I’m Irish, but I’ve lived away from the country for almost ten years. This has helped me recognize what is special about the people there.
The thing that struck me most about the workers at Waterford Crystal was their good humor at a time when they were under immense financial and emotional pressure. Even when things were at their worst the workers, who were not far from retirement, would joke about things like retraining as a pilot or an astronaut. There was constant storytelling and banter as well as endless cups of tea.
We spent most of our time with three men who had worked at the crystal factory since they were teenagers: Tom Power, Ian Paul and Liam O’Rorke. After forty years of hard but rewarding work, they were looking forward to a comfortable retirement for themselves and their families. But all of this has changed.
Such tragedy is now a common global problem, but meeting tragedy with humor is something quintessentially Irish. It may be a small thing, but I think it’s another piece of our cultural heritage worth holding on to.
One of the first people I met when I arrived at the Waterford Crystal Visitor’s Center was Tom Power, a master glass cutter who had spent four decades with the company. He had also helped to lead an eight-week long sit-in to protest the factory’s closing. Power brought me to see his cutting station, switched on the engine, and demonstrated how he carved perfectly symmetrical patterns into glass.
Later that day, he brought us into the empty gallery store, lined with shelves of delicate vases, bowls and glasses and showed us a table where master craftsmen like himself had formerly autographed the crystal pieces for tourists. It turned out that Power was not only a skillful class cutter but also an ambassador of the historic Waterford Crystal brand. For years, he has traveled throughout America setting up tables at department stores where he would explain the crystal making process.
Sitting in the empty store, at an empty desk, it was clear Power wanted to tell the story of Waterford Crystal before it was too late. Fewer workers were showing up at the sit-in, and maybe he sensed the end was near. Like somebody recording a family history, he relived the glory days of learning and perfecting his craft, of cutting Super Bowl trophies, and of the friendships he made traveling across America.
Power’s pride was palatable. It made me want to buy my first piece of crystal, but the gallery store was closed. After the factory tour and glass cutting demonstration Power thanked me for having recorded his last and final cut.