Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 05 Jun 2015







PROFESSOR PHILIP O’KANE, Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering, in University College Cork, on 5 June 2015, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Arts, honoris causa, on JOSEPH DANIEL WALSH



A Sheansailéir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile[i],


Today we honour JOSEPH DANIEL WALSH designer, craftsman, decorative artist[ii], sculptor in wood, metal, glass, stone, and resin. He has presented his work in solo and group exhibitions, and received commissions from private and public collections, in Ireland (National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts; Sacred Heart Church, Minane Bridge, Cork; St. Mary’s Church, Innishannon, Cork), England (Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House), USA (Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York; The Mint Museum of Craft and Design, Charlotte, North Carolina; John H. Bryan Collection, Illinois), Japan (Embassy of Japan, Dublin); Uruguay (Rafael Vinoly collection); and France (The Pompidou Centre, Paris). The Financial Times has recommended his unique pieces to the private collector on several occassions. He is not yet forty.


In 1999 the nineteen-year-old Joseph Walsh opened his design studio and furniture workshop.  The international challenge that he faced may be grasped by opening Charlotte & Peter Fiell’s book, published two years earlier, “1000 Chairs”[iii], “hackneyed subjects that have been so populated by artists that one cannot imagine the possibility of a fresh take [on chairs, or tables, or beds]”[iv].


Twelve years later in 2011 on the occasion of an exhibition of Walsh’s work in the Sears Gallery, Dublin, Oliver Sears wrote[v]

“ With extraordinary technical skill the material is allowed to reveal its mystery. Wondrous free form design has created a body of work in a language of its own. The functionality of the [Walsh] tables and chairs, [and canopy beds] is never compromised … But such is the seeming impossibility of the designs that the viewer is left believing that he is seeing something for the very first time. Van Gogh does this with landscape. Morandi with still life and Hockney with flowers.”

High praise indeed!


But seeing is believing. The Enignum Free Form Pair (2013)[vi] of chairs in Walsh’s Enignum Series[vii] may be seen on the Walsh Studio website. The chairs are “a fluid, continuous, uninterrupted sculpted form”[viii], in layered bent olive ash, finished with white oil, and upholstered respectively in five and eight interlocking pillows of green suede of different shapes. Each chair sits on three bent legs, two short, ending at right angles on the floor. The third leg of each chair stands effacé in the third ballet position, asking to be placed tête-à-tête as a post-modern courting bench.  What fortunate young man would not wish to engage in conversation his Gráinne, his Guinevere, his Iseult, his Beatrice, amid such beauty?


Flat photos are no substitute for immediate experience of a piece of furniture as sculpture: writing at it, sitting on it, lying in it, in the Enignum Canopy Bed (2010)[ix], feeling the texture of its oiled frame, smelling the olive ash, looking at the play of light on material mass, or moiré patterns in the drapery of the silk organza canopy. Changing one’s position repeats the enjoyment; or, behaving as a child, tasting, touching, bouncing, banging[x], crawling, in and through the space-filling Erosion I Low Table (2009)[xi] of built-up rippled and olive ash, delights all the senses. 


Knowledge perceived through the senses is the first mode of knowing. The artist-designer in his or her work is possessed by it; the connoisseur searches for it in the finished piece.


The second mode of knowing is intellectual, an unrestricted desire to know the answers to questions: What? Why? How?, repeated with greater and greater precision, until the savant[xii] can place the answers in a logical structure.  Such questions unfold in very different ways for the artist-designer, and the connoisseur of the completed work, in moments of insight, surprise and delight.


For Joseph Walsh the questions behind his recent work were initially inchoate: “I looked at each [piece of my] work [from the previous 5-8 years that were brought together in the 2008 ‘Realisations’ exhibition in New York] and wondered how … to break some of the rules I had created around my work, … the restrictions, the crisp lines, the respectful principles, … [how] to find the essence of each piece, [and] how I was to achieve what I could not [yet] visualize, even if I felt it very passionately.”[xiii]

He has given us a magnificent answer to these questions worthy of the very best of reflective practitioners [xiv].


“One evening when the studio was quiet … I started to explore the idea of bending the [layers of] wood free form to create the desired shape, instead of building [up] solid wood [in layers] and carving [into them]. … As soon as I began to create the scale model with the layers of wood, placing them where essential and allowing the material to find the path, I realized that this was the way I had to make the actual piece too.  The wood moved and interrupted what I could not imagine; it was as if I pointed the direction and it would find the way.”[xv] The result, in the words of Oliver Sears, is “jaw dropping”. This method of design, driven by scale models in free-form material, is very different from conventional design practice in engineering or architecture[xvi].  We honour Joseph Walsh for this today.


