Interviews that I have taken part in and other miscellaneous stuff about my work over the years.
Taken from the livestream of Aidan's talk at the Celtic Art Conference 2023
Aidan’s talk is about what exactly chasing/repoussé techniques are, the Celtic Treasures that the Dublin silver workshops produced until the 1980s, and how he came to select James Joyce’s Ulysses as the theme for his Silver master-work.
The Saint Patrick Centre hosted the 2nd International Day of Celtic Art Conference from 8-11th June 2023.
16 speakers - both artists and scholars - in a variety of media from visual design and textile to metalwork, woodwork and ceramics came to Downpatrick from destinations around the World including the USA, Canada, Scotland, Isle of Man and Ireland.
The Conference included exhibitions of Celtic Art, technical demonstrations and workshops as well as a Conference Dinner/Show and excursion.
Aidan explains how it came into existence and the significance of the subjects contained in each each panel.
In 1961 at the age of sixteen I started upon a traditional seven year apprenticeship in a silversmithing workshop specializing in chasing and repousse.
I can say with all honesty that I loved the work I was involved in.
I moved on from my first place of work and found employment in a number of other silversminthing firms before setting up my own workshop in 1978. In my new workshop I started making jewellery with a Celtic theme and doing contract chasing/repousse work for other silversmiths.
My first love was always repousse commissions that I could get my teeth into, these were not always available, and to keep the wolf from the door, from time to time I would do some carpentry work.
I knew a bit about wood working because my father was a joiner and whatever about St. Joseph, my father could not abide being called a carpenter, he insisted he was a joiner.
I also found as the years went by, that I was doing more jewellery work than chasing commissions, even though I was using my chasing skills to enhance the pieces of jewellery I was making. I was not greatly troubled about being unable to pursue the chasing/repousse work, but I did miss not doing it. Whatever work I got I appreciated and was glad to have it.
When I work on a piece no matter what it is or how small, I try to give it my full attention and do the best I can on the piece because I am aware that it’s going to a particular person, as a gift from a loved one or to mark a special occasion.
So as you can imagine, I was delighted when at the start of 2005 Ronald Le Bas, Assay Master of Dublin Assay Office , commissioned me to make a piece for the Assay Offices collection.
The brief was to produce something I had always wanted to make but never had an opportunity to. They wanted me to follow my heart’s desire and produce a masterpiece in silver featuring my chasing/repousse silversmithing skills.
My idea was to make a piece inspired by James's Joyce's Ulysses' it was something I had always wanted to do. I had been interested in Ulysses for a long time I used to work with a fellow chaser who used to recite Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Ulysses has as its main characters Leopold Bloom a Jewish Dubliner, his wife Molly, Blazes Boylan, Stephen Dedalus and the city of Dublin.
The book spans roughly twenty six hours in the life of these figures plus a host of other memorable characters. It is set in Dublin, on the 16th of June 1904.
I came up with the idea of a Moorish Tower inspired by the fact that Molly in the Penelope episode describes her first sexual adventures under a Moorish Wall, so I said to myself why not a Moorish Tower wall.
That then gave me a jumping off point, a tower would suit my purposes.
The Tower is set in a bed of blooms. On top of the main Tower are two smaller towers decorated by my version of Moorish interlacing, the Tower is topped off with a potato, (Bloom carries a small potato in his pocket all through the day for luck.) which holds a representation of the sun another star of Ulysses'.
Around the main Tower are 18 panels or blocks one for each episode of Ulysses the episodes spiral their way around the tower from the bottom up to the top. Each panel features my take on the particular episode.
The overall height of the Tower is 22" the base is 11" wide each panel is approx. 3"sq. It weighs 5 kilos.
The base features some of the flowers mentioned in Ulysses, by no means all.
There is a PhD. in the number of blossoms mentioned in Ulysses and also the plants and trees and substances made from plants that blossom. The Llily and the Poppy lie together in harmony on the base .
Among some of the other flowers which are, the Jersey Lily, Jessamine, Sunflower, Daisy, Wild Irish Rose, The Rose of Castile, A Common or Garden Rose, Bramble, Orange Blossom, Rhododendrons, Clematis, Forget me Not, Wood Anemone. The Violet and a Cactus Blossoming from Molly's Gibraltar and Blazes Boylan's Carnation.
A video interview that I have done recently for McCormack’s Jewellers of Grafton Street, Dublin.
This article was first published on Independent.ie in May 2011
EVERY now and then we hear of Celtic artefacts made of precious metals being discovered, from torcs to bowls to coins, to the famous Ardagh chalice, discovered in a potato field and now on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
The Celts arrived in Ireland around 500BC and were wonderfully creative jewellery makers, using gold, bronze and silver to create ornately inscribed bangles, collars, torcs and brooches which, even then, were traded successfully across Europe because of their distinctive styles.
Through the centuries, Ireland has had a very distinguished pedigree when it comes to silver, be it ecclesiastical, domestic or decorative. The standard of Irish silver has always been strictly maintained by the Irish Assay Office in Dublin Castle.
