Last weekend I was out in our garden in the morning and I heard the guests who were staying at the cottage (a group of four from Israel) chatting. They were sitting outside the cottage, in the morning sunshine, drinking coffee. I noted they were using pottery glasses I had left in the house, which many might consider water glasses. I smiled to myself and thought how great it was to see these little gems of glasses, with their blue, brown and green tones shimmering in the sunlight, being used and admired by our visiting guests.
This was a set of pottery glasses I got some years ago as a gift, from Rossa Pottery in Cashel Co. Tipperary. Time, I thought to myself, to meet the Master potter behind this beautiful range, at his family run workshop.
The Story Behind Rossa Pottery
Meeting Alan Walsh is like meeting a breath of fresh air. He is down to earth (well he works with clay); articulate; highly skilled and very hard working. He is an artist, but he has no time for any of the “pseudo-ness” that sometimes affects the art world. I knew the family story started with his father Edward, so I asked Alan to tell me about him.
Edward, known as Ned, left Tipperary in the 1950s like many others had to do, and headed to London to find work. He got a job in Pinewood Studios working on sets. He worked behind the scenes of several movies but it was one in particular that probably changed the course of his life. The movie needed props that gave an Egyptian effect, and they needed to make them from polystyrene foam. Ned was fascinated by this and made the courageous decision to enroll in the Central London College of Art to learn the skill.
Meeting Ms. Hammond
While in college, Ned discovered he preferred to work with smaller sculptures, and, under the dedicated eye of a Ms. Hammond, who became his mentor, Ned’s skill at pottery making soon began to flourish. Not only did she encourage his gift but she was of Jewish background and she knew many of the owners behind big stores in London. Before long Ned’s work was being sold from the shelves of prestigious stores in the city.
Returning to Tipperary
During this time he met his future wife, Celine Cooper from Sligo, who was working at Barclays Bank. They decided to return to Ireland in the 1960s to set up their home in Tipperary. Ned established his workshop where O’Donoghues pub currently is situated in Cashel and from here his pottery started to gain the recognition of locals and visitors from abroad. His pottery was also being exported and sold in several countries and the name Rossa started to grow. Sadly when his wife died young, leaving Ned with a small family and a business to care for, his focus and attention to the business suffered.
The Story of Alan
Fortunately, Alan, his second youngest son, seeing his father’s fatigue and having a sensitive nature, began to take an interest and get involved in the business. Together they travelled the country with a suitcase of pottery in the 1980s, showing their product to potential buyers. The 1980s were bleak times in the country but little by little, and in particular when Alan took over the management and sale side, the business started to grow again. He also spent time with Nicholas Mosse learning other aspects of the craft.
It is very obvious when you meet Alan Walsh and see him work, as I did this week, that he is a natural. He does not use modern techniques like moulding, but instead his pieces are crafted individually and are hand ‘thrown’ (a technique that many potters do not use anymore) – and the results are stunning. Occasionally our conversation moved from pottery making to bread making, a topic close to my heart. Incredibly, Alan kneads the clay to get rid of air . The clay is called ‘Marl’ and is partly sourced locally. The quality of the clay is fundamental to the finished product. Indeed sourcing and preparing the clay for use in pottery making is a highly skilled job in itself that Alan has much experience of. If pieces of fossil or other impurities are in the clay, the piece will crack when put into the oven. So, rather like the quality of the flour used in bread making, or hops used in beer making, the quality of the clay used in pottery making, is critical to the process.
Glazing the Pottery
The glazing or finished design of Rossa Pottery is a secret Alan won’t share . His wife Sarah, who has a background in ceramics and works in the business running their shop in Cashel, assists with this aspect of the job. Alan explained that his Father had made a breakthrough in glazing when in London, in being able to use different colours in the same glaze. The results, still seen today on Rossa pottery, are distinct and very beautiful.
Returning to Greenville
One can’t leave a workshop like this without buying something to bring home, so I left with some more glasses and intend to be back for plates and other items in the near future. When my guests sit at the table in the Cottage , I want them not only to have local art around them on the walls, but pieces of art on the table too, hand crafted, authentically ‘thrown’, pieces of pottery – made with love, in Co. Tipperary.
A story that could easily be made into a movie.