County Kilkenny is situated in the south east of Ireland and is best known for its ancient ruins, monastic sites and medieval buildings, many of which contain exquisite stone carvings and architectural features. It has fine examples of 9th century high crosses and also abbeys and priories such as those at Jerpoint and Kells. Kilkenny city looks back on 1500 years of heritage and was for a short period in the 17th century the capital of Ireland. Craft and craftsmanship are a vital part of that cultural history. Kilkenny had a wide variety of traditional craft skills on which to base its current contemporary craft economy which was also heavily influenced by the establishment of Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) in the early 1960s.
Kilkenny City and County are home to over 50 professional art, craft and design studios and workshops as well as small craft industries and a large number of part-time arts and crafts people. Most of the craft studios are situated within a 20km radius of the city. Some of the studios have shops attached and many are open to visitors.
Kilkenny is known for its craft and food culture and a dedicated Craft and Food Experience Trail, identifying the location of the craft studios, is promoted and supported by Kilkenny Tourism. Kilkenny Tourism is a voluntary organisation, advocating Kilkenny as a tourist attraction and holiday destination, and highlighting the food and craft businesses in the City and County. Several of the craft workshops have viewing areas for visitors to observe highly skilled master craft workers in action, provide guided tours or offer the visitor the opportunity to try out a craft. With a growing trend in tourism for seeking authentic experiences rooted in history and culture, Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development
History of Craft in Kilkenny
Kilkenny is a medieval city and due to large deposits of sandstone and limestone in the country there is a long history of stone carving dating back to 9th century, evidence of which can be seen in its castle, abbeys and cathedrals. The River Nore runs through the county and city with many mills being built along the river. Today some of the mills are still used in the craft industry as workshops or training facilities.
The expansion of craft activity in Kilkenny dates back to the 1960’s with the formation of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) in the Castle stables in the centre of Kilkenny City in 1963. Through the Irish Export Board, this government lead initiative aimed to introduce good design into not only industrial manufacture but also craft – based production. The project attracted designers from throughout Europe and workshops were set up producing small production runs and prototypes for industry in the areas of weaving , textiles, ceramics, furniture and silversmithing. Throughout the 1970’s the workshops set up by KDW also ran apprenticeship and training schemes for young aspiring designer makers and by the time KDW closed in 1988 a considerable number of craft businesses had been set up in the area.
Cushendale Woollen Mills, in Graiguenamanagh, was founded in 1778 and is a sixth generation weaving company producing the highest quality textiles from fleece to fabric using the water from the River Barrow and natural dyes to dye the wool. Nicholas Mosse Pottery, in Bennettsbridge is housed in a former grain mill on the River Nore and uses hydro electricity to power the workshop facilities. Established over 40 years ago the mill has a shop, café and a small museum. The DCCI’s Ceramics Skills Course is housed in Island Mill in Thomastown. Jerpoint Glass in Stonyford, Mark Campden ceramics and Rudolf Heltzel Jewellery in Kilkenny are second generation studios.
Made in Kilkenny
MADE in Kilkenny is a multidisciplinary craft group organised and run by its members on a voluntary basis. It’s mission is to promote Kilkenny County as the premier destination in Ireland for authentic handmade Irish craft of exceptional quality. Kilkenny has long had the reputation for being a centre of creativity, and the MADE in Kilkenny collective has actively contributed to this perception over the last decade. The group has striven to bring together the considerable wealth of craft talent found in Kilkenny to a wider audience and to foster excellence in craftsmanship. Membership is open to full-time crafts people and follows a juried application process which assesses the quality and originality of the work produced.
The group holds a Christmas pop up shop during the month of December in the centre of Kilkenny City which provides the public the opportunity to purchase high quality locally made craft work. This extremely popular and successful venture is now in its tenth year. During the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August, MADE in Kilkenny has a themed exhibition of members work which consists of new pieces specifically produced for the Arts Festival show. In 2019 the group published a book celebrating the tenth anniversary of its formation. http://madeinkilkenny.ie
Craft Education and Training in the Country
With the closure of KDW in 1988 the responsibility for craft education & training was transferred to the DCCI when their Business Development Course was set up in KDW’s vacated premises. They continued to expand their training activity by establishing a Ceramics Training Course in 1990 in Thomastown and a Jewellery Training Course in Kilkenny in 1993. These two innovative courses are still part of the DCCI’s education programme and many of the courses’ alumni have set up in the area. The courses are consistently acknowledged, by the many international professionals who have visited them, as world class. In 1981 the Vocational Education Committee in Kilkenny set up the Grennan Mill Craft School in Thomastown offering an introductory multi-disciplinary craft course. Many of the tutors were professional makers who had previously worked in the KDW.
