The Evolution of Crafts in Northern Ireland

With August Craft Month in full swing, Joseph McBrinn of the University of Ulster considers the evolution of arts and crafts in Ireland

On March 31, 2012 two major events about design opened simultaneously in London and Belfast. In London, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s British Design: Innovation in the Modern Age, 1948-2012 reconsidered how design shaped British culture in a century of unparalleled change, and in Northern Ireland Titanic Belfast, located in the city’s former shipyards, offered a chance to rethink design’s role in society in a more local context since the launch of the Titanic in 1912.

Both events may seem opportunistic in their use of historical events to frame broader debates, the Olympic games of 1948 and 2012 in London and the building of the ill-fated Titanic in Belfast, but perhaps surprisingly they also serve as an opportunity for us to reconsider, and perhaps celebrate, the role of craft within the wider history of modern design.

In the Victoria & Albert Museum’s British Design exhibition over 300 objects tell the history of design from the post-war period to contemporary times. Central to the development of British design is the story of the handmade. Indeed, the exhibition reveals that in Britain ‘the revival of craft skills became one of the richest veins in post-war design'.

From the obvious skills essential in the making of textiles, ceramics and furniture to the more covert use of hand-making skills in architecture, engineering and industrial manufacturing, craft has thrived and has been continually reinvented throughout the 20th century.

The role of the maker’s hand is rightly celebrated at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s British Design exhibition, however only one designer from Northern Ireland is included: furniture by the architect and designer Max Clenndinning, which he made in the 1960s.

If, as Titanic Belfast experience suggests, a century ago Northern Ireland was centre-stage in world manufacturing and a leader in design, and by association craft as well, why do we know so little about its history? This may be largely because so little has been written down and, although today we know much about the wider socio-economic contexts of Northern Irish design history we know little about the people, the makers and the skills that drove it.

Like in Britain, craft in Northern Ireland has continued, after the decline of the ‘Golden Age’ of shipbuilding and linenmaking, to thrive and reinvent itself. In recent years the crafts have grown into one of the principal economic forces and tourist attractions in the region.

However, even today little remains known of Northern Ireland’s makers, their histories and their stories. Craft Northern Ireland’s August Craft Month 2012 is a unique occasion to engage with the makers themselves and understand better how and why making things by hand is part of our past, present and future.

Much of Northern Ireland’s rich design history is dominated by a type of anonymous making that renders the understanding of the stories and skills of individuals difficult to say the least. Alan Crawford’s recent comments on the history of 19th and early 20th century Irish textiles, in The Journal of Modern Craft in 2008, suggests ‘some kinds of history cannot be rewritten, that so many historical voices are completely lost'.

Historians have long been concerned with recouping the history of anonymous design from EP Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class (1963) to Betty Messenger’s study of Northern Ireland’s linen mills, Picking Up The Linen Threads: A Study in Industrial Folklore (1978).

Messenger, like Henry Glassie, her fellow American folklorist from Indiana University, came to Northern Ireland in the 1970s and placed people, their skills and their stories at the centre of her narrative about labour and material culture.

Although we have lost much of the knowledge of what makers did in the age of Northern Ireland’s industrial zenith, many of the practices, such as those in metals, textiles, glass, cabinetry, woodworking and furniture-making, survive in one way or another.

Should we today strive to record in some way the stories, as well as the skills, of contemporary makers in Northern Ireland? Can craft itself act as a form of storytelling – linking past and present?

The writer Walter Benjamin famously, in a short essay entitled The Storyteller, suggested that ‘after all, storytelling, in its sensory aspect, is by no means a job for the voice alone. Rather, in genuine storytelling the hand plays a part which supports what is expressed in a hundred ways with its gestures learnt of work.’

Contemporary craft makers may work in a brave new age of globalism, digital technologies, conspicuous consumption and e-commerce, but they still make with their hands and have stories to tell.

One of the most poignant uses of craft recently in Northern Ireland has been the pall made for St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, by the textile artists Helen O’Hare and Wilma Kirkpatrick, to commemorate the 1,517 lives lost on board the Titanic in April 2012. As Benjamin would have acknowledged, here we can find craft and storytelling in perfect symbiosis.

This article originally appeared on the Craft NI website, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. August Craft Month 2012 is currently taking place in galleries across Northern Ireland. The two videos above feature goldsmith Diane Lyness and sculptor Eamon Higgins, both of whom are exhibiting in the Craft NI office gallery in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. Check out the full August Craft Month programme below.