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