Joseph Walsh is self-taught[xvii]. To understand him we must seek out his dúchas, ei le frodorol, son pays, his genus loci, his native place[xviii], his family, his cultural landscape of nature, materials[xix], machines and tools, the sources of his art. So I invite you to join me on an brief journey in cinematic time, begging the indulgence of any historians among you for the liberties we take, as we travel ten miles from the industrial city of Cork[xx] to his áit dúchais in the Barony of Kinalea, in the parishes of Tubrid, Tracton Abbey, and Ballyfeard[xxi], in the townland of Fartha, between Minane Bridge and Riverstick, between Carrigaline and Kinsale[xxii].  We bring our sketchbooks.


We borrow today for our imaginary journey the horse-drawn carriage of the first President of the University.  Its brass plate may have read  ‘[xxiii]Johnson (formerly Edden), Nelson Place, Cork. Makers of fine coaches, tandems, carriages, carts, and drays.’[xxiv] Before we enter the carriage, we sketch the chassis, lacquered carrosserie, and upholstered interior, with many questions posed graphically: why are the wooden wheels dished with the spokes arranged in a flat cone, how does an iron rim without nails or screws stay on the carriage wheel as it rattles over cobble stones, why does the number of leaves in the leaf-spring diminish towards the support points of the carriage?  …  We imagine Joseph Walsh asking similar questions and recording them in his sketchbook.


On the way into town we stop at the Hive Iron Works and Foundry[xxv] in Hanover Street, now long gone, of course. Through the arch we imagine the Perrotts discussing the purchase of a self-acting steam-hammer for forging crankshafts of steam engines for delivery to the shipyards of nineteenth century Cork. The sales catalogue before them says ‘James Nasmyth[xxvi], Bridgewater Foundry, Manchester, inventor of the new steam hammer, famous for its powerful, rapid and precise action.’  Joseph Walsh helped his father “building some farm machines and buildings in the winter when the busy farming season was past”.


We make a detour up Wellington Road to invite Mr. Herbert Potter to join us, whose family members were landlords of the Walsh farms in Fartha[xxvii] from the early eighteenth century, until the Land Acts gave the Walshes freehold tenure. We imagine a feudal sense of duty in Mr. Potter’s interest in the artistry of Joseph Walsh, and were he a time-traveller, he might commission a piece of furniture for his new 1850s house near St. Luke’s Cross.


As we cross the river Lee, we sketch the warehouses with their masonry walls of rough-dressed Old Red Sandstone, trimmed in Cork White Limestone, the county colours. We make an imaginary stop at the Ford Tractor Works and Foundry, to buy a maintenance manual for vintage tractors on the Walsh farms, which the teenage Joseph Walsh helped to repair. On the road to Carrigaline we pass Douglas Community School where he studied metal work for a short time.


Two miles south of Carrigaline, on the marine alluvial[xxviii] floodplain at Minane Bridge, in the ancient townland of Tubrid, we find the remains of Tracton Abbey, one of the first ‘foreign direct investments by a multinational’ in Ireland.  This ‘green-field site’ by the wooded Minane river, an gaoire in Irish, like The Gearagh on the river Lee, with oaks dominant, and ash, birch, hazel, willow, and alder also, present on the fertile soils[xxix]. The engineer-monks of the Cistercian Order brought their Rule, know-how and tools to build in stone, wood and iron, the Order’s standard design for a consecrated “machine[xxx] for living in”[xxxi]. Welsh-speaking Cistercians[xxxii], the white monks from Whit(e)land Abbey (Alba Landa) in Carmarthenshire built Tracton Abbey (Alba Tractus) in 1224-25, under the patronage of the Norman de Barry and the Irish McCarthy families[xxxiii].  Walsh means Welshman[xxxiv]. The Walsh family has lived on the lands of Tracton[xxxv] for almost 800 years.


Nearby, we visit the Sacred Heart Church of Minnane Bridge to admire the largest collection of early furniture by Joseph Walsh, an ecclesiastical commission: altar-table, lectern, seating bench for two altar servers, side-table for liturgical vessels, priest’s sedile with side-table for a missal, and a matched pair of wedding prie-dieux and chairs.