One of the most distinguished craftsmen and artists in the world of silver today is Dublin-born Aidan Breen. Breen's standing is such that he was commissioned by the Irish Assay Office to create a piece for its permanent collection at Dublin Castle -- the ultimate accolade in this profession.
"They wanted to have something in their collection to display my skills in chasing and repousse [the art of embossing or pressing shapes into metal] and they asked me to do something that I would love to work on -- a piece I would love to do but that no person would ever be able to afford to pay me for," explained Breen.
"I'd had this vision for a long time involving James Joyce and I came up with this idea, from his famous masterpiece Ulysses, where Molly, who was from Gibraltar, was talking about her first 'court' against a Moorish wall, so I thought why not a two-foot Moorish tower wall?
"With a tower, it meant I could put 18 episodes around this tower, each one representing my interpretation of that chapter. The tower itself sat in a lot of blooms but two flowers I put on were lilies and poppies, sitting in harmony. I also put a potato on top of the tower, as Bloom carried a potato all day in his pocket for luck, and the sun on top of that."
It combines art, humour, knowledge and insight. And he has also completed another prestigious work, a 16-inch dish, chased and repousseed, for the Decorative Arts section of the National Museum's permanent collection.
Breen started out on his craft at the age of 14 when he decided that he was "sick of school" and he would go and get himself a job.
"My aunt had a friend, a Mr Barnes, an Englishman, and he got me a job in MH Gill & Son, Church Furnishers in Dublin, as a messenger boy. However, Mr Barnes, was kind of my patron. He saw that I could draw and paint, so the odd time he would get me to draw a chalice or something like that, and then a vacancy came in the chasing, which is a specialised area in silversmithing. I was asked would I like to do it and I entered into a seven-year apprenticeship.
"This involved putting the designs on chalices, monstrances and tabernacles. It was Celtic design then. We would do it with these little punchers and hammers and that was the start of my career -- that was about 1960."
He completed his apprenticeship with silversmiths Alwright & Marshall, a firm founded by the then unlikely duo of a Scots Presbyterian and and Irishman who had fought in 1916.
"We used to do a Dun Vegan tea set and every time President de Valera was invited to a wedding he would buy one of these because he knew Johnny Alwright from 1916 so he was a good customer!"
Whilst learning his craft, Breen also attended the National College of Art & Design. He then worked with the Royal Irish Silver Company but "after Vatican II, silversmiths were almost decimated because up to that . . . the chalice cup had to be made of silver, and inside it had to be gilt, but the Church was in straitened circumstances in South America and places like that so they decided to change so you could say Mass out of a cup. That was good for the Church but it was brutal for silversmiths!"
However, Royal Irish Silver did domestic work also with cutlery and champagne buckets, tea sets, salvers, and so on. In 1978, Aidan Breen went out on his own doing contract chasing and repousse work and he then evolved into jewellery, which "kept him going", as he puts it modestly.
He was greatly interested in the art of Celtic design, frequently visiting the National Museum in Kildare Street for inspiration, and when his first range of decorative designs were shown at a trade show in 1979, his jewellery was snapped up. He also made a beautiful distinctive brooch of four swans illustrating the legend of the Children of Lir for President Mary McAleese. Since then Breen has specialised in both arts, creating specially commissioned larger pieces to mark special events, and also jewellery, which is absolutely beautiful.
There is a huge resurgence in the popularity of Celtic jewellery and demand for lovely pieces is very high both here and in the US as well as other parts of the world.
"I also work in gold, but generally goldsmiths work almost exclusively on very small pieces, whereas as a silversmith I could be working on anything between five-eighths of an inch to five feet. In America now people call themselves metalsmiths but I am archaic and still call myself a silver and goldsmith."
"I am selling more in the last few years than at the height of the Celtic Tiger -- the Celtic Tiger didn't touch me -- I think it brought a lot of imports in."
Breen's designs can be found at R&C McCormack, Celtic jewellers, Grafton Street; the Irish Celtic Store in Nassau Street; Legends at Dublin Airport; and Bannon jewellers in Bray. Or you can find him on Facebook.
"I have a great relationship with these shops and they are great to work with. I am also involved with a Celtic group in America who are really fascinated with the 'old countries' who would look at Insular Art, as this is all called nowadays, from Galicia, Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Lots of Australians come to Ireland too looking for Celtic craft but some of the official craftspeople here turn their noses up at it.
"I just laugh at this, I do what I like to do. I was always interested in heritage because my da took me to museums and up to see the real Dublin. I remember people like Hector Grey on the quay selling things on offer for maybe 1/6d. I was always fascinated too by Joyce and Nighttown and, while I was born in Drumcondra, I discovered recently that my grandmother was born in Mabbot Street, which is mentioned in Ulysses, and my great grandfather lived on the edge of the Monto."
Aidan Breen can be contacted on (01) 840-8602