By Tom Gillespie
THIS week (25th August) marked the 39th anniversary of the death of academic and renowned potter Grattan Freyer, who ran Ireland’s oldest rural pottery workshop in Pontoon with his wife Madeleine for 33 years.
Using Mayo’s signature red clay, the pottery company has become popular worldwide and many pieces are in private collections.
Noelene Beckett Crowe of the Mayo Genealogy Group has done detailed research on Grattan Freyer, great-great-grandson of Samuel Freyer of Cleggan, Co. Galway.
Grattan was the second son of writer and art collector Major Dermott Freyer (1883 – 1970) and Lorna Doone McLean, New Zealand. Grattan was born on July 25, 1915 in England, where he grew up. He had two brothers, was a lifelong daily swimmer, a good tap dancer, also raised horses and rode horses through the hills of Pontoon.
Grattan Freyer married Madeleine Giraudeau, whom he had met in 1935, in Dublin on 16 August 1939 and again in Ballina on 10 July 1958 when he converted to Catholicism.
They had traveled extensively throughout France, Poland and Russia while Madeleine had traveled to Turkey and Norway. She had use of a small flat in Paris where they stayed when they both went on holiday abroad during their time in Ireland. Later in life, Freyer traveled to Europe and America for his academic lectures.
Between 1946 and 1947 Grattan Freyer apprenticed at Leach Pottery in St Ives. Madeleine became the saleswoman and Leach’s private secretary.
In 1948 Grattan Freyer was experienced enough to manage Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall for a year. He researched the use of peat as fuel for kilns. Grattan tested the clay deposits at Wenford Bridge from both Youghal in County Cork and County Mayo.
He chose Mayo and Terrybaun because he would have the distinctive clay deposits he needed in the area.
The Mayo area was also thought of because his father Dermott had returned to live in Achill where Dermott maintained an eccentric establishment at his home, Corrymore House, behind which he built a Greek theater where he put on folk music . dance performances.
The cottage at Pontoon with land and moor (approximately 12 acres, north of Pontoon on the west side of Lough Conn) was purchased in 1948. Madeleine and Grattan began the renovation task by planting trees, adding a driveway and courtyard, and creating a vegetable garden.
Both became experienced bricklayers.
While preparing the pottery they were visited by Muriel Gahan of The Country Shop in Dublin who became one of their first customers.
Muriel Gahan, who was instrumental in the development of the Irish Countrywoman’s Association, was born in Magherabeg, just outside the town of Donegal, in 1897 to an English mother and a Church of Ireland Unionist and Freemason father. Her father, Frederick George Townsend Gahan, worked for the Congested District Board – a body set up to improve the lives of people in the poorest areas of western Ireland.
In the autumn of 1900 he moved to Castlebar and settled at Creagh Villa which later became the home of my grandparents Thomas H. and Katherine Gillespie and my father Dick and his brothers and sisters.
In September 1919 my grandfather Thomas H., proprietor of the Connaught Telegraph, bought the property for £900.
It consisted of a two storey house with stables, coach house, engine house, shed etc. and about 14 acres of land.
The clay for Terrybaun Pottery was purchased from the Clarke family who lived in Ardagh near Ballina. Freyer produced the first Terryduff Clay pots on July 4, 1950, which he worked on a kick wheel he had built.
He used peat for his kilns until he installed an electric kiln in 1958. It became the Freyers’ habit to hold an annual pre-Christmas exhibition at the Painter’s Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and an occasional one at The Country Shop.
Grattan and Madeleine became adept at the “Marbling” effect. She was awarded at an exhibition in Munich. Madeleine focused on marine and equine animals. She produced ashtrays for hotels and restaurants with individual Celtic patterns, as well as a variety of items for tourists.
It was Grattan’s department when inscriptions were required on mottoed wine cups or commemorative plates or tea services.
In the 1950s painter Turloe Connolly spent a day decorating tiles and vases while Liam de Paor, the archaeologist, made a site plan for the pottery. Françoise Henry, the art historian, drew Celtic patterns on ceramic pieces.
In 1959, Japanese professor Kuni Imaeld decorated plates with Japanese texts. In 1964, when Pauline Bewick stayed, she decorated many plates.
In 1974, another Japanese artist, Tacao Ono, drew birds and figures on Terrybaun Pottery. The arrival of Irish sculptor Oisin Kelly in the area led to an intense collaboration that lasted six to seven years. A local friend, Desmond Mac Avock of Ballina, made woodcut note pictures based on designs by Henri Lauren.
In the 1960s Grattan Freyer returned to academic work in the field of Anglo-Irish literature.
He died on July 25, 1983 and was buried in nearby Addergoole Cemetery.
Madeleine later sold the pottery business to her nephew Henri. She returned to live in Dublin. Madeleine died on August 6, 1999 and was buried with her husband.