As well as these full-time programmes there are also several initiatives and conferences that have a strong educational remit. The National Craft Gallery Exhibition programme run by the DCCI often have maker’s talks and workshops linked with their exhibitions. Ceramics Ireland, Ireland’s largest membership craft association, holds a bi-annual International Ceramics Festival in the Council’s facilities in Thomastown with artists from as far afield as Australia, Japan, USA, and Ukraine giving demonstrations and lectures.
DCCI’s Ceramics Skills and Design Course
The DCCI’s Ceramics Skills and Design Course is a two-year intensive skills-based programme. Established in 1990 this extremely successful course has achieved an excellent reputation in the industry both nationally and internationally. It is accredited through Maynooth University. The programme is delivered at the DCCI’s Ceramics Centre of Excellence at the beautiful Island Mill in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. The ceramics course specialises in production skills, clay and glaze technology, kiln theory and operation, surface treatments, drawing and design, the history of ceramics and contemporary practice. The superb facilities, with electric, gas and wood fired kilns, allow students to build up an extensive knowledge of techniques, materials and processes. Throughout the two-year programme, visiting tutors with specialist expertise give demonstrations and lectures. In 2017 the course had the honour of welcoming HRH The Prince of Wales, an articulate advocate for skills based training in all areas of craftsmanship who has set up craft training courses in Dumfries House, Scotland.
DCCI’s Jewellery and Goldsmithing Skills and Design Course
The DCCI’s Jewellery and Goldsmithing Skills & Design Course is a unique programme designed to equip graduates with the practical skills and technical knowledge needed to develop careers in the jewellery industry in Ireland and internationally. This course is accredited through Maynooth University. The intensive two-year programme is delivered at the DCCI’s Jewellery and Goldsmithing Centre of Excellence in the organisation's headquarters in Kilkenny City. Now in its 24th year, the Jewellery and Goldsmithing Skills & Design course specialises in the tradition of precious metals and gemstones, covering design, quantity production techniques and manufacture. Specialist subjects such as engraving, enamelling, gemmology, stone setting and silversmithing are taught by tutors who are trained experts from within the jewellery industry in Ireland and abroad.
Information about Crafts people
Craft has had a significant impact on the social, cultural and economic development of the Kilkenny area with a wide variety of craft makers in the region including ceramics, jewellery, textiles, glass blowing, stone carving, woodturning, furniture making, leather work, candle making, basket making and millinery.
Production ranges from batch and mass produced pieces, sold in retail outlets in Ireland and abroad to more individual, one-off pieces sold in galleries and exhibitions, and includes functional, well designed craft as well as unique sculptural pieces. Many crafts people also have retail selling spaces located next to their production workshops giving the public an opportunity to visit, purchase work and gain a better understanding of the making processes. These workshops form the basis of the craft element of Kilkenny Trails, a series of themed and activity trails which also includes food, walking and cycling.
Online sales have become increasingly important for craft workers in the region with many establishing successful web based shops and galleries. A Kilkenny Potters Market takes place during the week of the Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Makers from the region annually attend Showcase Ireland, the country’s largest international trade show. It attracts over 4,000 buyers from across the world including Ireland, the UK, USA, Mainland Europe and the Far East generating sales orders of over €26 million during the four days of the show.
Crafts Clusters and Hubs
Many of the full time professional makers in the Kilkenny area have open workshops with retail spaces and although they are spread throughout the county there are several clusters and training hubs. Castlecomer Arts and Crafts Centre houses 16 artists and craft makers in a 17th century stable yard. The Castle Yard in Kilkenny City, was the former stables of Kilkenny Castle and is now home to craft studios, the National Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland and the DCCI’s Jewellery & Goldsmithing Course. Thomastown and its environs include several craft businesses and craft training programmes including the DCCI’s Ceramics Skills Course and Grennan Mill Craft School. In September 2021 the DCCI’s Jewellery and Goldsmithing Course will relocate to Thomastown into the former Courthouse building following a €1.2 million refurbishment project. This move will establish Thomastown as a leading venue for craft education with Centres of Excellence in Ceramics and in Precious Metals training. Bennettsbridge, halfway between Kilkenny and Thomastown, has pottery, candle making and furniture workshops. The larger scale craft producers in the region have dedicated viewing areas where visitors can see demonstrations of the craft being made.
