Irish crystal is renowned for its high quality, top-notch craftsmanship, and unique designs. In Ireland, crystal is reproduced to a standard found nowhere else on earth. Today, market leaders such as Waterford Crystal are household names associated with luxury and prestige all over the globe—but make no mistake about it, the history of glass in Ireland stretches back centuries, and, like all facets of Ireland’s past, is as exciting as it is intricate.
Studies show that glass first arrived in Ireland in the hand luggage of the Celts in about 500 BC. The Celts, interestingly, had gotten the material from the Romans. The Roman Empire began to rise in the second millennium BC, and the 500 years of Roman history that followed are considered to be among the most productive periods of ancient glass making, with workshops being located in the Syrian, Italian, Egyptian, Swiss, French, and British regions of the Empire. These workshops developed new, more effective techniques that sped up production exponentially: the furnaces were bigger, the flames were hotter, and core forming (the technique in which molten glass is shaped around an inner rod) was replaced with the “blown glass” technique still used by many today.
By 100 AD, the intensity of this progress meant that glass was no longer a status symbol for the upper echelons of Roman society; it was easier to find and easier to purchase, to boot. And so, this decrease in the popularity of glass products among the Romans led to higher exports, meaning that around this same time, the love of glass among Celtic people began to peak.
But the Celts weren’t content to simply marvel at the glass creations they purchased; rather, earlier than most ancient populations, they set out to learn how to make it on their own. The earliest evidence of glass making from the Celtic people came from the trade of beads and bangles. In Roman Glass in Britain, Denis Allen notes that one of the first examples of possible glass making efforts was found in the form of a “small pile of white sand from Wroxeter and Shropshire, and it seems that any use of this for glass making was experimental, and not very successful.”
But, as with all things, practice seemed to make perfect. Soon, glass beads of many different kinds were popping up everywhere, their bounty quite comparable to other facets of Celtic design, such as Celtic crosses or Tree of Life artwork. This has has prompted historian Margaret Guido to note that “Some of the La Tene Celtic beads, both on the Continent and in Britain, are of such exquisite craftsmanship that that it is surprising to find hardly any reference to them in works concerning Celtic art.”
In Celtic society, these small glass beads were highly important from a social point of view. It’s widely understood that, although ruthless in times of conflict, the Celts were also a romantic people, passionate about artistic expression. “It is noteworthy that [they] had, despite their close link to the Mediterranean and the early taste of their upper classes in exotic jewelry, their own distinctly Celtic design for glass jewelry,” wrote Greek historian Poseidonius, when he traveled through Europe in the first century BC.
Particularly popular among the Celts of Ireland was a kind of cobalt blue bead, run through with colored cables (dates for this type of ring-shaped bead range from the first century BC to the first or early second century AD, depending on location) and blue or purple beads with a contrasting whirl or ray (many of which have been found scattered along the Irish coast). Finally, there are the visually striking “eye beads,” with a series of tiny eyes set into roundels on their surface. These are commonly turquoise with mustard-colored roundels, inside which sit blue eyes ringed with white, like eggs in a nest. Originating on the European Continent, these beads introduced in Britain around the third or fourth century BC. About one century later, they seem to have been re-imagined by the Celts of Ireland, and are seen often in collections of Celtic bead work found on the island.
Beads served many functions among the Celts of Ireland, and were equally associated with masculine and feminine energies—they have been found incorporated into necklaces, brooches, earrings, hair ornaments, decorations on sewing pins, and even as talismans attached the hilt of a sword to bring luck during battle. Evidence at burial sites has suggested that they were popularly used on finger-rings for deceased loved ones. Perhaps most fascinating, archaeological evidence has shown us that while bead styles certainly evolved over time as most fashions do, older styles seem to reappear in later collections, as if the beads themselves were rediscovered, or even passed down with nostalgia as familial keepsakes.
It wouldn’t be until much later, in the 17th century, that a technical discovery in glass making would change the way it was utilized on a worldwide scale. In 1676, an Englishman and glass maker by the name of George Ravenscroft patented this groundbreaking technique: by adding lead oxide to all of the pre-established ingredients needed for molten glass, the final product would come out hard and remarkably clear, yet critically, soft enough to carve and shape with finesse. Using Ravenscroft’s ideas as a springboard, the Irish added yet more lead. As such, the modern mark of Irish lead crystal is a lead content of up to 33%—explaining just one aspect of its current reputation as the best quality crystal in the world.
However, it would be several decades more until Ireland’s crystal-blowing prowess was truly recognized. In 1685, King Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes, which for the French and Flemish meant likely persecution if they were to remain in England. Many of these families uprooted their lives to the safer shores of Ireland, bringing their strong glass making trade with them and adding a further sense of uniqueness to Ireland’s current style of glass.
