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A Brief History of Irish Crystal
by Bridget Haggerty

Glass first came to Ireland with the Celts who used it in beads and jewellery. It wasn't until the 17th century that a technical innovation in glass-making ultimately gave birth to an industry that would make Ireland famous for her superb mouth-blown, cut crystal.

In 1676, English glassmaker George Ravenscroft patented a remarkable discovery: by adding lead oxide to the materials which would become the molten glass, he found that it would make the final product hard and clear, but soft enough to carve. While the addition of lead makes the material more difficult to blow, the Irish would develop techniques that support lead contents as high as 33%, the modern mark of fine lead crystal.

In the meantime, it would take a few more decades before Ireland became a center for glassmaking. One critically influential event took place in 1685 on the continent. That was when Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes. For French and Flemish Huguenots, this meant a loss of personal freedoms and probable persecution. To escape the intolerable conditions, they fled to England and Ireland and brought with them their trades and crafts - including the art of glassmaking.

Yet another important event took place when 18th-century English legislation banned the use of wood as a fuel source in making glass. If you've ever wondered why cities such as Waterford, Cork, Dublin and Belfast became glass-making centers, it's simply because they are ports. Manufacturers turned to coal as a fuel source and since Ireland had very little in the way of native coal, it was imported.

In 1771, the first crystal factory in Ireland was established in Dungannon, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. To this day, some of the finest mouth-blown crystal in the world comes from Tyrone Irish Crystal.

In 1783, brothers George and William Penrose founded the Penrose Glass House in Waterford. During that same year, Cork Glass House was established. Then, in 1818, The Waterloo Glass Company and Terrace Glass Works also opened for business in Cork. These manufacturers and others would thrive, at least in part because a tax on the weight of materials used in glass manufacturing in England and Scotland did not apply in Ireland. However, politics and the potato famine almost put an end to the blossoming Irish glass industry.

In 1825, the tax on the weight of materials was extended to glass operations in Ireland. Just as grim was the 1800 Act of Union which prohibited the export of Irish glass products - even to England. But the biggest disaster of all came with the Great Hunger of the 1840s which led to mass emigration and the departure of many skilled craftsmen. By the 1850s, Ireland's glass industry was just about non-existent. It would take a hundred years before it was revived.

In the late 1940s, a group of businessmen recruited a staff of artisans and laid the foundation for Waterford Crystal. By 1951, crystal was in production and by the 1980s, the company was the largest producer of crystal in the world. Theirs is not the only success story. In 1968, Edward Taylor established the Dublin Crystal Class Company at Blackrock, Co. Dublin. And in Co. Tyrone, Father Austin Eustace sought American investment and established the Tyrone Crystal Factory to address the severe unemployment in Dungannon - ironically, the location of the very first Irish crystal factory.

By the 1970s and 1980s, craftsmen trained at the first of the re-established firms had branched out and today, glassworks flourish throughout Ireland.

The Tipperary Crystal studios are located in Carrick-on-Suir amid the rolling hills of C. Tipperary. They work with some of the finest Master Blowers in the world and pride ourselves on the use of only traditional methods. The same can be said of Galway Crystal. Nestled in the heart of the west of Ireland on the shores of Galway Bay, their products are steeped in traditional craftsmanship and are often inspired by the wild beauty of Connemara. And, inevitably, either the Waterford master or artisans trained by them have set out on their own and thus, Belfast Crystal and Heritage Crystal are now making a name for themselves.

However, while high-quality, Irish hand-cut crystal is now being made by several reputable manufacturers, the name that reigns supreme is Waterford.

In researching this article, we explored their web site. We were delighted to discover that they take visitors step by step through the creation of crystal. We highly recommend that you also visit the site; in the meantime, here is a synopsis:

The techniques and tools have changed little over the centuries since the first Waterford glassmaking factory opened in 1783.

The crystal mix - silica sand, potash and litharge - are transformed into molten crystal in a huge furnace heated to1200° C.

Every Friday, the pots containing the molten crystal are removed from the furnace - a very physical and demanding process requiring the skills and strength of a very specialized team.

The glass blowers and their apprentices work around the furnace; they use their skill and primitive tools - wooden blocks and molds - to create the blank crystal chamber. This requires tremendous dexterity and co-ordination of hands, breath and strength, and it's their talent and experience that will determine the thickness of each piece. This is essential to Waterford Crystal because of the depth at which the facets will be cut at a later stage.

Decanters and handle making are the most challenging. In a choreography of graceful steps conducted with fine precision, a glob of molten glass is carried to the craftsman as it begins to cool. The shapeless glob is skillfully attached to the decanter and in one sweeping gesture, the master's touch lifts it on to a perfect, arching angle - a shimmering crystal handle.

From the heart of the furnace to the hands of the craftsmen requires the blown crystal shape to be quickly transferred to the annealing oven. This allows the crystal to reach normal air temperature slowly, thereby avoiding stresses caused by rapid cooling, contraction and inevitable breakage. Annealing can take from two hours for a wine glass to about 16 hours for a large sports trophy.

When the blowers have breathed their magic, they leave a blank shape of crystal for Waterford's master cutters. A rough geometric guide of the design is marked on the blank, but the ultimate position and depth of cut is rendered by the cutter's own sight and feel.

There are two types of cutting: wedge and flat. Wedge cutting, using diamond tipped wheels, creates the deep intricate cuts - the hallmark of Waterford. Flat cutting complements the more intricate wedge patterns. The strain of muscles against the diamond tipped wheels requires intense physical effort, and each craftsman leaves his own individual mark on each piece. In this way, no two pieces of Waterford are ever identical. The design is cut strictly from memory requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of patterns and cuts. There are no short cuts to perfection.

Resources:
Content: An article on Irish Crystal by Pat Friend; the Waterford Crystal web site; The Glass Encyclopedia.
Belfast Crystal
Heritage Crystal
Image: & the Crystal itself from from Art Shapes

 

Fri, Nov 3, 2017

The Round Towers

The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
Image: By kind permission of Stephen Cassidy, The Cassidy Clan.


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