It’s hard to think of the world before there was glass. Everywhere you look whether you realise it or not glass plays an essential role in our daily lives. In the last century innovations in glass have led to incredible feats in space travel, medical advances and building phenomenon.

Right now you are looking through glass to see these images. It’s incredible to think that the tiny sliver of glass that is the face of a mobile phone or tablet, measures less than half a mm and that this glass is so resilient. Without glass, we wouldn’t have any light coming through windows, that includes cars, aeroplanes or buildings and we wouldn’t have any spectacles, microscopes, cameras, solar panels, medical vials, light bulbs, neon, or Led screens.

Glass didn’t start out like the clear transparent material we know of it today, it was more like a gunky paste. It came from mixing sand with the ash of trees and plants and melting it to a high temperature. It is said to have been discovered in Egypt around 5000 years ago. Imagine how precious this shiny new rock hard material was then. Later it was called Glas, after the German word which means to gleam or glow. We know it was made in Ireland around the iron age, about 2500 years ago. This paste was pressed into moulds and made into beads, often in blue or orangey yellow, these methods are still being used and known as fused glass, Ali Byrne still uses this technique today.

An ancient glass bead found at Adare Castle. Photo: John Sunderland

Later travelling Italian glassmakers came to Ireland via Britain bringing new techniques and methods with them. Using long rods of different coloured glasses, they bunched them together to make patterns which were melted in long sausages of glass and then sliced like a salami, to produce little discs. When the discs were melted together they made beautiful patterns known as millefiori, meaning a thousand flowers. There are examples in the national museum from Sligo, Laois and Tipperary. Laura Quinn still uses this technique in her work.

It was discovered that by using clay bricks to contain larger volumes of sand, glass could be melted to higher temperatures which produced a syrup of glass. This syrup could be then blown using a pipe of metal, and hollow objects could be made to hold liquids and food. It is said that Sidon in Syria was where it was first discovered in 50 BC but it only came to Ireland with the Normans in the 13th century. The Normans were already making window glass at this time in France and painting the surfaces of this glass for churches and cathedrals, much like Peadar Lamb does today. There are accounts of William the Glassmaker in the deeds for Dublin Castle in 1332 for fabricating glass and supply of colours for the Castle.

In the 16th century, English, Italian and French entrepreneurs applied for licences to make glass here in Ireland, some lived here, some were settled and in production in England. Forests were plentiful in Ireland for fuel and the forests in the UK were being saved for ship building. Vast tracts of woods were felled to keep the industry going when it was established. There are accounts of furnaces in Offaly, Dungarvan, and Cork in the 16th century. These were most probably making window glass, long cylinders which were cut open at the end and then ironed out to become flat panes of glass, supplying workers who were making windows for churches and wealthy landowners, who could afford to pay for them. Large varieties of bottles and flasks were also being made here in Ireland. ( lamberts glass shows this very well on Instagram, I have stills they sent me for a project some years ago)

In 1700 a new type of glass was formulated called flint glass and lead was added which made it sparkle brightly. It was softer and easier to blow and carve using stone wheels. This was used for all sorts of decorative work such as chandeliers, candelabras, lanterns, decanters and dinking glasses. From the late 1700’s to 1825 people went mad for these products which became known as the golden age of glassmaking in Ireland, these types of glasses were status symbols, used for showing off one’s wealth and ability to purchase the latest fashion in interior decoration – sound familiar? There were shops and glazers selling glass all over the country. Like the Glass Society of Ireland, guilds represented the glaziers and glass workers, we know from historical records there were guilds in Limerick, Belfast, Cork and Dublin then. Around about this time too, coal was being used for fuel to melt glass. It was clearer and could be made into coach windows and mirrors. Imagine a world without mirrors! The golden age continued until around the 1840’s when huge taxes on exports imposed by England on Irish products led to the collapse of the industry. It would take 100 years before new glass blowing factories were set up, the most famous being Waterford Crystal in 1947.

Religious institutions were great patrons of the arts and commissioned many beautiful artworks in stained glass from the early 1900’s and indeed continue to the present day. These are easy and free to see in many churches and cathedrals all around the country, just walk in and look up. Many churches have different artists work in different windows, depending on who paid for them. Often the maker and the donor who paid for the window as well as the date they were made are marked on the glass near the bottom. Earlier windows were imported from England and Germany but Irish studios quickly started to catch up. The most famous studio was An Túr Gloine founded by Sarah Purser in Dublin in 1924 in Pembroke street in Dublin. It was here that a band of artists worked together to create many of the works you can still see today. Working together the artists developed a particular style that made the studio famous all over the world. This studio continues to influence contemporary artists working in stained glass today.

In the 1980’s small artisan glass blowing furnaces were set up in Ireland in Kilkenny, Kerry and Roscommon. One of these was by Keith Leadbetter in Kilkenny. His son Rory continues the work his dad started. It is one of 4 glassblowing studios in Ireland today. Keith helped to build the first furnace at the NCAD which along with the Crawford College of Art in Cork are universities that teach glass making skills. These two colleges have played a big part in creating a new generation of glassmakers who work as independent artists who make glass fulltime by running their own business and studios.

All around Ireland hundreds of artists and craftsmen are working with glass in a variety of techniques. Neon, stained glass, fused glass, flameworking, blowing, pâte de verre, casting, glassblowing, cutting, engraving, painting, hot sculpting, and copperfoiling, are all names of glass techniques being used in Ireland today. You can find many makers on Irish artists are working in areas of architecture, sculpture, giftware and scientific & ecological development. Many of their works are in National and International public collections. We went to visit 4 of them who work in very different ways.

Written by Róisín de Buitléar