I have admired the Irish lámhóg since I began turning on the pole lathe. The first time I saw a photo of one was in Robin Woods’ book The Wooden Bowl. I couldn’t stop staring at it. It had such a great form, tall and curvaceous, and a wonderful golden brown color. It also had a small integral handle projecting out from its side. That handle made it clear that is was made on a reciprocating pole lathe. The lámhóg Robin photographed was from the Pinto collection. Edward Pinto was a British collector of wooden objects and over his life he collected over 7,000 of them. He also wrote books on the subject of what we call treen. The collection is currently stored at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in England.
Over the years I learned more about these unique cups. It is said that they were made in the 17th and 18th centuries in Ireland by the hundreds if not thousands. With the help of a friend, a fellow pole lathe turner and Irishman, Terrance McSweeney, I was taught how to pronounce the word correctly. What I thought was “lamb-hog” was really something more like “law-vogue”. Yep those two little thingys above the á and ó actually mean something. It is a Gaelic word and it means something like small ears or handles which makes sense looking at them. They do have small handles. Much of the information I’ve read comes directly from Pinto himself, but there are additional references in Levi’s book Treen for the Table. Recently I received a rare copy of Bernard Estridge in depth study of another obscure Irish drinking vessel, the mether. I won’t get into what those are here. In it he has a brief section on the lámhóg. There are more books that have information about lámhóg in them, but they are out of print and expensive when they do come available.
In 2017 I traveled to England and Sweden to teach a series of pole lathe turning workshops. In England I made arrangements to view the same lámhóg that Robin photographed, the one I was infatuated with. It turned out that the archived storage section was understaffed when I planned to visit so I could only view the cups through a glass case. I’m very thankful to the staff for setting them out for me even though I couldn’t handle them. I still learned a lot by seeing them in person, with my own eyes.
I am planning a trip to Ireland in a year or two where I’ll do some research and hopefully learn more. I’ve made a few connections with Irish craft folks and scholars over the years who I hope will help me. I’d love to see more examples of these beautiful cups.
The three cups I viewed in Birmingham may well have been made by the same maker. The proportions and curves are all very similar regardless of their size. I’ve seen a fair amount of photos of other lámhóg on the internet. Many look quite plain in comparison. I think there were at least a few different makers of lámhóg. This observation is more hunch than fact, but it is backed by some legitimate experience.
As a turner, I have learned that certain design elements show up in my work. When I began this was very unconscious. Later it was more deliberate because I became aware of it. For years I studied these simple and unique subtleties. I studied the work of other turners as well as different potters that made forms in a repetitive way. I would also make batches of the same form and when I had 10-15 objects to compare I set them out for analysis. Some forms matched well, but didn’t have anything special and some popped out with life or vibrancy. The late Sōetsu Yanagi, author of The Unknown Craftsmen, talks about when beauty is perceived and known through intuition rather than intellect. The forms that popped had this type of beauty. This was backed up by others who were asked to observe and comment. The majority agreed that these certain objects had something special that the others didn’t. This I believe sticks to the heart of what Yanagi is referring to.
So those lámhóg that I fell in love with and later viewed have been a direct influence on the lámhóg that I make. I have an image of them in my mind when I turn and have spent years trying to master them. This is the way that (what I sometimes call) the traditional crafts continue. This is also our innovation. We are bound to the past in a solid and fixed way, but below the first impression is hundreds if not thousands of years of innovation. These traditional crafts are open to change, but do so in very subtle and slow ways. Our modern, high speed, and ego-centered creative worlds tend to overlook this slow and considerate pace.
Every year I offer up a limited run of these fantastic cups. Every year I learn subtle things about myself as a designer and maker which pushes my abilities. Every year I learn from my unknown mentor whose work I try to emulate. Every year those that buy and use my cups connect to this long continuous story.
Monday, January 21st, at Noon (Central Time) I’ll open up orders for this year’s lámhóg run. I can’t wait to make them.