Ireland’s history of silver making is having a revival

Silversmith Cara Murphy with her sculptural but fully functional tea pot.

Ireland’s long-standing craft of silver making is having a revival, brought about by a new generation of designers making beautiful and useful products, writes Carol O’Callaghan.

ALL that glisters is not gold, and sometimes it’s a whole lot nicer when it’s silver as it has a certain chic that lends itself so well to domestic products, without ever looking garish.

Materials are expensive though, and the making of products time-consuming, which for generations of people put Irish silver outside their reach.

Sales were confined largely to the clergy and its focus on awe-inspiring ecclesiastical paraphernalia and the more well-heeled, with an appetite for the status symbol silver tea service.

The Juxtapose drinking cups by Cara Murphy are made in a mix of silver and brick, inspired by the Irish shoreline and designed to evoke conversation and play.

Eventually demand for the latter trickled down the social scale and was fed by the more affordable silver-plated versions which became the must-have gift when celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary.

Nowadays there’s considerably less demand for production of church items, and as for buying tea services as a gift, well, the thought of spending an afternoon working up enough elbow grease to rub tarnish off these ornate beauties has seen many a silver object despatched to moulder in the dark recesses of a cupboard.

But with new makers come new ideas that are relevant for modern times, so we’re now seeing objects like the tea service being replaced by, say, a sushi bowl and chopsticks, and candlesticks with a simple, pared-back aesthetic, often incorporating more rugged materials like stone, as a response to a modern design sensibility.

The Catkin spoon is made from forged silver with gold leaf detail by Cara Murphy.

The work of silversmith Cara Murphy is influenced by the natural landscape, something that inspires makers in other disciplines in Irish craft also, and which contributes to its international appeal.

“I’ve always been interested in design, and thought about a career in product design,” she says, “but the making and handling skills of silver drew me to silversmithing.”

One of the characteristics of her work is the inclusion of objects that she collects or finds. Stone in its natural state, weather-worn or rough-hewn is used as a base for a candelabrum on which sit elegantly crafted silver candleholders.

Her father is also a silversmith and it seems she’s not the only one in the business who has family connections with metal.

Silversmith Cianan Doyle’s sushi bowl and chopsticks is a product for modern times and gives an international flavour to Irish silver products.

Samantha Moore grew up in her family business of classic car rallying and restoration where her brother is an engineer and fabricator.

“Looking back, metal fabrication seemed a natural progression,” she says. “I just turned to precious metals and scaled down a little.”

In some cases she has scaled down considerably to make drinking vessels which are simple elegant objects, genuinely useable and not just decorative.

On her website she describes herself as “silversmith and ritual creator”. 

Living busy lives we often forget the importance of ritual, especially the imbibing of an enjoyable beverage that can have a restorative effect, especially when consumed from a beautiful cup.

It seems to go beyond the act of drinking and into something soul-soothing where time slows down. The thought is almost enough to make you run out and buy a special handmade piece.

But before we get carried away by the notion of dreamy rituals, let’s get back to the practicalities: Silver still needs cleaning as much as it did in granny’s time.

Slender candleholders set in rugged stone are a modern take on the traditional candelabrum from the studio of Cara Murphy.

Just putting it on display will, in a matter of weeks, see the surface darken, and that neglected tin of silver polish wadding which has been sulking under the kitchen sink for the last five years will make its presence felt.

With all precious pieces be sure to take advice from the maker on care and maintenance, but for the silver tea service or candlesticks passed down to you, the virtually labour-free soda crystals and tin foil trick is the best cleaning method.

Just line the bottom of your kitchen sink with tin foil and fill with warm water, adding four tablespoons of washing soda crystal (€1.20/kg at Tesco and SuperValu).

Submerge your tarnished pieces, including jewellery, for two to three minutes and, hey presto, your silver is gleaming.

Rinse off in warm water, dry thoroughly and display for all to admire.

It’s a miracle in labour saving and time saving, with not a greasy elbow in sight.


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