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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 25 February, 2020
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"We don't go to China for anything": Irish business owners on why they are successful

Modern technology offers would-be potters and artisans a golden opportunity to carve a niche for themselves.

Mosse spongeware

SET IN A rural landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie, Nicholas Mosse Pottery of Bennettsbridge, Co. Kilkenny is a very Irish success story.

If you haven’t heard of them, you’ve probably seen their wares – the husband and wife team of Nick and Susan Mosse specialise in craftware with a distinctly Irish aesthetic, one that has proved enduringly popular with both native homemakers and tourists alike.

“When we began there was very little going on in Ireland as far as craft was concerned, but after the Kilkenny Design Workshops came on stream the government took an interest in things that could promote Ireland, i.e. aesthetically pleasing objects with an Irish twist,” Susan Mosse told TheJournal.ie.

Susan and Nick Mosse Susan and Nick Mosse

That’s one reason we appear to be so ‘Irish’ today – we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
At the same time we also knew how small a market Ireland was and that we would have to export at the very beginning.  This was at a time when there was no courier service, no affordable shipping at all, not to mention problems with border controls – everything was a complex undertaking.

As you might gather then this is no overnight success story – the business will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2016.

Nick Mosse fell in love with pottery before he even hit his teens.  Having honed his craft in Harrow, England he met and married Susan, an American botanical artist, and a family business was born from their shared love of both nature and the potter’s craft itself.

The couple bought the mill formerly owned by Nick’s family at Bennettsbridge (his birthplace, just five miles from Kilkenny city) when it became available for a low price and set up shop.

The workshop offers a type of painted ceramic known as ‘spongeware’, a style popularised here in the 19th century.  Nick is the potter, while Susan pioners new designs, on a year to be exact, taking inspiration from the frankly stunning surroundings.

I came to Ireland with a design background from New York and so I had fresh eyes and was curious about the design history of this new place I was living in.
I fell in love with this crude country pottery style at a time when most people here were throwing it out for fear of being embarrassed by it!

Source: nicholasmosse/YouTube

Now firmly established, exporting has become less of a necessity for the company, though it continues to sell well in the US, Australia, Europe and Japan.  These days, the natural beauty of headquarters’ surroundings is enough to bring the customers in. Tourism and trade, a winning combination.

Nowadays people mostly find us when they visit Ireland, buy a mug or something small and then find they love using it and so buy more. We have fairly avid collectors!
We have always worked on welcoming tourists as well as locals to our shop, right from the beginning until today, when we have a fairly large offering and are tourist friendly. I can proudly say that I started the first craft trail in Ireland for artisans in Kilkenny; nowadays every county has one!

Mosse Shop The shop floor

A visit to the mill on a Sunday shows how well the tourist model works – the shop opens at 1.30pm; at 1.20 a queue of at least 30 people is gathered. Business is brisk. So what do the owners think makes Mosse stand out from the herd?

“Well, we’re no innocents in the consumer goods department. We work and travel hard, we see it all and I still feel that what we do has a unique place in the world,” Susan stresses.

We are niche, we are still handmade [her emphasis], and we don’t go to China for anything – we create all our own clay from scratch from the soil here.
If we decided to do super slick whiteware with a highly modern twist, we would be competing with global companies and we’d be gone in a matter of minutes.  Mind you, we do have the skills to do anything at this stage!

Rainbow The river Nore at Bennettsbridge

So how would the Mosses advise an aspiring craftmaker looking to set up business in post-boom Ireland?
“In some ways modern transport and computerisation of communications would help any new pottery starting out today, though Europe’s endless rules and regulations doesn’t help,” says Susan.
What I would advise a beginner potter is make sure your product is very high quality. Quality will see you through: quality of design as well as quality of manufacture.
And 3 things:
  1. Make sure you love what you do
  2. When things go wrong, don’t panic
  3. Hire wonderful people and find good advisers when you need them
Simple advice maybe, but there’s nothing simple about this Irish family business and its success.

This month, as part of TheJournal.ie’s ongoing small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we look at product provenance – how buying local matters and the importance of traceability. 

To view previous articles in our SME series click HERE.

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