Today's Claddagh ring blog features a brief history of Irish Crystal.
Glass arrived in Ireland with the Celts who used it in beads and jewellery. It wasn't until the 17th century that a new method in glass-making gave birth to an industry that would make Ireland famous for her splendid mouth-blown, cut crystal.
In 1676, English glassmaker George Ravenscroft patented a striking discovery: by adding lead oxide to the materials which would become the molten glass, he found that it would create the final product hard and clear, but soft enough to carve. While adding lead makes the material more difficult to blow, the Irish would develop methods that support lead contents as high as 33%, the modern mark of fine lead crystal.
In the intervening period it would take a few more decades before Ireland became a center for glassmaking. One very important 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 That was when Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes.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 likely persecution. To escape the terrible conditions, they fled to England and Ireland and brought with them their trades and crafts - including the art of glassmaking.
Another important event took place when 18th-century English law banned the use of wood as a fuel source in making glass. If you've curious why cities such as Waterford, Cork, Dublin and Belfast became glass-making centers, it's easy to understand 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 best mouth-blown crystal in the world comes from Tyrone Irish Crystal.
In 1783, brothers George and William Penrose established the Penrose Glass House in Waterford. During that same year, Cork Glass House was founded. Then, in 1818, The Waterloo Glass Company and Terrace Glass Works also opened for business in Cork. These manufacturers and others would flourish, 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 very nearly put an end to the promising stage of Irish glass industry.
In 1825, the tax on the weight of materials was extended to glass operations in Ireland. Just as harsh was the 1800 Act of Union which prohibited the export of Irish glass products - even to England. But the worst occurance 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 restored.
In the late 1940s, a group of businessmen enlisted a staff of artisans and laid the basis 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 founded 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 - 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 themselves on the use of only traditional methods. The same can be said of Galway Crystal. Sheltered 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.
Nevertheless, high-quality, Irish hand-cut crystal is now being made by several reputable manufacturers, the name that reigns supreme is Waterford. The techniques and tools have changed little over the centuries since the first Waterford glassmaking factory opened in 1783.
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