‘The Glass’ has been at the very heart of Waterford for so many years. When I came here in the early 70’s practically everyone had a connection one way or another with the factory. There were other factories, of course, but everyone knew what was meant with reference to ‘the factory’. It became a world brand and there was enormous pride throughout city and county in its sparkling success but this pride was especially precious to the generations of skilled craftsmen and supporting staff who produced those world beating beauties.
While there had been ominous signs for some time the events of the last 6/7 weeks have been traumatic for the workers out there. Away from the cold and stark realities of balance sheets, the events left shattered pride and hurt and a deep sense of trampled respect and loyalty. There are many stories which encapsulate all that has happened, but not for telling now as it is all too recent and too raw.
But there are some positives as a local consortium bravely seeks to pick up the pieces and rebuild and restore some degree of employment and to fly the flag again – so let’s give it a fair wind. Below I am reflecting on a few stories related to glass-making in Waterford.
A master glass
Back in late 05 I wrote of the imminent centenary celebration of the Tech, founded in 1906 – which indeed was done in great style to great acclaim as the now College of Further Education. While researching that story I was fascinated to discover its role in the revival of glass-making in Waterford because as far back as 1912, or to put it another way, as early as 6 years into the establishment of the Central Technical Institute, it was proposed that the possibility of doing something within its own sphere of activity to encourage the revival of glass making be actively investigated.
Glass making had been an important traditional craft in Waterford since the late 18th century – especially since the time of Quakers William and George Penrose. The Institute’s governing committee discussed the proposition with an expert from the relevant Department. Though it was decided that it was technically feasible to train and acquire the necessary expertise to produce glass in every way similar to the old Waterford glass – which in its day was highly valued and regarded – the cost of doing so was deemed to be too great. An opportunity missed, which did not come again for 35 years but when it did it was grabbed with all hands with the creation of the modern Waterford Glass/Crystal in the late 40’s, which for many years went on to be the ‘crowning glory’ or at the very ‘cutting edge’ of Irish industry.
But the story does illustrate that this Institute since its foundation was ever willing and prepared to be innovative and enterprising in its role and purpose. I could not help but notice that the above project was mooted in April of 1912 – the very time of the maiden voyage of the Titanic which was unveiled to the world as a masterpiece/creation of Irish technical achievement and so much so that it was declared unsinkable – we all know how that ended!
I wonder if that infamous disaster impacted on the worthy Committee in Waterford? Did some member pour cold (ice-berg cold) water on an otherwise hot idea with the mere mention of ‘they said that about the Titanic’ didn’t they? Who knows, maybe yes, maybe no – but it must surely have put a damper on things! We are still talking of that event almost one hundred years later – imagine how huge that whole story was back in 1912.
A class glass man
Shortly after researching the above story I read with interest of the life of one Domhnall O’Broin who died in October 2005 – a man I had never heard of previously but being a ‘blow-in’ as opposed to a ‘blower’ that was not surprising, but then neither did others who would have been in a better position to know yet surely should have as his role in Waterford Glass/Crystal goes way back to about the time of that industry’s re-establishment in 1947 and its early formative years. Anyhow it dovetails nicely with my earlier story and I was fascinated to discover Domhnall O’Broin’s sceal. He went on to be a widely respected figure in the world of glass making at its highest level internationally.
His beginnings as a 16 year old Waterford boy entering the ‘Glass’ is a familiar one but his subsequent life filled with talent and achievement was extraordinary. One thinks of men like the late Tom Hayes also when one speaks of great natural talent.
I would like to quote the opening paragraph of the article I read so as to give you a sense of Domhnall O’Broin – who may well have been a student of the CTI: “He was among the most dynamic international glassmakers of the 20th century. After rising to become Waterford Crystal’s first master engraver and co-founding Caitness Glass at Wick Scotland, O’Broin emigrated in 1966 to the United States where he directed the operations of the Pilgrim and Fenton glassworks in West Virginia. He won several awards, created presentation pieces for the German Chancellor, Ludwig Erhardt and Prince Philip, and became internationally recognised as one of the world’s most respected glass technologists.
He was born in Waterford on March 11th 1934. Domhnall Padraig O’Broin joined the local glass company, Waterford Crystal, aged 16 in 1950. As the first apprentice recruited by Waterford after its re-establishment in 1947, he trained under the Czech-born designer/engraver Miroslav Havel, who appointed O’Broin as his assistant. O’Broin spent two years studying glass design and chemistry in Sweden, including a period at Orrefors Glasbruk, before returning to Waterford to complete his apprenticeship.
Home and away
O’Broin left Waterford again in 1955, first to study glass technology as an Andrew Grant Scholar at Edinburgh and Sheffield universities, the glass design at Edinburgh College of Art under Helen Munroe Turner. Two of his early pieces were included among work by Henry Moore, Louise Nevelsen and Reginald Butler in the British Artist Craftsmen Exhibition, 1959-60, which toured the US for 18 months. While still a student at Edinburgh in 1958, O’Broin was introduced to Robin Sinclair, the future Viscount Thurso, by Henry Munroe-Wilson of the Scottish Design and Industrial Council. Sinclair wanted to establish a new commercial enterprise in his native Caitness to boost employment prospects in the area. With O’Broin on board, experienced glass-makers from Venice, Austria and Germany were brought in to develop and enhance the industry.
In any event this project enjoyed great success and O’Broin continued his involvement at every level until his departure in 1966 when seeking new challenges he left for the United States. To summarise : He worked with great distinction at a glass company in West Virginia until 1970 before moving on to Williamstown also WV for the next 10 years during which time he was elected chairman of the American Society of Glass Sciences and Practices- such was his reputation for professional brilliance. After 1980 he established his own consultancy with a truly worldwide client base as his expertise covered all manner of aspects of glassmaking, technical and human, on subjects as diverse as training standards and the quantification of unit costs to the hand made glass industry.
Go seachtain eile, slan.