Let it never be said that Nicholas Mosse took the easy way out.
Born in Bennettsbridge House, about 200 yards from his current pottery-making business, he took up his first big challenge as a young teenager: going off to England to attend the Quaker school Leighton Park. And it was something that appears to have influenced his path ever since.
“It’s funny because it was a school that was used by a lot of English Quaker families,” said Nick, who is a Quaker himself. And, as it happens, “Quakers tend to be industrialists. Traditionally, they would not take an oath to the crown, so they were not able to go into university life; they tended to go into trade.”
It was also a stroke of luck for him that the school “had a very good hobby block, which in those days was almost nonexistent in most schools. I loved it, because I wasn’t very good at all those other things in school – Latin just passed me by.”
So after spending a lot of time doing craft, he “ended up wanting to learn how to make pottery”, which led him to enrol in a two-year course in how to make a living making pottery, at Harrow in north London.
Once again, he learned how not to take the easy route. “They made us work 12 hours a day,” he recalls of the practical course in which the students even learned to make their own tools.
After doing an apprenticeship in Yorkshire, he then worked in workshops in France and then Japan, where he experienced various methods of producing his chosen craft.
“One of the places was wood-fired so they had to cut all of the wood and stack it away for it to dry – everything had to be done the hard way,” Nick recalled. They also made and processed all of their own clay.
“That was the sort of background that I got. I got used to doing everything the hard way, which is what we do now,” he said.
“We dig our own clay and process it,” he explained of the yellow, sticky clay that was underneath a coal mine. “It’s waste material for them,” he adds, which brings us to the philosophy that runs through Nicholas Mosse Pottery of not wasting anything that can be re-used.
“We make our own electricity as well,” he noted of the water turbine under the mill that has generated hydro-electric power for the past 25 years. “I just feel that, okay, it is more difficult to do all these things, but it is a really green thing to do. And we have tended over the years to really get involved in recycling everything. The clay, if there is any waste in the workshop, we just bring it back to the yard, and all of the water we have for making the clay is recycled.”
There is also an ethos of not wasting the local talent either.
With some 20 people working in the office and shop, and 45 in production, it’s a far cry from when Nick originally set up on his own in his father’s cow shed.
Not long after taking on his first apprentice, he brought in Francis Power, who is still working there, and Nick’s second apprentice, Michael Holden, is now the head decorator.
The business has also done its share to support employment in Bennettsbridge in the years after a couple of significant losses, notably the flour mill operated by his father in the same premises that now houses the pottery business.
“This place was idle and the quarry was idle, so we were always encouraged to employ people,” he recalled. “It’s not an easy road to go down but it’s quite a good road.”
He was also encouraged from the start to branch out into exports, particularly at the advice of the Irish Export Board. So whereas “in those days I really didn’t think there was a living in it, even for one person,” he found himself exporting the hand-made pieces with notable success to Germany and then to America.
The pattern for which Nicholas Mosse Pottery is probably best known is called the ‘old rose’.
“It’s based on a little yellow flower, a sort of wild flower, that you would see on hedges where there had been an old cottage, and very often the cottage has gone,” he said. With its “little spiky leaves”, the pattern was designed about 18 years ago by his wife Susan with red flowers instead of yellow.
“It has always sold well,” he said, and two new patterns are also brought out each year.
The designs are applied with sponges, in an echo of a type of spongeware that his parents collected.
“Back around 1840 or ’50, cottages around the west of Ireland were decorated with little pots,” he said. “They were very often thatched cottages and the main room was the kitchen with an open fire. Opposite that was a dresser filled with China and it was very often sponge-decorated China; it was very colourful.”
Taking another echo from Irish heritage, he first tried applying the design using a potato, by cutting out a shape to use as a stamp – but after a while the potato would start to disintegrate and the decoration wouldn’t look the same. Hence the decision to use sponges instead.
This same sort of creative thinking applies to his home at Kilfane Glen and Waterfall.
“I was working here (in Bennettsbridge) and living up the road just opposite my mother’s house about 200 yards away, and it got to a stage where you were on duty round the clock. You would be half-way through a meal and someone would come to collect and order, and it would just never end,” he said. “So we decided to distance ourselves from the business.”
He and Susan moved to Kilfane and were only starting to discover the richness of what had once been there, including an old cottage and a waterfall.
“We started to cut back the undergrowth and we found some stones ... and then an architect was there visiting us and he said, ‘I can’t understand where the waterfall was’. I said, ‘How do you know there was a waterfall?’ and he said, ‘The drawings are in Dublin in the Royal Society of Antiquaries!’”
And so began another endeavour. After getting a copy of the drawings, they used them to re-create the Romantic-era garden that dates back to the 1790s.
As with so many choices Nick has faced along the way, he could have chosen the easier route – but where’s the fun in that?