Over 250,000 miles of dry stone walls and fences adorn the Irish countryside
The age-old secrets behind Ireland’s illicit moonshine industry are revealed
The craft and art of thatching roofs is kept alive by master thatcher dynasties
From timber to textiles and willow to whiskey, the Irish love affair with traditional crafts has been handed down from one generation to the next. If truth be told, we could fill an encyclopedia with all of the wonderful examples of Irish craftsmanship, but we’ve painstakingly selected the cream of the crop so you don’t have to. Without further ado, here are IrishEmpire.org’s top 6 traditional crafts.
P.S. Be sure to cast your vote for your #1 traditional Irish craft!
1) Irish Stone Walls
Dry Irish stone walls are ubiquitous in Ireland’s countryside forming a patchwork over 250,000 miles long!
Irish dry stone walls — held together by little more than ingenuity and craft — punctuate the greenery of Ireland’s pastoral hills and rolling valleys. Their ubiquitous presence goes almost unnoticed by the natives but forms part of a rich mosaic steeped in tradition for visitors to these shores.
Serving as a practical solution for clearing stony soil, these natural boundaries constructed entirely from local resources help demarcate fields and farms. The individual stones are carefully curated to dovetail together for sturdiness. The finished product gives a timeless look to these mortarless marvels that have become synonymous with the Irish countryside.
2) Thatched Cottages
Traditional Irish thatched cottages in all their glory
Traditional thatched cottages and the master thatchers who build them are becoming more and more elusive in Ireland. It’s a skill typically handed down from one generation to the next meaning that the future of this ancient craft rests with only a handful of master thatcher dynasties.
Weaving a weatherproof roof from straw to repel Ireland’s notorious monsoons requires precision engineering and expert knowledge. Hoping to learn the basics of the trade, IrishEmpire.org dispatched Colin Carroll to Rhode in County Offaly to meet with John Brereton. John belongs to an elite group of master thatchers in Ireland and is widely acclaimed as one of the best in the business.
Watch the master break down the art, science and myths of building a thatched roof.
3) Poteen Brewing
Moonshining has evolved from an illicit cottage industry to poteen on supermarket shelves
Ireland’s love affair with moonshine is wrapped in a largely clandestine history. Illicit distillation of the outlawed spirit typically took place using secretive stills deep in the Irish countryside. Located in remote rural outposts away from prying eyes and the long arm of the law, brewers were largely free to practice the age-old tradition by distilling ingredients from potatoes to malted barley.
The end product is an infamous Irish brew weighing in at anywhere between 40%–90% alcohol by volume. Today, you can find branded Irish poteen sold legally in supermarkets and the fabled spirit has even been accorded special Geographical Indicative Status by the European Union.
Watch a sneak preview of Déantús an Phoitín, an excellent documentary chronicling the history of moonshine in Ireland.
4) Currach Boats
Historically, Irish currachs have navigated both seas and inland waterways
Currach boats straddle two old Irish boat building traditions: wooden boats and skin-covered vessels. The main advantage of these boats over standard rowing boats is their lightweight frames, sturdiness, agility and versatility. This made them particularly popular for transportation among islanders for ferrying people, goods and cattle to and from the Irish mainland.
In the modern era, currachs are used primarily as racing vessels but still evoke a strong a sense of local pride and nostalgia. In Irish history and folklore, curraghs are associated with both St Columba and the voyage of St Brendan.
Watch this stunning time lapse video to see the tender loving care that goes into the construction of a currach.
5) Irish Baskets
Traditional Irish baskets are typically woven from willow, hazel, straw or rush.
Ireland has a long and rich tradition of basket making from willow, hazel, straw and rush. These natural materials form part of a rich mosaic of Irish heritage and have been harvested and utilized since time immemorial. In the past, these carefully woven masterpieces had great utility serving a diverse range of needs from turf baskets to eel traps.
Today, the focus is firmly on community, craftsmanship and esthetics with weavers keeping the tradition alive as a popular pastime. Rural markets, craft stores and fairs sell everything from farmyard creels to crosses and traditional baby rattles. The Irish Basketmakers Association is the online community and focal point for masterclasses, exhibitions and gatherings of enthusiasts.
Watch this short video to discover the craft and magic of traditional basket weaving.
6) Irish Whiskey
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is premium Irish whiskey.
We’ve arguably saved the best craft of all until last! For those who don’t already know, the word whiskey itself is simply an Anglicisation of uisce beatha — the Gaelic Irish expression meaning water of life. So what’s the difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whiskey? Is it just a quirky spelling for branding purposes? Well, no.
Irish pot still whiskey is typically distilled three times to ensure its quality and smoothness whereas Scotch whisky is only distilled twice. The other major difference noted by discerning drinkers is in the smoothness and taste. Scotch whiskey is associated with harsh smoky, earthy overtones in stark contrast to Irish whiskey’s lighter, smoother texture derived from both malted and unmalted barley. This goes some way to explaining the exponential growth of Irish whiskey in the 21st century spearheaded by global brands such as Jameson and Bushmills.
Take a sneak peek inside Dublin’s Old Jameson Distillery in this short video.
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