16 April 2016 Saturday morning
Today was mainly a travel day, but we made a few stops along the way to break up the long drive. We stopped at Tobernault Holy Well, an outdoor shrine that allowed Catholics a place to worship in secret during the times when the Penal Laws were enforced. The shrine featured a well-fed spring and a “mass rock”, a flat stone that served as the altar during mass.
We also stopped at the small church cemetery in Drumcliff, County Sligo where poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats is buried. Around lunchtime we crossed River Erne into Northern Ireland, Beleek, County Fermanagh and visited the Beleek Pottery factory.
The company was founded in 1849 by John Bloomfield, a mineralogist who inherited a large estate in the Beleek area and, upon surveying his newly acquired property, noted the abundance of minerals in the soil. He was horrified when he saw the devastation that the potato fame had wrought upon the town of Beleek and he wanted to start a business that would provide a source of employment for his tenants. A pottery business was a natural choice because the soil contained the minerals needed for the construction of ceramics and the property’s proximity to running water would provide a power source to drive the kiln. Bloomfield forged partnerships that provided money and talent for the fledgling enterprise and even persuaded the powers-that-be to construct a railway line to Beleek for the purpose of delivering coal to fire the kilns and for exporting the finished products to markets in the US and Europe. Soon the pottery produced at his factory was winning awards at the Dublin Exhibition. The accolades caught the eye of Queen Victoria, who commissioned many works for her private collection and soon Beleek pottery became a must-have fashionable accessory among the well-to-do.
Beleek pottery is well-known for its production of Parian porcelain, a type of bisque porcelain (so-called because of its color) named after the Greek island of Paros, renowned for its sculpted marble. Parian porcelain is designed to mimic the look of sculpted marble, but because the porcelain can be made by pouring a liquid into a mold (rather than carving), the porcelain can be mass-produced. In the early days of the operation, the factory produced earthenware, but following World War II and the installation of electric-powered kilns, the company produces only Parian porcelain.
Our tour guide on today’s factory tour was a lovely young red-haired woman named Una. Since we were visiting on a Saturday, the factory wasn’t in operation, so in lieu of watching the workers in person, we were shown a film that described the process of creating the beautiful, unique porcelain pieces.
The entire process begins with a design, and then the conversion of the design to a master mold, which is made out of plaster and is hand-carved. From the master mold, a case mold is made, which can be used for about eight weeks until the pattern fades and the mold can no longer be used. A new case mold then must be made, which is used for about two years. Master molds are archive and Una told us that the company has molds dating from the early years of factory operation in the mid-19th century.
The construction of the porcelain begins with the preparation of the slip, which consists of China clay, feldspar and potash. It is a liquid with the color and consistency of thick cream and is delivered to the work area via pipes in the ceiling (the video showed us an older system which involved a worker making many trips up and down stairs, heavy buckets of slip in hand). The slip is poured into molds and then the excess is poured out. After about 2-3 hours of drying, the clay shrinks, releasing the material from the mold. Once the piece is dry, excess clay and seams are removed from the piece, then the piece is fired in a kiln for 24 hours at 1200◦C. The firing changes the color of the piece so that it is darker in size (the color of bisque) and smaller in size. The piece is glazed and put back in the kiln and when it comes out, it is inspected for flaws.
In the video we observed with a mixture of horror and fascination how pieces with the slightest imperfections are smashed to bits at this point. Beleek pottery does not sell seconds. Una showed us a piece with a chip and asked for a volunteer to smash it. Steve volunteered, and placed the offending piece in the bottom of a closed box and was then given a long pole to smash the piece. I think he may have enjoyed himself a bit too well!
If the piece passes inspection, it is given a trademark stamp that guarantees authenticity. The design is changed every 10-12 years, but each version features an Irish wolfhound, a harp (the emblem of Ireland) and a tower. The piece is then hand-painted, then fired again in the kiln for seven hours at 700◦C.
The Beleek pottery operation is perhaps most well-known for its delicate porcelain baskets, a design introduced in 1865 by William Henshall. The preparation of the clay requires an additional ingredient, gum arabic, that produces a stiffer material. The baskets are then woven by hand from extruded spaghetti-like strands of the clay mixture. The woven baskets are decorated with hand-made detailed flowers and vines fashioned from clay and one basket can take an extremely skilled artisan two full working days to produce. The photo shown below is actually one of the simpler designs; the baskets can be quite intricate with hand-painted flowers and other designs.
The tour ended, we thanked our gracious guide and strolled through the museum and then, of course, the gift shop. The pieces produced by Beleek are exquisite and very dear, but the prices are understandable once one considers the time-consuming skilled craftsmanship required to produce each piece.
Our visit to Beleek pottery concluded with lunch in the tea room, and our meal was served on Beleek pottery, of course.
Back in the coach and on to Belfast!