The people of Ireland have been making pottery for at least 6,000 years. Not many pieces have survived from that time, of course-just fragments found in burial chambers. These were either pieces of objects buried with the body, or containers for the ashes of a body that had been cremated.
The first pottery-makers formed objects by coiling “ropes” of softened clay around each other. This method was fairly easy, but it was time-consuming and not very good at producing symmetrical objects. The invention of the potter’s wheel solved both those problems. The potter’s wheel found its way to Ireland about the 13th century, probably from the Anglo-Normans, and did much to encourage the growth of pottery-making there.
Types of Irish pottery
Pottery in Ireland can generally be divided into two types-coarse ware and fine ware. There are more records about the making of fine ware (possibly because it developed later), but coarse ware-pottery used for daily activities-was more common. Some of the original coarse ware items were the following:
– crocks to hold and store buttermilk
– wide pans for storing cream
– bowls for mixing, cooking, and baking
– chimney pots
Some of these items are no longer needed. Most coarse ware today is not made by hand, but what is, is frequently used in gardening, to hold seeds and bulbs as well as plants.
A summary of the basic pottery-making process
1. The clay is dug locally, in the summer. It’s mixed with water to make it more flexible, then left to sit over the winter.
2. When the clay is ready to be worked, it’s removed from its holding place and kneaded, first mechanically (using a device that pushes it through a set of rollers) and then by hand.
3. The clay is then formed into a ball and placed on the potter’s wheel, where it can quickly be formed into the desired object. The object is then removed the wheel and decorated.
4. The decorated object is left to dry for up to six weeks.
5. Once the drying is complete, the object is fired in a kiln.
Most kilns are now electric, but traditionally they used fuel like coal or common turf. They were large, sometimes holding several thousand pots.
The kiln would be filled with dried pots and then sealed. The fires would then be lit, with the whole process being watched carefully to be sure the heat inside the kiln built up slowly and evenly. The kiln fires could burn for up to three days, using as much as three tons of fuel. The person “operating” the kiln would keep the fires stoked until he determined that the temperature inside had reached 2192Ã?Â°F (1200Ã?Â°C). Then, the fires would be allowed to go out slowly, to bring the heat down just as evenly as it had gone up. It would take several days for the kiln to become cool enough to be unsealed.
The fine ware industry in Ireland
The making of fine ware-pottery made from stoneware, tin-glazed earthenware (called delftware), and porcelain-began in Ireland in the late 17th century as a response to the high cost of imported fine ware. The Irish had the fine white clay needed for this type of pottery, but there was a problem: They didn’t have much of the ideal fuel, which was coal. They had to pay to import the coal, and they had to pay for training, because this field was making rapid advances in Britain and Europe, where it had been established for many years.
The expenses and the competition eventually forced most of the Irish fine-ware establishments to shut down. The notable exception was the pottery at Belleek, which was started in 1857 and became successful largely because it won the contract for the production of insulators for the telegraph wires now going up all over the country. The Belleek pottery made glazed earthenware and porcelain, and eventually progressed to making only porcelain.
The introduction of electricity in the early 20th century made possible more modern facilities and techniques, including mass production. The Irish were now able to make enough pottery, especially fine ware like porcelain, to export to other countries.
Ireland still has potters working out of small studios. Mechanization may have taken care of the need for everyday objects, but the demand for fine art pottery continues, allowing the Irish to continue a tradition that has been 6,000 years in the making.