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Speech at Design & Crafts Council Ireland book launch and exhibition opening

Elenaor Flegg provides a fascinating account of the evolution of Irish craft from the early 1970’s to the mid 90’s as part of a set of essays in the ‘Irish Craft Heroes’ publication.

Many of the informal vernacular crafts she describes informed and contributed to the vernacular built heritage of the time. When I launched my department’s vernacular built heritage policy a few months ago in Licketstown in County Kilkenny, against a backdrop of the wonderful thatched cottages there, I was struck by the conversations we had with local people who spoke of such traditions being handed on largely through informal learning.

Seven years after the World Crafts Council General Assembly gathering in Dublin, Kilkenny Design Workshops here in the estate yard was going full tilt.

I lived up the road in Larchfield and as a young boy was fascinated with design; particularly graphic design. I would from time to time rummage through the skip at the side of the workshops for pottery seconds (which then had no value, I assume). I rescued a 1977 brochure from KDW highlighting the best of Irish craft, industrial design and graphic design. There was also a call out to industrial, graphic and textile designers to join KDW. Craft as a term in Ireland was being redefined at that time. It was moving out of the informal, the vernacular towards professionalism, towards dedicated apprenticeships and formal training and importantly towards an interdisciplinary approach of good design, of functionality and incorporation into our daily lives. This new found confidence in Ireland informed by Scandinavian influence and the broadening of our horizons as members of the European Community. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) had a responsibility for craft, helping establish initiatives such as the Roundstone Project in Connemara to attract craftspeople to remote rural areas.

The Crafts Council of Ireland is still true to it’s 1975 vision ‘an association of associations’ where its strength lies in active local groups, craft villages, craft guilds and informal cooperatives of makers. The development of the LEADER Programme was important too in supporting craft trails and establishing small scale rural craft enterprises. The foundation of the Craft’s Council in 1971 was pivotal to this incorporation of good craft and design into the industrial and graphic design remit of KDW. We know that many of the craftspeople and designers who settled here to be part of KDW, stayed and became part of the story of Kilkenny and this region that led to the Pottery Skills Course, the Jewellery and Goldsmithing course and more recently the successful bid by the collective of Made in Kilkenny on the region being designated a World Craft Council Craft City and Region. A really significant achievement in my view.

So today we are standing on the shoulders of giants; courageous trail blazers across the decades who have laid down a path of transformation in Irish craft and design which now sees it as an integral part of our culture globally. I spent a few hours with the Cushen family in Graiguenamanagh recently and to me it is the embodiment of that informal passing on of the trade, of the craft, the best in contemporary design and the communication of the importance of connecting the values of Irish craft into sustainability and durability.

I have been attending Design and Craft Council of Ireland exhibitions here for many years; I am so fortunate it is here on our doorstep. I never leave a show without being completely blown away by the skill, the art, the science or creative forces that continuously drive our designers and makers towards wanting to go further, to push the boundaries further and to tell our story to people further afield.

We cannot look forward towards the next fifty years of craft in Ireland without considering the great collective challenges confronting us; climate change and the loss and destruction of nature being among them. As Roger Bennett looks towards the future through his wish list, he references the need for craftspeople to become pioneers in the campaign to save the world’s natural resources. I agree wholeheartedly. A big part of my work over the next year will be to lead on the development of a new National Biodiversity Action Plan. It will be set against a context of a Global Biodiversity Framework, the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the ambitious goals and targets of the EU Nature Restoration Law.

Few creative industries in Ireland are more dependent on healthy nature and coherent habitats than that of our craft industry. Indeed much of what our craftspeople produce is of and from the earth. Clean water, healthy native woodlands, thriving coastal communities and our seas teaming with life will continue to provide both the raw material and inspiration for the makers of the future. Imagine our hedgerows without the ash tree or our wetlands without the curlew. In Cushendale they tell me that a key ingredient of their weaves is clean water coming off the mountain. Roger also speaks of the need to preserve, teach and exhibiting of Ireland’s traditional crafts, not just as he said because of their priceless heritage value but also as sources of inspiration whose techniques can be adapted and used in new ways.

I come back to that word ‘durability’. As we move towards a circular economy, we should focus our attention on creating durable everyday craft, that can be handed on from generation to generation. Be it pottery, knitwear, jewellery, glass or basketry, we should see craft again as providing part of the solution to climate change, of making durable goods that will last a lifetime and help eliminate our throwaway culture. For this people need to see the value in investing in an item of craft that they know will last.

Likewise too, I would like to see craft be part of the story of the great task of renovation of our vernacular, traditional and heritage buildings, of our historic town centres and of our monuments. Look around us here in Kilkenny, the great merchant houses of Rothe, Archer, Shee, all built by craftspeople and embellished by craft. Similarly, craft was at the centre of our 19th and 20th century buildings, guilding, signwriting, woodwork, joinery, plasterwork. In a craft city, we should be seeing that craft on our streets, in public places and on buildings.

It is a real privilege to formally launch Conjuring forms and the Irish Craft Heroes publication. Both the exhibition and book are testament to the wealth of talent here right now in Ireland at this exciting time for Irish craft and design. I will steer away from the expected government lines about the value of this industry to the Irish economy. We know that it has a certain economic and monetary value. However it has a value to our collective wellbeing, to our culture and inclusiveness that transcends such measurement.

Setting this exhibition old against new reflects the values I have touched on. I find it fascinating how technology is playing such a pivotal role in contemporary craft, in pushing the boundaries to create what is in the designers mind.

I congratulate all the talented people whose work is on show here, the curator, the DCCI team here in the design yard on a truly wonderful exhibition and formally declare it open.


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