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CAUTION! Fragile – Irish glass Tradition in Transition at the National Museum of Ireland

I’m still pinching myself even though it’s now a few days after the launch of CAUTION! Fragile the major glass exhibition that comments on the history and social experience of working in the world famous Waterford crystal factory. This exhibition celebrates the skills of cutting and engraving glass in Ireland. In 2009 Waterford Crystal went into receivership, sold off all their equipment and premises and laid off more than 2000 workers. It was a devastating time for the city and for the many families who spent their whole lives in the factory. Determined not to let the closure dictate the fate of Irish glass, I approached three former employees, glass masters Fred Curtis (Irish, born 1955), Greg Sullivan (Irish, born 1957) and Éamonn Hartley (Irish, born 1957), to see if they might be interested in collaborating on a project to create an exhibition, based on iconic objects from the collection of the National Museum in Dublin. I felt that the iconic objects we know from our history books could be a metaphor for the heritage of glass making which I saw as equally as precious as the Ardagh Chalice or golden torcs, which are often considered symbols of Ireland. Waterford Crystal had been an iconic brand but more than that it was a kind of Irish currency used in diplomatic events and large sporting occasions to mark history and accomplishment. The famous Shamrock ceremony for example at the White House has been a key event for the crystal industry, commissioning a special cut crystal bowl each year for this occasion.

For the glass masters, it was an opportunity to make pieces that were expressions of their own experiences and personal aesthetic, working under their own names in their own studios. It was a four year long project, working between Ireland the United states, and many hundreds of phone calls emails and visits to Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny where the men are now based.

It was a moving and proud evening for us all. 11th of March was launch date and we had over 200 people attend the opening, the staff tell me it was the best attended and most interesting opening they have been to in 10 or 12 years service. It was a very emotional and authentic few hours. Thursday night was just that, a grand celebration and a coming home for this exhibition which was first shown in the Museum of Glass in Tacoma in 2013. It was a little surreal to stand in the National Museum of Ireland and recount the story of the exhibition and its evolution and to have all three men stand beside me and talk themselves about their experiences. Phillip Grant the ex consulate of the western United States, opened the show. Phillip was very involved with us in the original show and made a wonderful speech.

It has been a long road of personal investment and hard work to bring this significant show to the National Museum of Ireland. There are over 50 pieces in the exhibition, which also includes oral history recordings with factory workers, and original music of glass sounds. Last week we had the official opening with over 200 people present. It was a little surreal to stand in the National Museum of Ireland and recount the story of the exhibition and its evolution and to have all three men stand beside me and talk themselves about their experiences. Greg Sullivan. engraver, talked about his factory number 5421, explaining that there were 5420 people in the factory before he joined and got his official number. He explained Eamon Hartley’s number was 420. Eamon was the head of the engraving school and had originally taught Greg Sullivan 15 years his junior. Greg also listed all the existing small workshops that are currently practicing in Waterford. His need to explain that there were still some men continuing this craft in his hometown was both a sales pitch and a poignant comment. A handful of men, out 2000 highly skilled workers that were full time employed in 2009. Fred Curtis, cutter, listed the many American Presidents, film stars and Queen Elizabeth 11 as some of the recipients of his work under the Waterford label. He recently had a private audience with the Queen and her dogs, at Buckingham palace while delivering the crystal and diamond studded brooch he been commissioned to make. The evening was a moving and authentic experience.

Later Liam O Maonlaí played with fellow Hot House Flower Peter O Toole on glass pieces taken from the exhibition. They pushed the material’s fragility, creating soulful rhythms and new sounds. Sounds carried far into ether, leaving an imprint on the audience, who experienced another facet of this material’s alchemy.

This month I am giving public workshops, lectures and tours, and working with school groups and local people in different museum locations. Next week I have invited a German engraver Wilhelm Vernim to come to my studio in the museum, bringing 8 glass engraving machines with him so we can run a class on engraving. This historic event should inject a new and experimental phase into the illustrative technique of glass engraving in Ireland. I have opted to be a student for the week. This is the first ever-public class that has been held in Ireland in glass engraving. Ironically it wouldn’t be possible without temporarily importing the German machines. CAUTION! Fragile’, led me to be offered a residency at the National Museum of Ireland. Glass threads that have led me to the museum continue to interweave.

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