Monday 20 November 2017

Silversmith hammers out his towering vision of Joyce

The humble spud takes on a starring role in Dublin artist Aidan Breen's interpretation of 'Ulysses', says Lucinda O'Sullivan

EVERY now and then we hear of Celtic artefacts made of precious metals being discovered, from torcs to bowls to coins, to the famous Ardagh chalice, discovered in a potato field and now on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

The Celts arrived in Ireland around 500BC and were wonderfully creative jewellery makers, using gold, bronze and silver to create ornately inscribed bangles, collars, torcs and brooches which, even then, were traded successfully across Europe because of their distinctive styles.

Through the centuries, Ireland has had a very distinguished pedigree when it comes to silver, be it ecclesiastical, domestic or decorative. The standard of Irish silver has always been strictly maintained by the Irish Assay Office in Dublin Castle.

One of the most distinguished craftsmen and artists in the world of silver today is Dublin-born Aidan Breen. Breen's standing is such that he was commissioned by the Irish Assay Office to create a piece for its permanent collection at Dublin Castle -- the ultimate accolade in this profession.

"They wanted to have something in their collection to display my skills in chasing and repousse [the art of embossing or pressing shapes into metal] and they asked me to do something that I would love to work on -- a piece I would love to do but that no person would ever be able to afford to pay me for," explained Breen.

"I'd had this vision for a long time involving James Joyce and I came up with this idea, from his famous masterpiece Ulysses, where Molly, who was from Gibraltar, was talking about her first 'court' against a Moorish wall, so I thought why not a two-foot Moorish tower wall?

"With a tower, it meant I could put 18 episodes around this tower, each one representing my interpretation of that chapter. The tower itself sat in a lot of blooms but two flowers I put on were lilies and poppies, sitting in harmony. I also put a potato on top of the tower, as Bloom carried a potato all day in his pocket for luck, and the sun on top of that."

It combines art, humour, knowledge and insight. And he has also completed another prestigious work, a 16-inch dish, chased and repousseed, for the Decorative Arts section of the National Museum's permanent collection.

Breen started out on his craft at the age of 14 when he decided that he was "sick of school" and he would go and get himself a job.

"My aunt had a friend, a Mr Barnes, an Englishman, and he got me a job in MH Gill & Son, Church Furnishers in Dublin, as a messenger boy. However, Mr Barnes, was kind of my patron. He saw that I could draw and paint, so the odd time he would get me to draw a chalice or something like that, and then a vacancy came in the chasing, which is a specialised area in silversmithing. I was asked would I like to do it and I entered into a seven-year apprenticeship.

"This involved putting the designs on chalices, monstrances and tabernacles. It was Celtic design then. We would do it with these little punchers and hammers and that was the start of my career -- that was about 1960."

He completed his apprenticeship with silversmiths Alwright & Marshall, a firm founded by the then unlikely duo of a Scots Presbyterian and and Irishman who had fought in 1916.

"We used to do a Dun Vegan tea set and every time President de Valera was invited to a wedding he would buy one of these because he knew Johnny Alwright from 1916 so he was a good customer!"

Whilst learning his craft, Breen also attended the National College of Art & Design. He then worked with the Royal Irish Silver Company but "after Vatican II, silversmiths were almost decimated because up to that . . . the chalice cup had to be made of silver, and inside it had to be gilt, but the Church was in straitened circumstances in South America and places like that so they decided to change so you could say Mass out of a cup. That was good for the Church but it was brutal for silversmiths!"

However, Royal Irish Silver did domestic work also with cutlery and champagne buckets, tea sets, salvers, and so on. In 1978, Aidan Breen went out on his own doing contract chasing and repousse work and he then evolved into jewellery, which "kept him going", as he puts it modestly.

He was greatly interested in the art of Celtic design, frequently visiting the National Museum in Kildare Street for inspiration, and when his first range of decorative designs were shown at a trade show in 1979, his jewellery was snapped up. He also made a beautiful distinctive brooch of four swans illustrating the legend of the Children of Lir for President Mary McAleese. Since then Breen has specialised in both arts, creating specially commissioned larger pieces to mark special events, and also jewellery, which is absolutely beautiful.

There is a huge resurgence in the popularity of Celtic jewellery and demand for lovely pieces is very high both here and in the US as well as other parts of the world.

"I also work in gold, but generally goldsmiths work almost exclusively on very small pieces, whereas as a silversmith I could be working on anything between five-eighths of an inch to five feet. In America now people call themselves metalsmiths but I am archaic and still call myself a silver and goldsmith."

"I am selling more in the last few years than at the height of the Celtic Tiger -- the Celtic Tiger didn't touch me -- I think it brought a lot of imports in."

Breen's designs can be found at R&C McCormack, Celtic jewellers, Grafton Street; the Irish Celtic Store in Nassau Street; Legends at Dublin Airport; and Bannon jewellers in Bray. Or you can find him on Facebook.

"I have a great relationship with these shops and they are great to work with. I am also involved with a Celtic group in America who are really fascinated with the 'old countries' who would look at Insular Art, as this is all called nowadays, from Galicia, Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Lots of Australians come to Ireland too looking for Celtic craft but some of the official craftspeople here turn their noses up at it.

"I just laugh at this, I do what I like to do. I was always interested in heritage because my da took me to museums and up to see the real Dublin. I remember people like Hector Grey on the quay selling things on offer for maybe 1/6d. I was always fascinated too by Joyce and Nighttown and, while I was born in Drumcondra, I discovered recently that my grandmother was born in Mabbot Street, which is mentioned in Ulysses, and my great grandfather lived on the edge of the Monto."

Aidan Breen can be contacted on (01) 840-8602

Sunday Independent

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