BELLEEK POTTERY (1987)
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, David Shaw Smith and his wife Sally captured the intricacy and brilliance of Irish craft in the landmark RTE series, HANDS. Now aged 74, and still filming and archiving craft footage, Shaw Smith, revisits six of the businesses and artisans he filmed in the original series to see how they’ve weathered the last 30 years, focusing on this new generation of craft workers.
PROGRAMME 6 – In Good Hands “ The Potter”
David returns to Belleek Pottery in Fermanagh to observe the intricate porcelain sculpture of the last surviving fine china ceramics factory in Ireland. For more than 150 years, Beleek Pottery on the banks of the Erne in Fermanagh has been famed for its fine china ceramics.
When David Shaw Smith filmed here in 1979, the company was in full-scale production and this grand house was a hive of activity. In the space of three decades, the Irish ceramics industry has changed radically. And yet, while competition from abroad has forced many businesses to close, Belleek has adapted and survived. While processes have changed, much of the company’s original hand-crafting tradition remains.
David meets potter Fergus Cleary who now manages the design department he worked in as an apprentice in the 1970s. Fergus’ family have been part of Beleek for more than 100 years. When Fergus appeared in the original Hands film, he worked in the design department, Today he oversees Belleek’s 150 year-old archive.
We also meet John Doogan – chief basket maker in 1987 – who still oversees the painstaking and immensely skilled production of Beleek’s trademark ornate porcelain baskets which require a steady hand and a discerning eye to create. Each one is about the size of a thumbnail and the art of sculpting and forming them has taken John years to master. He builds each basket completely by hand, rolling out the porcelain into fine ropes for the fretwork, flattening petals of wafer-thin clay for the flowers.
David revisits Nicholas Mosse Potteries in Kilkenny, where he filmed in the 1980s – a small studio back then which has since grown into a medium size enterprise employing nearly 60 people.
And we observe ceramic artist Isobel Egan – who creates extraordinarily detailed and award-winning art from thin sheets of hand-worked porcelain.
IN GOOD HANDS is a six part contemporary documentary series exploring the life and work of traditional Irish craft-workers and how they’ve adapted to the demands of the modern world: from elite saddler-makers, iron workers and cobblers, to bespoke tailors, potters and artisan weavers.
Some, like the Powers, a family of metalworkers from New Ross, are object lessons in entrepreneurial spirit, adapting in the face of competition and cheap imports from abroad. Others, like the Tuttys of Naas are third generation cobblers who have used technical ingenuity to re-invent themselves in the 21st century. And a lucky few, like Nicholas Moss Pottery and Berneys saddle-makers, have prevailed because they are among the best in the world at what they do.
The world of Irish craft has changed a lot in 30 years but, despite the series’ important emphasis on continuity, IN GOOD HANDS is rooted firmly in the present, showing the craft industry as a reflection of Ireland’s changing social and cultural spectrum.
IN GOOD HANDS is entertaining, inspirational, feel-good television for viewers of all ages – bringing new relevance to the hugely popular Hands series.
In Good Hands is a GMarsh TV production for RTÉ
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