We turn west, ‘passing carts of seaweed and sea-sand, fertilizer for the tillage farms’[xxxvi] on the loamy upland soils derived from the under-lying sandstone[xxxvii]. Hedgerows pass us by in a bocage of  “prickly spine-bearing hawthorn and blackthorn, ash, elder, guelder rose, dog rose, wild cherry, crab apple, holly, hazel, spindle, wild damson and buckthorn”.[xxxviii]


We find the Ballintrideen[xxxix] Road. We stop when we reach the town-land of Slieveroe rising to the north on our right, and the town-land of Fartha on our left, our destination. Our attention is caught first by Heathburn House[xl] in Slieveroe. We begin to observe the trees and shrubs[xli] of its demesne[xlii] and the furniture and artifacts of its noble rooms[xliii], but we see in the distance, Joseph Walsh, inviting us into his Studio, on the southern side of the road.


As we approach him, we see to the left of the entrance, the rear-elevation of a traditional three-bay farmhouse.  It has been restored recently, and now has a fine thatched[xliv] roof, sitting on white masonry walls with small windows of antique glass, set in green widow frames.  A snug window in the hipped thatch of the western gable looks out from a sleeping loft. Through the front door we enter the kitchen and turn right to admire the great open chimneybreast with its crane for a cooking pot above the fire on the hearthstone. A cast-iron bellows from Pierce of Wexford is set into the floor, the mark of a strong farmer. An old framed newspaper photograph of a man driving a tractor, candlesticks, lamps, some crockery, sit on the wooden mantelpiece beneath an antique clock and school photograph – no JFK or perpetual lamp. A traditional dresser displays its delf ready for use on two country[xlv] tables with their painted benches, and red floral oil-cloth. They serve as the refectory for the craftsmen and women of the Studio. Visitors may enjoy morning coffee here, or in the grand parlour behind the chimneybreast, used originally for the Stations, or for receiving the landlord, but now decorated and furnished for the post-modern connoisseur. This is the house of Joseph’s paternal grandfather, William Walsh.


We cross the farmyard to the large barn that once stored potatoes, onions, carrots, oats, … harvested from the fields to the south. A great square arch divides the barn in two. To the right stands the Studio’s display gallery and office, to the left the workshop and design studio, and to the rear facing full west, a recently planted orchard. 


We enter the display gallery and examine the archive of work recorded in half-a-dozen A3 folders in chronological order. The office space upstairs is full of books, gifts from his maternal grandfather, Seamus Duignan, national and international civil servant, who put a fretsaw in Joseph’s hand as a boy and fired his love for working wood into beautiful objects.  The books[xlvi] are a record of the Masters from whom Joseph Walsh learned his craft: John Makepeace[xlvii] and his School for Craftsmen in Wood (1977-1989) at Parnham House, Dorset; its first resident tutor[xlviii], Robert Ingham[xlix]; and their Masters[l].


Joseph Walsh and his Studio Master Maker, Keisuke Kawai, Maker, Kenta Hirari, Senior Technician Russel Jacob, and Maker, Paul O’Brien, introduce us to the Lilium[li] project, that explores the symmetry of an exploding bulb, frayed in layers of ash; form without function; that is, until a tabletop in glass, or other utilitarian dimension, is added for a connoisseur collector, and function follows form.


We end the journey in the workshop, with its stock of noble woods, looking at maquettes and scale models of work in progress, admiring craftsmen at work, the smell of sawdust, listening to the machines: ‘band saw, combination dimension saw, planer thicknesser, spindle moulder, pillar drill, belt sander, disc sander, bobbin sander, router station, lathe, milling machine, veneer press, and their attendant tools and machines: cramps, jigs, chisels, gouges, planes, spokeshaves, horizontal shooting boards, veneer edging jigs, glue dispensers, compressors, dust extractors, vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers, ... ’


At the end of the working day,

there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.


JOSEPH  DANIEL WALSH I salute your achievements, I salute your family, your father John and mother Miriam, who nurtured your artistic gifts and encouraged you to find your own unique path as an artist, I salute the international guild of craftsmen and women whom you have welcomed to your Studio in Fartha.


On this auspicious day I wish you and your artistic enterprise long life and happiness.


Go mba fada buan sibh!


Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque Universitas!


Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Artibus, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.



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