Teaching medieval craft in the 21st Century

Teaching medieval craft in the 21st Century

German native, Gunther Wolters, is a man of many talents. Having spent 10 years working in typesetting, proofreading, and advertising for the German newspaper Der Tagesspiel, Gunther decided it was time for a change.

“There was a huge shift towards computerised technology during my last year and a half with the newspaper, a lot of the traditional craft was being replaced by computers as there was a technological explosion in the 1980s.”

A local advertisement recruiting trainee stonecutters and sculptors offered Gunther the opportunity he was looking for. After qualifying, restoration work lead Gunther from Berlin, to London, and to Malaysia before he eventually settled in Ireland with his wife in 1996.

Nowadays he has his hands full restoring ancient buildings and stoneworks as well as training and overseeing apprentices from the Office of Public Works course in the ancient craft of Stonecutting and Stonemasonry.

The apprenticeship is now in its fifth year and Gunter tells us close to 100% of those he has taught are now qualified.

“The programme is four years long and it is very intense. It is unique in that it combines stonecutting and stonemasonry which were previously thought as separate crafts in Ireland.”

Quality in the craft is what is important and by combining the two, the stoneworker is then responsible for the entire chain, meaning one person is on site, identifies the stone, carries out the carving and then sets the stone.

There is a high level of skill involved as restoration work means consulting with a wide range of professionals in other fields in order to determine what features of a building might be missing.

“From there we would make templates of the missing features, then recreate them from historically accurate materials and reset the piece. This means they are one of a kind and not mass produced.”

Gunther travels regularly from Kilkenny to teach in Dublin and Meath and believes in the importance of passing down knowledge.

“It is a medieval tradition to pass your craft onto others and we have kept that alive, as masons we pass our knowledge onto the apprentices. It is a very physical craft meaning the best way to learn is by watching and doing, there are also theory-based classes which means the craft is taught from every angle.”

Students soak in the Emerald Isle as they split their time between the classroom, working on site, and in a variety of local workshops. Apprentices also spend time in the Monavalley Campus at Kerry College where they cover a wide range of versatile modules including letter cutting and technical drawing.

While working with stone is a traditional career path, it is certainly a versatile one. Graduates have found ample work in Ireland, Europe and worldwide. Gunther believes the versatility of the course is what makes it increasingly attractive to prospective students.

“You could find yourself anywhere in the world working with historians on ancient buildings or with architects on new builds, it is a skill you can take anywhere.”