Remarks by President Michael D. Higgins at the Culture Craft – Culture in the Making Exhibition, Derry, Sunday, 11th August 2013

Mayor Reilly,

Distinguished guests and friends,

Is mór an pléisiúr dom bheith anseo libh trathnóna chun an taispeántas “ Ceardaíocht Cultúir – Cultúr á Shaothrú” a oscailt, lenarb é féin a sheoltar “Mí Cheardaíochta Lúnasa”.

[It gives me great pleasure to be here with you this afternoon to open the
“Culture Craft – Culture in the Making” exhibition, which itself launches Northern Ireland’s “August Craft Month”.]

May I thank in particular Deirdre O’Callaghan and Suzanne Woods of Craft Connects, the organisation behind this event, as well as Seliena Coyle, who kindly invited me to speak today and to whose acute curatorial sense this exhibition owes its distinctive aesthetic and thematic texture.

May I also congratulate the thirty-six makers represented here on the beautiful creations they crafted in response to the curator’s invitation to reflect on the various ways in which culture informs their practice.

Is í seo mo cheathrú cuairt ar Dhoire Cholm Cille–Doire Londain mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, agus is í mo dhara cuairt i mbliana í, tráth a bhfuil onóir chéad chathair chultúir na Ríochta Aontaithe á bronnadh ar an gcathair seo agaibhse.

[This is my fourth visit to Derry-Londonderry as President of Ireland, and my second visit this year, as your city is bestowed with the honour of being the first UK City of Culture.]

The curved “Peace Bridge” linking up communities on both sides of the river Foyle is so much more than a mere postmodern structure, and I welcome the opportunity to reflect briefly with you today on the important subjects of craft, culture, and the making of culture.

©Sylvain_Deleu_Peace_Bridge_ 12.jpg

When spaces are made into places by the human labour involved, when they are lived in, have lives poured into them, a home for a dynamic culture rooted in a sense of space, is created.

Today the edges of many towns and villages across the island of Ireland are skirted by rows of identical, vacant new homes – generic, computer-generated visions of domesticity and the good life. This is a landscape born of reckless speculation. Ruins of a future that never was, constituting what would in another century be perhaps regarded as a folly.

It is against this backdrop that I would like to reflect on the contemporary worth and meaning of craftsmanship. What is it in craft that makes it so widely valued – and this going back to the origins of man? How can it be continued? Or, to rephrase this question in the words of philosopher Simone Weil, what is there in craftsmanship – both in its methods and in its results – that makes it food so vital for the life of the soul?

I suggest that craftsmanship summons up relations to place, past and future, to notions of work and diversity, and to the outside world that are substantially different from the practices and conceptions encapsulated in the emblematic example I have just spelt out – that of the ghost estate, which today stands as a scar not only on the Irish landscape but also on our collective psyche.

Let me start with the natural environment, which provides the craft worker with the raw stuff of his art. This raw material, be it clay, wood or silver, is not easily transformed into an object fit for human use. ‘Good material’ is a myth. “Some materials promise much more than others”, craft theorist David Pye wrote, “but only the workman can bring out what they promise.” Thus at the heart of the craftsman’s practice lies the process of skills’ acquisition. A long and demanding period of learning against which jars the hasty work and, sometimes, the lack of skill, evident in many of the buildings of the recent property boom.

According to anthropologist Tim Ingold, the study of skills demands a perspective which situates the practitioner in the context of an active engagement with the constituents of his surroundings. This is what Ingold calls a “dwelling perspective”.

This exhibition pertains to such a poetics of dwelling. The makers have let their hands be guided by the feel of the material they moulded. The pieces they crafted incorporate elements of the Irish landscape, through both their stuff and their shape. In his statement, wood-turner Liam Flynn thus points out how his vessel conjures up the ancient monastic beehive huts as well as the haystacks that were once such a common but transient feature of the rural landscape. Alva Gallagher’s translucent creations remind one of the hues of the ocean and the lustre of seashells while Joe Hogan’s baskets evoke the hidden world of the hedgerow, with its nest-like intricacy of twigs, buds and moss.

Seliena Coyle’s use of bog oak in her brooches is also worthy of mention, for it encapsulates the gathering of landscape, history and memory all at once in a small object. Her work is in dialogue with that of the great crafter of words Seamus Heaney, who sees in the bog a sort of Jungian as well as geological memory-bank, a “dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past”, a bottomless historical repository:

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless

Thus in the poetry of Heaney, in ways not dissimilar to the craftsman’s practice, landscape and mindscape conflate; the bog is “Nesting ground, / Outback of my mind.” The mind is not ‘inside the head’ but, rather, out there in the world.

To emphasise the rich relations between craftsmanship and our history and memory as a people is not to confine craft to looking to the past and the indigenous. Skills are not passed down from generation to generation; they are regrown in each.

