If ever there was a time to seek out a special souvenir of the Emerald Isle, it’s now. Well, any time within the next 12 months actually. That’s because the Irish, nation of artisans and refreshingly humorous characters, have made 2011 a year-long celebration of the country’s vibrant craft traditions.
But we’re not quite talking the workaday Irish blessing tea-towel. Ireland’s Year of Craft is about saluting the range of works created by the hundreds of stunningly original designer-makers who have forged the island’s reputation as a world-class source of traditional and contemporary craft.
Anyone who wants to collect a classy keepsake of Ireland, witness the creation of an original piece, meet and learn about the people behind it or even get involved in the creative experience themselves will have boundless opportunity to do so at any time throughout the coming year.
Major craft drive
The drive to pay tribute to Irish craft is coming from the Craft Council of Ireland and Craft NI (the two main industry bodies on the island), which have jointly developed a major initiative to showcase the very best of Irish craft both at home and abroad.
Their programme involves hundreds of craft activities and events covering the whole island – everything from demonstrations and exhibitions to open studios, to conferences, lectures and courses to special craft trails, fairs and workshops for enthusiasts of all ages. There will also be international craft shows organised in New York, Edinburgh, London and Paris, and even the issue of a special postage stamp.
Ireland’s top cultural organisations are all involved, among them the National Museum of Ireland and Temple Bar Cultural Trust, which will feature inspirational craft events in 2011, and there will be enhanced craft dimensions to the Tall Ships Festival in Waterford (30 June-3 July), probably the biggest event in Ireland during 2011, and the high-profile Bloom in the Park garden festival (June).
In addition to Craft NI’s annual and highly successful August Craft Month, also on board to champion crafts are three major festivals: the Galway Arts Festival (June), the Kilkenny Arts Festival (August) and the countrywide yearly celebration of creativity in older age, the Bealtaine Festival (1–31 May).
All of that is aside from the ‘normal’ efforts and activities of the network of designer-makers, craft studios, galleries, co-operatives and craft retail outlets dotted throughout the towns and villages of the Irish countryside. From mountainside to seaside, there is an abundance of artistic talent awaiting discovery.
Refined over centuries, craft is immensely important to Irish culture and society. The objects created by Irish artisans have always epitomised the heart and soul of what it means to live and to be in Ireland – think Aran knitwear, bogwood sculpture, Celtic jewellery, Irish linen, Belleek Pottery, Waterford Crystal and Donegal tweed for example – cultural treasures all.
Of the island’s traditional crafts, one of the most enduring is basketry – the Irish climate perfectly nourishes a number of species of willow, the most common basket weaving material.
Clive Lyttle and Elaine Burke are award-winning basket makers and countryside skills practitioners who have been using their talents with the Irish willow for over 20 years. Together they run Welig Crafts from a smallholding near tranquil Portaferry in County Down, an old scenic fishing village well known for the warm welcome given to visitors.
The couple first got involved in basketry through their interest in environmental conservation – a theme that chimes with today’s eco-conscious travellers and holidaymakers more than ever before.
They now create various functional willow baskets, beautiful decorative and sculptural pieces, as well as contemporary living willow structures.
“Our aim is to create beautiful objects for everyday use and display and we are keen to keep the traditional practices alive,” says Clive Lyttle. “We grow and harvest our own willow so we are hands-on from start to finish.
“Our work has the integrity of being grounded in traditional technique but remains innovative in design.”
If you feel the creative urge while visiting the Welig Crafts workshop – it’s in a traditional cottage – you can book in and make, for example, a potato basket or ‘skib’ on one of the couple’s one-day basketry courses.
Many Irish craft studios offer such courses, or at least the opportunity to look on as work progresses or to meet the designer-maker and discover the skills behind the craft. Doing so not only gives you great ‘craic’ with the craftsperson and fellow participants, it also leaves you with a new skill and a new appreciation for the modern-day practitioners of age-old traditions.
Craft holidays and trails
Another way to really get under the skin of Irish creativity is to take an arts and craft holiday. There are fantastic settings, scenery, and variety of craft disciplines available and plenty of operators providing the chance to engage with one or more craft experts and tutors for a longer period. For instance, creative craft activity breaks are available within The Greenbox, Ireland’s first ecotourism destination, which takes in counties Fermanagh, Leitrim, and west Cavan, north Sligo, south Donegal and north-west Monaghan.
If you don’t want to participate and would rather collect something that’s different, locally made and authentically Irish, then a craft trail should appeal. This way you can take in all the makers at your leisure, or choose the number and type you visit related to the time you have available.
Kilkenny, Killarney, Leitrim, Wexford, west Cork, County Louth and the whole of Northern Ireland all have excellently organised and mapped out craft trails (most accessible online) where you can meet designer-makers and experience their superb talent and skills.
Ireland’s creative heart
However, the true craft connoisseur on a trip to Ireland must eventually arrive at the unofficial craft capital of the country. Medieval Kilkenny is home to the National Craft Gallery, the Craft Council of Ireland, and a city with a long reputation as a hub of international level creativity.
The artisans, designers and craftspeople working and exhibiting in and around the area have produced prize winning craft products for Ireland and attained international acclaim. Kilkenny is not just a nice place from which to take home a gift; it’s a compelling reason to travel to Ireland in the first place.
One outlet, Kilkenny Craft Centre, adjacent to the national gallery, provides a world-renowned selection from Ireland’s most eminent craftspeople and designers. This is the chance to own an affordable and original work of Irish craft. Authentic, completely ‘of Ireland’ jewellery, textiles, Celtic gifts, china, crystal, pottery, glass, ceramics as well as home and fashion accessories and exquisite one-off contemporary design pieces are all on display.
But it is not just Kilkenny that shines. There is craft everywhere on the Emerald Isle. And the island is compact. From a base of just about anywhere you can design your own craft itinerary and it will be very easy to travel through the beautiful countryside from one individual maker to the next or to get from makers to the many galleries, craft centres and collectives where several craftspeople exhibit their work together.
The marriage of Irish craft, luscious green landscapes and an intriguing culture and heritage make the Emerald Isle a pretty irresistible destination for craft collectors, enthusiasts and visitors of all ages.
A tip, though – don’t over organise or over plan. You are bound to get talking to someone in the local craft fraternity and they’re sure to offer pointers, recommendations and information that’s not in any guidebook. Allow for spontaneity. This is Ireland.