Selling souvenirs to visitors is big business in Ireland, and many visitor attractions are accompanied by the inevitable gift shop. But look beyond the tourist kitsch of shillelaghs, cuddly leprechauns and shamrock keyrings and you'll find plenty of good-value, high-quality items. Traditional Irish products such as crystal, knitwear and tweed remain popular choices, but a new wave of young Irish designers and craftspeople are turning out innovative ceramics, textiles and jewellery.
Crystal & Glassware
The Irish crystal industry kicked off in the 18th century, boosted by an influx of Huguenots (French Protestants) who fled persecution in their native country and settled in England and Ireland, bringing with them their glass-making skills. Factories were set up in Dungannon, County Tyrone (on Northern Ireland) in 1771, and in Cork and Waterford in the 1780s.
Today, Waterford Crystal is probably the most famous brand, though much of its glassware is today manufactured outside of Ireland. It creates sporting trophies that are presented to the winners of championships in tennis, snooker and Formula One motor racing, among others.
There is also a burgeoning artisan crystal sector, with one-person workshops set up by former employees of the big glassmakers who have chosen to go it alone. Check out Criostal na Rinne, for example.
Knitwear & Tweed
First made by Aran Island women for their husbands to wear in the harsh local climate, the famous Aran sweater is sold throughout Ireland, though it’s found most in County Galway. The hand-knitted variety costs significantly more than its machine-manufactured counterpart.
County Donegal is famous for its tweed (a coarse, close-knit woollen fabric, traditionally woven by hand using woollen yarn dyed with natural products). Tweed can be purchased in lengths or finished as jackets, skirts or caps. Counties Wicklow and Dublin also produce tweed.
All over Ireland there are small potteries turning out unusual and attractive work. The area around Dingle in County Kerry produces some superb pottery; indeed, throughout West Cork and Kerry there are countless small workshops that open in the summer selling handmade ceramics and other craftwork. Kilkenny city and Thomastown in County Kilkenny also stand out in this regard – check out the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny, and the Made in Kilkenny Craft Trail (http://visitkilkenny.ie/craft_trail).
Belleek in County Fermanagh, which straddles the Northern Ireland border with Donegal, produces a world-famous variety of delicate bone china, and household ceramics by Nicholas Mosse, from Bennettsbridge in County Kilkenny, are available in gift shops all over Ireland.
Linen & Lace
Irish linen is of high quality and comes in the form of everything from blouses to handkerchiefs, with the main centres in the North. Irish lace is another fine product, at its best in Limerick, and Carrickmacross in County Monaghan.