Cashel Potter’s Decision to Quit

The Post, Cahir, January 21, 1984


Heading off to the south of France this month is Sarah Ryan of Ladyswell Street, Cashel. Many people will envy her the opportunity to live in such a desirable location because it's to take up residence she intends. However Sarah does not see it as a desirable choice. Instead she is being forced to move from the place she has chosen to work and in which she preferred to live.
Sarah Ryan is a ceramicist, who has been potting away in Ladyswell Street since July 1982. Originally from Rossmore she chose Cashel as the best place to work after quite a lot of travelling in Europe and North America in pursuit of her craft. For the past year and a half she has turned out a very distinctive and personal style of porcelain and stoneware that has won critical recognition.


In school she was discouraged from doing art so after her Leaving Certificate Sarah spent two years doing a laboratory technician's course at U.C.G. After that period the artistic 'bug' took possession of her and she decided to pursue an art course at Limerick College of Art. She applied to Tipperary S.R. County Council for a grant but was turned down because the application hadn't been made in the year she did her Leaving Certificate. But, she got over that setback by working during the summer in London and Europe and paying her way through college.
When she finished in Limerick she really had only one choice, teaching, which did not attract her. Instead she went to Europe and spent a good while working and travelling around especially in Denmark, studying what was being done in the various fields. Eventually she decided that ceramics was her forte and she came back to Dublin where she did a year in the National College of Art studying the subject.

Having completed her year she went back to Europe to earn money and to study the practical side of ceramics. This was a very important time for her as she was able to absorb all that was new in the field. She continued this learning progress by going to Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and studying both contemporary and native Indian ceramics there.


She returned to Ireland in the summer of 1981 and spent a year looking for a suitable premises. She eventually chose Cashel. It was as near as possible her home town. It had a central location and, above all, from the point of view of the artist/craftsperson, it had potential, she thought, as a tourist centre. For these reasons Cashel was the only centre she could choose outside Dublin. There was also an element of urgency in her decision: she had been invited to exhibit at the Tulfarris Gallery, Wicklow in August and needed a proper workplace immediately. She rented a premises in Ladyswell Street at £30 per week.


Every single piece of work that Sarah Ryan produces is unique. She never repeats a piece because every one is handmade by a combination of 'coiling' and 'pinching' as distinct from wheel-thrown. These hand-building techniques are very old but are being used more and more in contemporary ceramics as they allow so many possibilities. As the aim is to achieve natural organic forms, mechanical processes such as the wheel or slip-casting are not suitable.

She describes her work as a synthesis of of many different natural forms and processes. Growing living things are a rich source of ideas – inspiration being drawn especially from the marine and botanical world: e.g. fungi, gourds, shells, seed-pods, buds, fruits, etc. She tries to capture something of the essence rather than direct copying of nature.

There is a lot of emphasis on texture and pattern and natural colour is achieved by mixing various ceramic stains and metal oxides. Red earthenware clay, which can be found in many parts of the country, is not suitable because of the dark colour and the fact that it cannot be high-fired. High-firing (to 1260C) is important because it gives extra strength to the very thin-walled, which also gives greater scope to build on. These clays almost never occur naturally in a workable state, so they have to be refined and blended with materials from other sources to give clay bodies of the required texture, colour, composition, etc. As there is nowhere in Ireland where where this process is carried out they have to be imported from England. The ubiquitous V.A.T. Rate on all raw materials is 38% as it is on all the equipment Sarah uses.

Long Hours

To keep the wolf from the door and pay rent, ESB, telephone bills, etc, Sarah was forced to work very long hours. Her normal day has been 9 am to midnight, six/seven days per week. Her only break was when she went away on business.

However, this was something she was quite prepared to accept for the first couple of years until she had become fully organised and more established. When one sets up it is vital to become known and the only way to do this is to sell one's work. Apart from exhibitions, for which she makes some quite large pieces, most of her work has been on a small scale and thus quite low prices so as to advertise as widely as possible. Eventually she would like to have time to make very large, more sculptural pieces. It is necessary to sell as much as possible ex-studio as other outlets have to add a huge mark-up plus 38% V.A.T.


The best way a craftsman or artist can advertise his work is through exhibitions. Although established only a shot time, Sarah's work has already got some recognition. The Ulster Museum bought three pieces at the 'Potters 83' exhibition at Dublin. The Crafts Council of Ireland has also purchased some of her work. At the moment her work is on display at the Caldwell Gallery, Belfast and the Forrester gallery, Bandon. She has been invited to exhibit in other areas.

All For Nought

During her period in Cashel, Sarah has succeeded in selling her work and getting recognition for her craft. Why then should she decide to up and go to the South of France?

The answer is simple and sickening. A combination of many things – the huge electricity bill, telephone, postal and transport charges, V.A.T., the unavailability of suitable workplaces, the general inefficiency and unreliability one has to cope with and the decline in the tourist industry, etc., make it very difficult and discouraging for people to establish their own business, especially anything of a creative nature, which doesn't show an instant profit.

For Sarah the last straw was a demand for rates for £245 on her rented premises, which she could not afford to pay at the present time. Anything she managed to save after rent, work and living expenses went to repay people from whom she had borrowed in the spring, and to tide her over the off-peak season.

At the beginning of summer she offered to pay £20 down and so much at intervals if business wasn't as good as anticipated. Due to the bad location in the town and the fact that there wasn't even a proper footpath leading to her studio, she missed out on the majority of tourists. Most of her customers were direct contacts of her own, or potters, artists or collectors themselves, who particularly sought her out. The last of the tourists had gone by the end of September and she had to dip into her savings for the first week's rent in October.

However, the county manager would not relent. He wanted £50 down and £8 per week, which Sarah says she could not pay on top of her £30 rent. He gave her until December 31 to pay up or be summoned. She realised there was no option but to quit and start anew in some more desirable place. She paid £40 and offered the rent in kind but it wasn't acceptable. As she has had to close her studio, she was obliged to return to the I.D.A. the £402 she managed to get a year after she started.

Shattered Dream

So, Sarah Ryan of Glenough, Rossmore, a much-travelled girl, is to begin her travels again. But this time, in contrast with her previous peregrinations, it is against her will. Her dream was to make it in her home town and, with that end in view, she shook the dust of many countries off her feet. She has the consolation of knowing that there will be many material benefits from her move. She will be financially much better off in the south of France. She will be able to enjoy the good life. She won't have to do fifteen hours a day to survive. She'll have plenty of customers and they'll be well able to pay. But none of this will compensate for a shattered dream.