County Kilkenny). The pottery is located in a converted farmyard. Mosse specializes in a country-style spongeware. His designs are inspired by old spongeware that has been collected by his family for years and are on display in a little museum just off his workshop. A large, teapot, whimsically decorated with farm animals, is about $60. A blue and white serving-sized bowl is about $80. The seconds are less than half price. Nicholas' mother tends the little shop in the farmyard and is generous with tea, cookies and conversation.

While you are there, you should take a look at the thin-as-china wooden bowls hand-turned by Mosse's brother, Keith.

In a neighboring village, on a hill overlooking the river Nore, two women create a heavier, more highly-decorated pottery. Potters Inistioge (Inistioge, County Kilkenny) is know locally for its majolica-like tableware and vases, but lamps are the real specialty here. A jug-shaped table lamp runs about $70. Stoneware Jackson Pottery (Ballyreddin, Bennetsbridge, County Kilkenny) is just down the road and specializes in hand-thrown domestic stoneware.

Sligo Pottery (Market Yard, Sligo Town) makes tableware in muted tones of green and blue. One of their best designs is a plump teapot (about $65) with an extra loop above the spout which makes it pour more easily. Also on the west coast of Ireland, Westport Pottery (Letterbrock, Liscarney, Westport, County Mayo) is worth a stop as well. Paul and Sue Taylor throw a beautiful and durable line of blue and green-glazed domestic stoneware. The village in which they live and work truly looks like a picture postcard.

Down on Ireland's rocky south coast, by Ballycotton Bay and near the village of Ballymalloe, Stephen Pearce Pottery unites traditional values with modern design. My favorite is the dipped-in-white terracotta dinnerware — the outside is natural clay, the "eating surface" is a high-fired white. This is a friendly place where children are welcome and given pieces of clay to make their own masterpieces.

Without a doubt, the name Waterford has become a synonym for Irish crystal but there are lots of other crystals being made in Ireland. In fact, nearly every hamlet has its own glass works. Just ask for directions at the local pub.

My favorite is Jerpoint Glass Studio (Stoneyford, County Kilkenny) which is tucked away on a country lane no wider than a cattle track. Keith Leadbetter, one of Ireland's best-known contemporary glassmakers lives and works here. Some of his pieces have a delicate pink or lavender cast. Others are as clear as ice. Leadbetter's work is available in shops throughout Ireland but it is sold at a discount in his studio (which, by the way, is practically across the lane from Stoneware Jackson Pottery).

Malachy Kearns (Roundstone, County Galway) lives and work in a picturesque fishing village making traditional Irish musical instruments. His tin whistles start at $5. His flat, open-sided drum, called a bodhran, is decorated with Celtic motifs and costs about $90. He talks while he works and you'll leave his studio knowing a bit of the history of Irish folk music.

The Irish craftspeople love what they do and it shows. They make you feel welcome in their studios and homes and they enjoy telling you all about their work. One weaver even invited me to her home for a "simple supper" which turned out to be a cast iron pot heaped full of garlic steamed prawns as big as Maine lobsters. After the prawns were gone, we wiped our plates clean with thick slices of homemade Irish soda bread.

Each of the souvenirs I bring back from my trips to Ireland has a story. Meeting the talented craftspeople in their studios makes every lovely object just that much more fun to own.


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