The Importance of Preserving The History of Irish Craft

SIOBHAN CAMPBELL on why we need to recognise and value handcrafted work for what it represents …

Dun Emer Industries – Image © National Gallery of Ireland

Crafts are the head, hand and heart of a nation, they are the cultural assets. We need only look at the intricate designs and the insular script of the Book of Kells to recognise its Celtic heritage. What is so powerful about handcrafted work today? Twenty five per cent of our body’s bones are contained in our hands and 17,000 nerve receptors lie in our palms. Hands are unique neurotransmitters and our hands are the silent expressers of our souls – just hold someone’s hand to feel that! How do we preserve this flame of craft when everything is available at the touch of a button? Perhaps we need to recognise and value handcrafted work for what it represents.

Dun Emer Guild was founded in 1902 by Evelyn Gleeson and Elizabeth Yeats to develop and produce handcrafted bookbinding, printing, tapestry and weaving. Evelyn invested her money, the Yeats sisters – Elizabeth and Susan – invested their skills. It was “an arts and crafts manufactory … to find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things,” as noted by Joan Hardwick in her excellent book The Yeats Sisters. They were committed to the revival of handcraft in an Ireland evolving intellectually and politically during the early 1900s.

The Dun Emer Guild evolved into Cuala Press in 1908. The guild sourced linen and wool from the Saggart Mills and recycled the wax butter paper from the Merrion Dairies for their embroidery designs. Everything was a distinctively Irish handcrafted collaborative production. Books, broadsides and cards were produced at Cuala from 1908 to 1946, when Lily Yeats worked her cotton threads graphically like a pen – her experience under William Morris in London during the 1880s, was invaluable. The respect for materials and design and the dogged determination of the Yeats sisters is featured in the National Gallery’s “[IN] visible women” exhibition on now.

Siobhan Campbell, Art Educator

Siobhan Campbell teaches “Calligraphy as Mindful Writing” and “The Awe of Colour” at Blackrock Institute of Further Education, from January 21. www.art4all.com.

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