It’s 1970. In a woodworking class in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, 11-year-old Jim Regan is eagerly surveying a block of wood in readiness for carving a rabbit. Although enthusiastic, Regan thinks: “What good will this do me?”
Little did young Regan realize then that the skills he learned in carving that rabbit he would use every day in his 35-year career as a glass cutter for Tyrone Crystal.
Regan’s glass-cutting career was cut short in 2010 when Tyrone Crystal closed, he said by telephone. But now he and several former Tyrone Crystal glass artisans are all volunteers at Tyrone Crafted Glass, a UK community interest company, or CIC, that’s helping to revive glass cutting and glassmaking in the Dungannon area.
Tyrone Crafted Glass chairman Gary Currie and his wife, Ciara, who is a former Tyrone Crystal tour guide, are two of the leading forces behind the revival of glassmaking in County Tyrone.
Currie has always been passionate about glassmaking. Even though he’d never worked in the factory, he grew up in its presence, he said by telephone. When the factory closed, he decided to rent a workshop space to teach himself glassblowing and he met former Tyrone Crystal glassblowers who taught him, too. In time, his workshop became a bit of a hub for glassblowing when he began teaching classes, even though the workshop was off the beaten track.
Tyrone Crafted Glass was founded in January 2020, when six of the glassmaking artisans and enthusiasts decided to apply for funding to preserve the local glassmaking tradition.
For Regan, the chance to cut glass again was more than just an opportunity to practice his craft. It was a chance to reconnect with old friends, make new ones and, perhaps most importantly, to pass on the glass-cutting skills that he was once taught.
The Local Glassmaking Heritage
All kinds of glassware were once made at the Tyrone Crystal factory in Dungannon: wine glasses and tumblers, lampshades and chandeliers, and even commemorative glass and specially commissioned pieces.
The company became world-renowned. John Wayne’s son commissioned a crystal replica of his dad’s revolver, and Bette Davis was said to have even owned some Tyrone Crystal, Regan said.
Regan joined Tyrone Crystal in 1975, when the company had a young workforce—in age and skill. A Catholic priest, Father Austin Eustace, had founded the company just four years earlier, in 1971. He specifically chose to start a glass factory—a labor-intensive industry—to create jobs in the area, which was experiencing crippling unemployment.
Although glassmaking had been in the area back in the late 18th century, Father Eustace had to look farther afield to find some master glass artisans to train his fledgling factory workers. Austrian glass-blowing instructor Gert Elstner and German glass cutter Hans Gross ended up training the apprentices.
The two had been hiking around England when they saw a newspaper ad asking for master craftsmen to teach their trade. They decided to go to Dungannon for a couple of weeks. Those weeks stretched to years. Elstner was involved in the factory until it closed, and he still lives in the area.
From Apprenticing to Receiving Astonishing Commissions
For the first six months of Regan’s five-year glass-cutting apprenticeship, he concentrated solely on cutting a star on the bottom of glasses. Each cut had to be made twice: first on a rough stonecutter and then on a fine stonecutter. After he’d perfected the star design, he spent the next six months mastering glass cutting on the side of the glasses. And so the apprenticeship continued, progressing gradually, step by step until he made more intricate and larger cuts.
Around 1980, Tyrone Crystal introduced a diamond cutting machine to the workshop, which streamlined the cutting process. Glass-cutting apprenticeships were reduced from five to three years as the new machines meant that the glass no longer needed to be cut on two different machines.
Besides the standard glassware of wine glasses, tumblers, and lighting, Regan also made special commissions. Recently, he showed Cait Finnegan, the daughter of his former woodworking teacher, Val McCaul, photographs of his crystal commissions. A member of the Vintage Rolls-Royce Club of Northern Ireland commissioned Tyrone Crystal to make an 18-inch replica of the Rolls-Royce Ghost as a prize for the person who traveled the farthest in the classic car. Regan had to scale the piece up from the six-inch model provided. When the customer collected the finished piece, he was so delighted that he decided to keep it for himself.
Finnegan, too, was in awe of the replica. She was even more surprised when she heard how Regan had learned to create such pieces. He told her about the rabbit he’d made in her father’s woodworking class. And he explained how the techniques he’d learned making that rabbit so many years ago became the basic foundation for his glass-cutting commissions.
Reviving the Centuries-Old Glassmaking Tradition
In a corner of the Tyrone Crafted Glass factory is a small museum dedicated to the local glassmaking heritage. On display are donated Tyrone Crystal pieces and memorabilia, along with McCaul’s woodworking tools and some wooden glass molds that he made for the Tyrone Crystal factory in its early years.
Visitors to Tyrone Crafted Glass can have a “glass-cutting experience” where they can cut a simple pattern into a tumbler. In addition, there’s also been a three-month apprenticeship for aspiring young glass cutters, which the company plans to expand. In the near future, there will be glass-blowing classes and school visits in the factory.
Ultimately, Currie and his team want to preserve these glassmaking skills for the younger generation. With most glass-cutting apprenticeships taking up to five years to complete, on a full-time basis, he said it is crucial that apprenticeships start as soon as possible.
He warned that with most of the Tyrone Crystal glass artisans at or nearing retirement, finding the right master glass artisans over the next 10 years could be problematic.
“It’s a very, very difficult trade to learn to cut glass. It takes you many, many hours of practice. … I would hope after the first four to five years with Tyrone Crafted Glass that we will then have a number of glass cutters who will qualify, and they will be as good as the master glass cutters who are teaching them. That’s our aim,” he said.
Tyrone Crafted Glass ships its glass products worldwide. To find out more, visit Facebook.com/TyroneCraftedGlass