Another essential step that brought the Irish glass and crystal industry to its current high took place in the 18th century, when English legislation introduced a ban on the burning of wood as a fuel source in glass making. This set the stage for the port cities of Dublin, Waterford, Cork, and Belfast as glass making hubs, for, as Ireland had very little by way of natural coal resources, it began to be imported from overseas.
In 1771, the first ever crystal factory in Ireland was opened in the Northern Irish town of Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. Twelve years later, Penrose Glass House (later named Waterford Crystal) was founded by brothers George and William Penrose in Co. Waterford. They produced incredibly fine flint glass that quickly developed a name for itself overseas, and the companies thrived, in large part due to a tax on the weight of materials used that existed in England and Scotland, but not Ireland.
The methods they utilized were simple in pattern: after craftsmen came with and developing a design, the molten crystal was shaped using a wooden mold and hand tools of beech and pear wood. Then, using a furnace, they would meticulously blow the crystal into its final form. After careful inspection, each piece of crystal was marked with a temporary geometric grid to assist the master cutter in making the final marks upon the crystal, which could take the form of either “wedge cutting” or “flat cutting.” The newly-cut crystal piece was then polished to perfection, before being sent off for the eyes of potential buyers. And of those, there were many; suffice to say that the world had fallen in love.
However, this serendipity wasn’t to last. In 1825, the crippling tax on the weight of crystal-making materials was brought to Ireland, and the 1800 Act of Union explicitly prohibited the exporting of Irish glass products, even to England, the law’s creator. Worst of all, the encroaching years of the Great Famine and much political upheaval almost put an end to this prosperous industry in its fledgling years—through both starvation and emigration, the population took a hit, with many skilled craftspeople slipping through the country’s fingers during this tumultuous era. By 1850, the Irish glass and crystal industry had been almost obliterated. The Waterford Crystal company closed in 1851.
It would take almost a complete century for the industry to be brought back from the dead, and it took a Czech immigrant named Charles Bacik, grandfather of Irish senator Ivana Bacik, to do it. Charles established his own glass works in Waterford, employing continental Europeans due to the lack of expert crystal workers available in the country at the time. With the help of fellow Czech immigrant Miroslav Havel, Charles oversaw the beginnings of his company’s operations in a economically depressed Ireland. Surprisingly, it began to gain traction, and by 1970, Waterford Crystal had taken over British company John Aynsley and Sons, renaming it Aynsley China, Ltd.
Since then, Waterford Crystal’s creative pull for all kinds of artist has been immense. In 1999, Jasper Conran designed a signature range of Waterford Crystal products that would make history, evolving into four unique lines for Waterford Crystal. In 2001, Chinese fashion designer John Rocha came up with a range of cut crystal stemware and vases as part of a Waterford Crystal collaboration with glass designer Marcus Notley.
Today, Waterford Crystal produces many patterns of lead crystal stemware, all with distinctively Irish names: there’s Adare, Alana, Colleen, Kincora, Lismore (credited as the world’s best-selling crystal pattern), Maeve, and Tramore, among countless others. In 1966, Waterford Crystal chandeliers were installed in Westminster Abbey for the 900th anniversary of the dedication of the abbey. Christopher Hildyard, a minor canon of the abbey who had been there 45 years, convinced the Guinness family to pay for them. Waterford chandeliers also appear in Windsor Castle, the Kennedy Center. Most amazing, perhaps, is the New Year’s Eve Ball that drops each year on New Year’s Eve in Time Square, New York: the ball is made of 2,688 Waterford-made crystals, and, as a result, weighs close to 12,000 pounds.
And though Co. Waterford is without doubt the best-known crystal county in Ireland, it’s very far from the only one. Indeed, in 1992, Waterford master-cutter Gerry Daly chose the town of Kinsale, Co. Cork to establish Kinsale Crystal. It was his plan to revive the long-extinct method of crystal “deep cutting,” a method that was tedious and incredibly slow, but resulted in an intensely reflective sparkle and smooth finish. The venture was wildly successful, and today, the Daly family still man the premises, happy to speak to anyone curious about their practices.
The Irish Handmade Glass Company, too, is globally noted for the high quality of its products. After the closure of several Waterford Crystal factories in 2009, a team of master craftsmen—Richard Rowe, Danny Murphy, Derek Smith, and Tony Hayes—joined forces to found this group, located still in the heart of the Viking Triangle in Waterford City. As with Waterford Crystal and Kinsale Crystal, visitors are welcomed to the studio to observe the creative (and creation) process.