ROCKY VALLEY’S MASTER POTTER
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF CALLED TO THE KILMACANOGUE HQ OF ONE OF IRELAND’S MOST ENDURING CRAFTSMEN, GEOFFREY HEALY, WHO IS AS ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT POTTERY AS HE WAS WHEN HE STARTED MAKING IT 46 YEARS AGO
‘THIS IS my playroom,’ declares Geoffrey Healy as he bids the reporter from the ‘People’ welcome. ‘And I am having the best fun that I can.’
Due to celebrate his 65th birthday this summer, he is far away from being a child, but he retains a youthful twinkle in his eye and a passion for his chosen craft.
He has been turning out pottery in Rocky Valley, just up the hill from Kilmacanogue for decades and he continues to look forward to coming to work.
‘I don’t feel that I have anything to prove,’ he muses among the beautiful objects that he creates here. ‘I am more interested in enjoying life.’ At the moment, much of that enjoyment comes from making large round pieces called moon jars which are inspired by his fellow craftsmen in the Far East, for an exhibition at the Nag Gallery in Dublin’s Francis Street.
They require precise technique, as they must be made in two hemispheres which are then invisibly jointed together to make one large moon or globe.
Or he may decide to spend some time making cartoon-like elephants which need no turning on the wheel at all, just the mischievous release of his inner child.
A gracious host, he offers to make his visitor a drink of tea, but first the guest must pick a mug from which to enjoy the cuppa – and there is an extensively wacky selection to choose from. The potter has made small mugs, larger mugs, round mugs, straight sided mugs, in myriad variations on the mug theme.
We settle on a couple of mugs which have no handles. They resemble Breton cider cups, with a pair of little lugs which stimulate the naughty boy in the master potter: ‘ There’s a couple of nipples for you to play with!’ he laughs.
His craft abounds with body parts, with pottery having examples of lips, shoulders, lugs, bellies and, yes, nipples.
He confides one of his most prestigious early commissions to provide vessels for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. The priests who walked to the outdoor altar in the Phoenix Park may not have noticed but the shape of the pots they carried were modelled on female breasts, though reverently disguised of course.
Such notions help to give an aura of sensuousness to his pieces, which are made with a hard and brittle material to deliver often homely results.
‘ There’s a hell of a difference drinking out of a polystyrene cup and a favourite mug – you get more than function out of vessel,’ he insists
Geoffrey was brought up not too far away from Kilmacanogue on the Killarney Road in Bray, one of five children in the family Roland and Nora Healy. His siblings are sisters Elizabeth, a nun and head of the Dominican order worldwide, and archivist Susan, brothers John who works in the business school at Trinity College, Dublin, and Geoffrey’s twin Michael, a Baptist minister in Glasgow.
In the pursuit of a good education, the choice of St Gerard’s on the doorstep and then Glenstal in Limerick did not at all accord with the free spirit of young Geoffrey.
The situation was complicated further by the fact that his father died when he was aged just eight, which must have made the boarding school experience all the more wretched.
‘ The most expensive school in Ireland but it was a terrible place,’ is his verdict on the Glenstal of the sixties while memories of the terrible food served there still provokes a shudder.
Nora, by the way, was well known in the Bray area as founder member of the local old folks
THERE’S A HELL OF A DIFFERENCE DRINKING OUT OF A POLYSTYRENE CUP AND A FAVOURITE MUG – YOU GET MORE THAN FUNCTION OUT OF VESSEL
organisation and the meals-on-wheels service.
After the drudgery of his schooldays, Geoffrey took a job on the staff of Doyle’s now long gone pub in Sunnybank, where his education was rounded off with an introduction to a life far from his own privileged background.
‘ The best way of learning is serving people,’ he muses on his brief spell in the bar trade. ‘It’s a good education pulling pints.’
The customers in Doyle’s were like members of a club, specialising in giving lessons in common humanity along with practical sessions on the perils of gambling.
After a year in such company, it was time to hit the road, following a suggestion that he might make a textile designer.
He headed to England and the art college at Yeovil in Somerset where the students were encouraged to try a range of different media.
Thus it was that he discovered he enjoyed the feel of the wet clay in his hands much more than messing about with fabrics.
‘It was so nice, love at first sight. I knew what I wanted to do’: and he has been doing it ever since with mastery that has kept him at the forefront of his chosen discipline.
From Yeovil he ventured to Derby to hone his trade, building kilns and making his own potter’s wheel.
He even strayed as far as Japan, on a scholar- ship which allowed him immerse himself in the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.
He came home the slow way, along the hippie trail through Kathmandu but settled down to begin potting in earnest.
He first worked with an established potter in Dun Laoghaire but then set up on his own account at Drumcairn Terrace in his native Bray.
IT WAS 1978 and the mood of the times bred what seemed to be an inexhaustible demand for handmade pottery.
Geoffrey lived upstairs and worked downstairs at his new enterprise, exporting much of what he made as far away as North America, Australia and Japan.
He remembers that, at one stage, he was flown out to the United States to make a guest appearance at the famous Bloomingdale’s department store.
‘It was all unreal but good experience,’ he recalls. An experience of an altogether different sort was offered by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He was selected to spend time in the Africa during the mid-eighties, giving rural communities in Lesotho a leg-up out of poverty by learning how to make practical, commercial clay cooking pots.
The move to Rocky Valley came in 1989, when the department’s cash payment for the Lesotho adventure provided the down payment on what became the Healy pottery home, where he was able to sell as well as manufacture.
The pottery has proven to be a good reflector of the state of the economy, at one stage employing half a dozen people at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom.
Geoffrey gives the strong impression that he is more content now that he is back being a sole trader, without the hassle of having to manage other creative personnel and tangle with all the extra book-keeping.
He welcomes the passing trade, those who seek him out to buy wedding presents or items which will make their own homes prettier as well as the impulse customers out for a drive in the Wicklow countryside.
‘My business is about keeping people happy,’ is his motto.
He has a few select business customers too, running off some bespoke items for the nearby Avoca Handweavers down the road and the J&A café in London with whom he has a long standing association.
The man who loathed being at school has discovered that he has natural flair as a teacher, called in by the Crafts Council of Ireland to assist at the pottery school in Thomastown, County Kilkenny.
The role takes up 40 to 50 days of his year and prompts him to speak with real enthusiasm of those new craftspeople who are following in his footsteps.
He also runs Thursday night pottery classes at Rocky Valley attracting all sorts of devotees who come for all sorts of reasons.
They meet a man who, 46 years on has not lost his desire to spend hours sitting at the wheel or messing about with glazes.
He is still on tenterhooks every time he cranks his kiln up to 1270 degrees Celsius and waits to see what will emerge from the heat.
‘It is an absolutely ludicrous way of making your living but I love it and I do not see retirement as something that interests me.’
Geoffrey Healy in his workshop.
A very tactile pot made by Geoffrey.
Some of his pots that will be exhibited at the Nags gallery in June.