Historical Replica Ware



An exhibition of replica Tudor/Elizabethan pottery

(Numbers in the text refer to the photos below)

The tradition says that when Grainne was a young girl, she wanted to go with her father on a trading voyage to Spain in one of his ships. He said she couldn’t, because her long hair would get caught in the rigging. So, she cut her hair off, and got the nickname “mhaol” because of her unladylike cropped head.

In the 1500s, the west coast of Ireland was cut off from the east coast by thick forests. Roads beyond the English-controlled “Pale” were poor or non-existent. (Some Leinster ware and blackware tygs turn up in the west, but they are much less common than in Dublin.)  The easiest way to travel was by sea. Ireland was right on the main Atlantic highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic. Galway was a major trading port, and Grainne Mhoal’s fleet was able to intercept and levy taxes on trading ships on their way north. The coastline of Mayo provided harbours and shelter for sailors familiar with these waters. But it came as a nasty unmapped surprise for the Spanish Armada captains who were not familiar with the Galway/Mayo peninsula, and the rocky headlands it thrust out into the Atlantic.

There was a long tradition of trading between Ireland and continental Europe. The Irish preferred wine to beer, so wine was imported from Bordeaux, while wine-jugs, chafing dishes and other pottery came from nearby Saintonge(1). Trade with Spain brought wine,  olives and olive oil, the latter in plain pottery jars, or amphorae(2). From Spain too came very fine pottery for household use: Hispano-Moresque lustre ware was highly prized for its coppery golden metallic finish. But some early Spanish majolica, tin-glazed earthenware decorated in blue, green and yellow also appears.

The commonest pottery to come to the west of Ireland from Spain was “Armada” earthenware. This was plain red clay, finely thrown but unglazed and undecorated. It was mostly made in the Alentjo region of Portugal. It was imported from Lisbon for everyday household use, and was used on all the Armada ships.

Portuguese pottery is amongst the commonest imported ware found in western Irish archaeological sites from Grainne Mhaol’s time. Occasionally this pottery was very spectacular, like the early Portuguese imitations of Chinese porcelain (3). The Portuguese and Venetians were the first Europeans to trade in Chinese porcelain, later followed by the Dutch.

Much rarer in Ireland was Italian majolica, tin-glazed earthenware, decorated in various colours. Berettino ware from Liguria, Northern Italy was highly prized for its combination of dark blue decoration over a paler blue background (4). Multicoloured majolica from Montelupo, near Florence in Tuscany was the finest pottery made anywhere in Europe during Grainne Mhaol’s lifetime (5 & 6).

Mayo has very little suitable clay for pottery, but vessels for food and drink were commonly made from wood, leather, horn or metal. However, “local ware” pottery in lead-glazed red clay was plentiful from Wexford and Waterford. These cities were major ports on the trading routes to Bristol and the south of England. Like so many other things, Wexford pottery could easily have come to Grainne Mhaol’s table by sea.