Perceptions of craftsmanship, past and present

there is nothing inevitable about becoming skilled, there is nothing mindlessly mechanical about technique itself

Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, 2008

Research into attitudes to craft training in Ireland has revealed a marked decline in the status of apprenticeship over the past three generations. Degree qualifications have usurped the role of apprenticeships and teachers would rarely advise students to take an apprenticeship if they achieve grades for university entry. Yet, studies into workplace learning have shown that most graduates learn the required skills ‘on-the-job’ and European countries, where traditional apprenticeship models have been lost, are now attempting to revive them.


The word apprentice is derived from the Old French word ‘apprentis’ meaning ‘someone learning’, but the Latin word for apprentice used in contracts by the Guilds was ‘discipulus’, a ‘student’. The actual word ‘apprentice’ did not appear in English documents until 1660, although the word ‘prentice’ was being used from about 1330. The rich archaeology of Ireland reveals that an apprenticeship of some kind operated in the Iron Age. Apprentices or ‘learners’ used antler bone or the long bones of cattle to practice designs, before carrying out work on expensive metals, these practice pieces were known as ‘trial pieces’ or ‘motif pieces’.

The earliest mention of a formal apprenticeship in Ireland, referred to as ‘fosterage’, was recorded in the Brehon Laws, compiled around the 7th century A.D. Apprentices were required to perform all kinds of menial tasks for the Master, including reaping his corn and feeding his pigs. Largely unchanged into modern times, the Irish apprenticeship system was based on the ‘time served’ or traditional Guild model.

An apprentice would enter an ‘indentured apprenticeship’, so called because two copies were torn or ‘indented’ along an edge to make matching copies of the same contract. There were few safeguards or checks on the competency of the master or apprentice as he progressed through his training. The culmination of the apprenticeship was marked with the apprentice making ‘An Apprentice Piece’ that was a demonstration of the skills acquired under the master. The local Guild being satisfied that the standard had been met, the apprentice would then go on to become a Journeyman for another two years, travelling domestically and internationally trading skills learned while acquiring new ones. The Common Council loosely regulated any deviation of standard by opening the trade to all if proper standards were not met. This was the framework that was established under the Guild system that remained in place for centuries.

Indenture of apprenticeship of George Mabbott Matthews as a bookbinder, 1867 ©British Library

By the 18th century, a formalized apprenticeship was well established in Ireland. An apprentice would enter an indentured apprenticeship contract. Although terms varied, an indentured apprenticeship contract typically lasted seven years, but it could stipulate that the term length ended when the apprentice reached a certain age. It was not uncommon for children, both boys and girls, of the poor to enter apprenticeships as  a means of escape from desperate economic circumstances. The contract would often state that food, clothing and board would be provided by the master, but the apprentice could not engage in gambling, alcohol or social activities.

The status of the apprentice was of the lowest level, with the apprentice often sleeping in the workshop. It was often an expensive route out of poverty, particularly for a young person who did not already have a familial connection to the trade. In such cases, the aspiring apprentice had to pay the master a premium to become an indentured apprentice in that chosen craft. The size of the premium depended on the potential future earning of the chosen trade. An additional charge of stamp duty on the apprenticeship also had to be paid.

‘In the Workshop’ Eugène Buland, National Museum Stockholm NM7068

The use of the words ‘responsible citizen’ was a sentiment echoed by the Guilds who saw apprenticeship as an important step in the development of a young person not only into mastery of his/her craft but also into civic participation. The Japanese tradition of apprentice education automatically included a physical, social and philosophical engagement of the craftsperson, this philosophy was reflected in the word for master craftsmen defined by Odate ;

“The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skill, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. These qualities are encompassed in the word shokunin, but are seldom written down” (Odate, 1984:viii)


The European apprenticeship model, by contrast, remained a series of pre-set tasks to be completed to a certain standard. These task oriented training systems which omitted the higher-level competencies, were flawed. The effect was a reduction in the status of the apprenticeship from the early twentieth century, when qualified crafts people were among the high-paid elite of British and Irish society, and were expected to work autonomously with minimal supervision. This decline also emerged in the implicit educational contract between the apprentice and the employer, revealed through the criticism of the on-the-job training by apprentices who regarded the lack of on-the-job regulation and quality assurance as the main weakness of the system. Even relatively modern apprentices complain of being asked to conduct repetitive work or tasks that were not related to their craft.


A survey of teachers, employers and apprentices conducted for my doctoral research has shown a lack of confidence in the perceived value of a trade. The current Standards Based Apprenticeship is jointly delivered by the employer (On-the-job) training and the Irish state (Off-the-job) training through seven phases over four years. Respondents believed that the value of apprenticeship was high during the economic boom but had suffered a reversal in esteem during the economic recession. Some commented that the craft area had become an educational wasteland, becoming the only choice for those who were not interested in academic learning, creating a negative spiral of reduced standards, which in turn reduced the quality of the qualified craftspeople and the general perception of the craft area in society. Employers and educators believed that more could be done to educate society in the value of the craft area and the high level of skill achieved by the modern apprentice, through events such as the World’s Skills Competition. It was noted by one educator that the word ‘craft’ has been appropriated by the Arts community, with those in the traditional craft area now designated the title of ‘tradesperson’ a comparatively pejorative term which was seen by one interviewee as an indication of the decline of vocational education in Irish society. Many scholars offer examples of this trend in countries around the world where vocational education is seen as inferior.

Craft traditions have had a long and distinguished lineage in Ireland. More than half of the PhD survey participants were able to trace a family craft connection back several generations or were able to identify a craft heritage in the family all be it in another craft area, the connection was real and relevant. A third of the interviewees also chose the trade for economic reasons, where options were limited, and apprenticeship was chosen as a last resort. This demonstrated a divided status of craft skills in Ireland between those who saw it as perpetuating a family tradition and those who had it chosen for them out of a lack of career options. The respondents who had the strongest family traditions were the most ardent supporters of apprenticeship, which was unsurprising in a country were history forms the lining of the present. However, there was recognition that the perceived value and status of apprenticeship in Irish society had declined over the past three generations. Almost three quarters of those interviewed believed that the status of apprenticeship in society had declined. The reasons offered for this perceived decline in status included the increase of technology, reduction in the level of skills required in construction, and a lack of understanding by society of the training involved in apprenticeship. How is this trend to be reversed and craftsmanship nurtured and valued by society?

Dr. Brian Thoma

Dr Brian Thoma is a lecturer in the Department of Construction at the Faculty of Engineering and Science, Munster Technological University, Cork. His doctoral thesis (John Moore’s University, Liverpool, 2016) is a comparative study of apprenticeship systems in Ireland and Japan.

For historical and contemporary examples of apprenticeship and journeymen craftsmanship and history of the French compagnonnage system see:


Minns, C. Wallis, P. (2013). The Price of Human Capital in a Pre-Industrial Economy: Premiums and Apprenticeship Contracts in 18th Century England. Explorations in Economic History ,Vol. 50. 335-350. London; Elsevier.

O’Connor, L. and Mullins, T. (Eds.) (2004). Apprenticeship as a Paradigm of Learning. Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Conference. Cork: City Print.

Odate, T. (1984). Japanese Woodworking Tools – Their Tradition Spirit and Use. Connecticut: Taunton Press.

Ryan, J. G., (2000). Prometheus’s Fire – A history of scientific and technological education in Ireland: Apprenticeship in Modern Times. Kilkenny: Tyndall Publications

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