Friday 20 September 2019

Treasures: Why Persians make Donegal carpets...

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Morton Rug
Morton Rug
Italian Chairs

Eleanor Flegg

Not everyone can afford a Donegal carpet. But there's nothing new about that - when the first factory opened in Killybegs, most of its own employees could scarcely afford shoes, let alone a carpet.

Donegal carpets are still expensive. There's a fine version coming up for auction at Sheppard's on February 13. It was made in the late 20th-century to a design based on the Book of Kells. The carpet measures 629 x 428 cm (20.5 x 14 foot), boasts 25 knots per square inch, and is estimated to sell for between €10,000 and €15,000. Would you walk on it, shoes or no shoes?

The first Donegal carpets were made in the late 1890s when the Scottish industrialist, Alexander Morton, opened a factory in Killybegs. Morton was head of a textile manufacturing firm in Ayrshire. Although his factories already made machine-woven rugs, he wanted to make handmade carpets like those popular from Turkey and Persia.

A chance meeting with a member of Ireland's Congested Districts Board pointed him towards Donegal. The county had two things to offer: a ready supply of willing workers and an almost infinite number of sheep.

The workers, who were mostly women, hadn't made carpets before but many of them had worked in lace-making and embroidery. The local sheep farmers, spinners and dyers got in on the act. They couldn't afford the carpets that they made but the enterprise was a big source of employment. The Killybegs factory was followed by others at Kilcar, Annagry, and Crolly. By 1906, the four employed 600 between them.

The carpets were handwoven in the same way as Turkish and Persian carpets. The early ones used traditional eastern motifs (the irony of a Persian-looking carpet being made on the north-west coast of Ireland hadn't struck anyone yet!).

Later designs used the stylised floral patterns of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Those by the architect and designer Charles Voysey were especially popular. The company also made a number of carpets in the Celtic Revival style.

Donegal carpets were purchased for Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the White House in Washington. These early carpets are very valuable indeed. In May 2013, a Donnemara carpet (1902), designed by Charles Voysey, sold at Christie's, London, for £15,000 (around €17,079); another (1905) had sold in Christie's New York for $85,000 (around €68,090) in 2003.

Most of their work was made to commission. One of such piece, an immense blue carpet inscribed with a harp, a gold link border, and Celtic motifs, sold at Mealy's of Castlecomer for €22,428 in July 2015. The carpet was commissioned by New Ireland Life Assurances for their Dublin office in 1964.

The factory closed in 1987, reopened as a FÁS scheme in 1997, and was purchased by three local businessmen in 1999. All their carpets were handmade in Donegal. Much of their business, in these years, has been the making of reproductions of those extra special Donegal carpets' originally commissioned for Irish public buildings.

"The last carpet we made was in 2001. It was commissioned by Mary McAleese and it went to Áras an Úachtaráin," says Alannah Love, who worked in the factory. The carpet replaced one made in 1948, also by Donegal Carpets, and followed the same design but with a different background colour. The original is now on display at in the Donegal Carpets and Maritime Heritage Centre, Killybegs.

"We don't make carpets any more but the original equipment is still there and some of the former employees use it for demonstrations," says Michael McDaid, who ran the factory from 1999 until its closure.

Somewhere along the line, Donegal carpets' company archive was destroyed. So nobody now knows at which stage in its history "Donegal Design Carpets' were made in Iran. A number of these are included in the sale at Sheppard's.

Of various shapes and sizes, their estimates range from between €2,500 and €3,500 to between €8,000 to €12,000. Most are in the Arts and Crafts style and the designs are catalogued as "after" Charles Voysey or "after" G K Roberston. If a genuine Irish-made carpet is what you're after, you'll be disappointed.These are modern, Iranian reproductions.

While by no means cheap, they're a lot more affordable than an original Arts and Crafts carpet. And, when it comes to carpets, the Iranians know what they're doing. "In some ways they're finer than the carpets made in Donegal," says Philip Sheppard. "A Donegal carpet would typically have 16 knots per square inch. These have 25 knots. The Iranian craftsmanship is superb."

There's something wonderful about the notion of designing Persian carpets to be made in Ireland and then, 100 years later, reproducing them in Iran.

Sheppard's KNOTWARP&WEFT18 auction takes place in Durrow, Co Laois, next Tuesday, February 13 at 10.30 am. It previews in Kilkenny Castle tomorrow and Sunday (see See also Paul Larmour's article Donegal Carpets in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook (1990/1991)

In the salerooms


A collection of original photographs by a tiger hunter from Offaly is coming up for sale at Matthew's Auction Rooms this Sunday. The photographs, recently discovered in a suburban sideboard, shed light on the life of Lt. Col. Charles Howard-Bury (1883-1963).

Heir to Charleville Castle, Tullamore, Howard-Bury had a spectacularly interesting life. For a start, he had a pet bear. In 1913, he spent six months exploring the Tien Shan Mountains in central Asia. He carried the bear cub with him on his horse throughout the expedition, and bought it home to Ireland. The bear, named Agu, became his companion for the rest of its long life and used to help him practice wrestling.

Howard-Bury was already famous as a hunter. In India, he had shot and killed a man-eating tiger known to have eaten 21 fakirs (holy men). He is probably best known for leading a reconnaissance expedition to the slopes of Everest in 1921. The 70 photographs (which include one of the bear as a cub, several of the Everest expedition, and an album of around 20 photographs of a big game hunt) are for sale as 20 separate lots, most with upper estimates of less than €100.

The auction also includes a photographic portrait of a South Sea island man with elephantitis of the testicles, taken in 1874 by Howard-Bury's father, Captain Kenneth Howard (1846-1885). The sale is the second day of a two-day auction at Matthew's saleroom in Oldcastle, Co Meath, which takes place tomorrow (jewellery) and Sunday (antiques/collectables). See

Lev Mitchell

A large collection of cased rosettes awarded to the Henderson family for their prizewinning herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle is coming up for sale as part of the clearance auction for Cullen House, Beauparc, Slane, Co Meath.

The auction takes place on Monday, February 19, at noon and is conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons.

The sale also includes: several antique radios; a number of taxidermy birds and animals; a large wood carving of a butler; a collection of Victorian prams; 17 volumes of Irish Hereford Cattle Society books; and an array of cut-stone mushroom tops.

There will also be a collection of bar furniture and pub memorabilia, including decorative items from Duffy's of Malahide. Viewing is at Cullen House on February 17 (10am-5pm) and February 18 (12pm-5pm) and the auction will be held at Conyngham Arms, Slane. See


Italian Chairs

A contemporary compartmented wall mirror sold for €3,200 a deVere's Online Art & Design auction, which ended on January 30. Other notable results included a set of six EA 108 swivel office chairs designed for ICF, Italy, by Charles & Ray Eames (€2,200); an Eames boardroom table (€1,300); a pair of Orange Slice chairs by Pierre Paulin for Artifort (€1,200); a pair of 1960s Italian upholstered easy chairs (€800, pictured); and a pair of 1970s French Perspex cube tables (€420).

For full results, see

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