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

Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

‘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.

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