When the news broke that the staff of Waterford Crystal had taken possession of the Visitor’s Centre last January, it was little surprise that locals rallied around – joining large scale protests and sending tea and sympathy, in whatever form they could, to the beleaguered workers.
We were shocked and horrified that so many livelihoods could be wiped out so quickly and more than one person contacted this newspaper to say how proud they were of the workers for taking a stand. Aside from the obvious desire to ‘support our own’, however, I don’t think many people realised what a global travesty was taking place until the rumour circulated that the workers’ protest had attracted the attention of controversial American film maker Michael Moore, who had sent a film crew to Kilbarry to record the sit-in.
We have yet to learn whether the Oscar-winning Moore, who has been responsible for such high-grossing documentaries as Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, will indeed feature Waterford in a future work. But the story of those 500 or so workers is nonetheless reaching people all over the world, as the focus of an American-produced online documentary called Focal Point.
Launched in December 2008, Focal Point is a series of documentary shorts from New York-based Wide Angle, public television’s Emmy Award-winning international affairs documentary series. The aim of Focal Point is to offer a deeper understanding into the forces shaping the world today through compelling human stories from across the globe. A crew from the company travelled to Waterford in mid March to follow the sit-in, linking in with a number of workers – amongst them well-known soccer referee Ian Paul and Tom Power – and telling their story as they fought to save their jobs and keep the iconic brand in the city. Tom, an artisan and master cutter, joined Waterford Crystal when he was a teenager and spent eight years learning his craft. Ian Paul’s family connection to the factory goes back to 1947 when his father began working in the furnace room.
The result is ‘Raise the Last Glass’, which explores the build-up to the two-month sit-in. It’s a poignant recollection of what once was in Waterford – and the spirit that still prevailed.
The show’s producer, Lucy Kennedy, says the thing that struck her most about the workers at Waterford Crystal was their good humor at a time when they were under immense financial and emotional pressure. ‘Even when things were at their worst the workers, who were not far from retirement, would joke about things like retraining as a pilot or an astronaut. There was constant storytelling and banter as well as endless cups of tea. We spent most of our time with men who had worked at the crystal factory since they were teenagers. After forty years of hard but rewarding work, they were looking forward to a comfortable retirement for themselves and their families. But all of this has changed.
Such tragedy is now a common global problem, but meeting tragedy with humor is something quintessentially Irish. It may be a small thing, but I think it’s another piece of our cultural heritage worth holding on to.’
Co-producer of the show Lauren Kesner talked about her encounters with master cutter Tom Power. ‘For years, he has traveled throughout America setting up tables at department stores where he would explain the crystal making process. Sitting in the empty store, at an empty desk, it was clear Power wanted to tell the story of Waterford Crystal before it was too late. Fewer workers were showing up at the sit-in, and maybe he sensed the end was near. Like somebody recording a family history, he relived the glory days of learning and perfecting his craft, of cutting Super Bowl trophies and of the friendships he made traveling across America. Power’s pride was palatable. It made me want to buy my first piece of crystal, but the gallery store was closed. After the factory tour and glass cutting demonstration Power thanked me for having recorded his last and final cut.’
Hopefully the documentary, which can be viewed online at www.pbs.org/wideangle, will be picked up by a mainstream film producer and tell the world how the final cut at Waterford Crystal was the deepest.