The creations on display in the “Craft Culture” exhibition bring home to us the immense reservoir of resources that lie within Ireland’s craft-makers and local communities; they bear testimony to these men and women’s remarkable ability at reinterpreting the past, at both keeping alive and updating old skills, at exploring new territories of sensation and imagination, and at giving sway to novel influences. Indeed Irish craft is the product of multiple cultural inputs; its fortune is intrinsically linked to a long history of trade with distant regions of the world.

Audrey Whitty’s mention, in her essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, of the fate of the Sutherland chair which, originally made in the North of Scotland, was transferred into the province of Ulster and given a unique twist there, is but one example of the rich material culture legacy we share on this island. This is a legacy we must keep alive by continually reinvigorating it with the power of creativity and the fresh impetus that craftsmen from elsewhere bring to Ireland today.

In her magnum opus, The Needs for Roots, philosopher Simone Weil poignantly described the importance of one’s active “participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future”. She also recognised the need for every human being to have multiple roots and the vital importance of reciprocal exchanges between different sorts of environments.

“But a given environment should not receive an outside influence as something additional to itself,” she wrote, “but as a stimulant intensifying its own way of life.”

These thoughts can inspire us as we are coming to terms with a chapter of our history dominated by an economic model that relied too exclusively on the opening up to foreign direct investment and the harnessing of global capital flows, and too little on alternative models of societal growth.

Let me now turn to the qualities of diversity and uniqueness that craftsmanship brings to the fore. What we are used to calling cultural variation consists, in the first place, of variations in skill. In craftsmanship, the quality of the result is never predetermined: it depends on the dexterity and care exercised by the maker during his work. Thus the product of this work is infinitely varied. According to Professor David Pye, whom I mentioned earlier, as mass production remakes our whole material environment, the widespread feeling that this environment is deteriorating comes about – I quote:

“not because of bad workmanship in mass-production but because the range of qualities which mass-production is capable of just now is so dismally restricted; because each is so uniform and because nearly all lack depth, subtlety, overtones, variegation, diversity… The workmanship of a motor-car is something to marvel at, but a street full of parked cars is jejune and depressing; as if the same tune of clear unmodulated notes were being endlessly repeated.”

Such a view is surely reflected in Eileen Gray’s work and in her commitment to uniqueness.

By sharing these thoughts with you, I do not intend to fetishise craft, or to dismiss the aesthetic value of the products of automated manufacture or the many ways in which these have improved our living conditions. Objects produced outside of mass-production can also be, with little effort, appallingly bad. And it is a fact that some of the ‘craft’ on sale in tourist shops across this island offers only a cheapened, commodified version of Irishness, which can have at best a sentimental value for those who purchase it.

craftmanship at its best is a human activity which brings out the spiritual nature of work

What I wish to emphasise, rather, is that craftmanship at its best is a human activity which brings out the spiritual nature of work. Firstly, as an activity that engages both the hand and the head, it allows for a balance between body and mind which few other trades permit. It precludes – or ideally should preclude – the hegemony of representation over sensation, of design over workmanship.

Secondly, by producing artefacts that are “more than simply utilitarian”, as Declan McGonagle puts it in his essay for this exhibition’s catalogue, craftsmanship allows us to engage with the unavoidable connection between what is aesthetic and what is functional – the functional valuing what is beautiful and the beauty of what is truly useful.

It also allows us to move closer – I would like to suggest – to a form of intimacy. The craftsman gives something of himself to the object he shapes. In this regard, it is telling that a number of the makers whose work is exhibited here have responded to the curator’s call by incorporating in their piece elements of their own personal and family history. For example, Alex Scott’s ceramic chair, is inspired by his grannie’s “dependable white oak chair” – a chair of which he says that it was “part of the family tree.” Helen McAllister used the motif of the shipbuilding crane in her piece, and she also inserted glass shards retrieved from a fire-bombed church – two elements taken from a childhood spent in Belfast.

The quality of these objects that are imbued with the distinctive, unique identity of their maker can be approached through the lens proposed by Simone Weil when she argued that truly human work is that which has a reflective quality – that which sustains the possibility for the worker to find in his work the means of transforming himself at the same time as he transforms the worked object.

Finally, in addition to the exchanges between the maker and the object, attention must be granted to the exchanges between the maker and the buyer. In his essay, Declan Mc Gonagle makes the important point that man manipulated materials “to confirm his humanity, firstly, to himself and, secondly, to communicate that humanity to others.” Thus art and craft-making allow for “the creation of empathy” without which there is no genuine cultural exchange as an object changes hands.

Dá bhrí sin, de bhreis ar é a bheith ina “thaispeántas” de cheardaíocht na hÉireann, bímis ag súil go ligeann an taispeántas seo scód do chomhtuiscint den sórt sin a theacht chun cinn idir na ceardaithe agus na cuairteoirí chuig Gailearaí Shráid Londain.

[Therefore, more than being a ‘showcase’ of Irish craft, let us hope that this exhibition will allow for such empathy and understanding to emerge between the makers and the visitors to the London Street gallery. I am delighted to declare this exhibition open!]