Creative Partnership Opportunities
Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP) a non-profit, independent, community-led, local development organisation, has worked together with craft businesses to develop the Crafts Trail, making it easy for visitors to find craft makers in Kilkenny City and County. Beautifully designed booklets have been published with maps indicating the location of the craft businesses in the region.
The Local Enterprise Office ( LEO ) and the DCCI support makers through group and one-to-one mentoring and by providing financial support to attend or exhibit at art and craft fairs, nationally or internationally. They also provide Network Funding for group exhibitions. The LEO contributed towards the publication of a book celebrating the 10th anniversary of MADE in Kilkenny. The DCCI hosts a nationwide annual collaboration initiative in which pairs of designer/makers, with different skills sets, partner up to develop new innovative products.
Agencies, Museums, Galleries and creative industries
The Design and Crafts Council Ireland (DCCI) has its headquarters in the city in the former stables of Kilkenny Castle. The DCCI is the national agency for the commercial development of Irish designers and makers, stimulating innovation, championing design thinking and informing government policy. Once the home of the KDW the DCCI buildings now house DCCI offices, the National Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland and the DCCI’s Jewellery and Goldsmithing Course. www.dcci.ie/
The National Design & Craft Gallery
Established by the DCCI in 2000, the gallery is Ireland’s leading centre for contemporary craft and design. It aims to inspire appreciation, creativity and innovation through its exhibition, event and education programmes, and plays a critical role in building understanding of craft and material culture in Ireland. Each year it hosts the graduation shows of the DCCI’s Ceramics and Jewellery courses and a flagship exhibition to coincide with the Arts Festival and its 50,000 visitors.
The exhibitions programme features Irish and international designers, artists and makers across a variety of disciplines who push the boundaries of their chosen materials and techniques in their engagement with the making process. The gallery provides a platform where work can be explored in wider cultural contexts, to develop understanding of the traditional roots of Irish craft and design, and its future potential.
The Irish Heritage Council headquarters is based in the former Bishop’s Palace in Kilkenny city. The Heritage Council is a public body providing policy advice for government on heritage issues that include sustainability, landscape management, high nature value farming, forestry and climate change. Their Traditional Building Skills Initiative includes workshops, conferences, field trips, lectures and seminars covering the following traditional building skills: roofing, thatch, masonry and lime mortar, dry stone walling, joinery and ironwork. www.heritagecouncil.ie
The Butler Gallery is the south east of Ireland’s leading art gallery and museum and is located in the heart of Kilkenny City. Formerly housed in the basement of Kilkenny Castle the Butler Gallery moved to its present location, the newly renovated Evan’s Home, in August 2020. At a cost €6 million the former alms house built in the early 19th century now houses a permanent collection, a contemporary exhibition space, an education room and a café. www.butlergallery.ie
Medieval Mile Museum
The former St Mary’s Church has been converted into a modern museum and also serves as a venue for select events and exhibitions. Designed to enrich the cultural life of the city and provide a new international standard attraction for visitors, the 13th century church and graveyard in Kilkenny is the finest example of a medieval church in Ireland. As the starting point of the Medieval Mile trail, it brings to life Kilkenny’s history as Ireland’s premier medieval city. www.medievalmilemuseum.ie/
Cartoon Saloon Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon is a four-time Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy nominated animation studio. It has carved a special place in the international Animation industry with its animated feature films, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea , Breadwinner and Wolfwalkers. The company along with its sister company, Lighthouse Studios now has over 400.
Kilkenny Arts Festival
The city and surrounding areas hosts an annual ten day Kilkenny Arts Festival in August, which attracts 50,000 visitors each year. One of the largest arts festivals in Ireland, it is inclusive of many art forms including theatre, dance, visual arts, as well as all forms of music and literature. Throughout the county, craft workshops organise individual exhibitions and open studios for the duration of the festival. Grennan Mill Craft School in Thomastown hosts six exhibitions of Irish craft workers and artists and the town has its own exhibition trail for the duration of the festival.
Other festivals include Kilkenny Trad Fest, Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, Kilkenomics - an economics and comedy festival, Sub Title European Film Festival, Savour Kilkenny food festival, Kilkenny Animated, Kilkenny Roots music festival.