About seven years ago, an old man from Cavan died, leaving his home and belongings. His relatives sold the house to a man from Dublin and the neighbours came round to help them clear it out. The old man had lived modestly and there wasn't much of value in the house. They filled the skip, leaving the mattress until last, but every time they threw it on top of the pile it bounced right off again. "It's those chairs getting in the way," said the old man's relation. One of the neighbours climbed up to check it out and came down with two old chairs. "May I take these?" the neighbour asked. "I might see if I can sell them." The old man's relative was glad to see the back of them. Now there was room on the skip for the mattress.
The local auctioneer, Victor Mee, knew at once that the chairs would be of interest to collectors. One of them was particularly interesting. It was of the type known as a "carpenter's chair," made by a local workman in the 19th century, a simple piece of furniture, painted brown, with a sturdy seat and decorative carved detailing on the arms and legs. The chairs went under the hammer with a reserve of €70. One of them sold for €1,700 and the other for €700.
"The nice thing about it was the man who sold the furniture could pay off his debt to the credit union," says Shirley Mee, co-director of Victor Mee Auctions. "Until the chairs came along, he didn't know how he was going to do that."
The next Irish Country Interiors Sale at Victor Mee Auctions in Cloverhill, Co Cavan, is next Wednesday, February 26. It's a rare opportunity to see so many Irish vernacular items in the one place.
Irish country furniture dates from the 18th and 19th centuries and was made by the people who used it, from whatever materials they had available, or by local craftspeople. It was ingenious, rugged, and unsophisticated. Most of the time, it was used until it fell apart. And, because it was associated with poverty, it was not particularly valued. "When people moved into the new house they would just leave the furniture behind them," explains Victor Mee.
This particular sale comes from the estate of a private collector, and Mee regards it as one of the last substantial private collections in the country. "I only know of one or two others," he says. "It's sad to see it dispersed."
While there are a few people in Ireland who actively collect Irish country furniture, it is likely that many of the pieces will be sold outside the country. Maybe we are still too close to the frightening poverty of our rural past to value its accoutrements.
The furniture is charming, if a little battered. Everyone loves a dresser and the sale has several. My favourite is a 19th-century fiddle-back dresser from Co Monaghan with a space underneath for hens (Lot 207: est. €300 to €500). Like most Irish country furniture, it's made of painted pine. Pieces are worth more with their original paintwork intact, no matter how flaky. An appealing Georgian pine corner cupboard (Lot 425: est. €200 to €400) with a cupboard below and glazed astral doors above has some, but not all, of its original glazing. "You could repair it with old glass," says Mee. "It would be easily done."
Like the cupboard, a 19th-century pine bench settle (Lot 454: est. €200 to €400) would have been made by a local carpenter. Hedge chairs, though, were typically homemade made from a plank and some sticks. There are several in the sale. Among them, a 19th-century ash and elm chair, originally from Co Cavan (Lot 288: est. €300 to €400) has a lot of sturdy charm and is a rare survivor from a time when people made their own furniture as a matter of course.
Other pieces don't look like much until you realise what they were for. A simple contraption of wrought iron, standing upright on the floor, is identified as a rushlight, originally from Clontibret, Co Monaghan (Lot 286: est. €200 to €300).
"They brought in a candle tax in 1709 and people used to make their own lamps from peeled rushes and mutton fat," Mee explains, showing where the rush wick dipped into the fat. A candle box with holes for spoons (Lot 231: est. €150 to €250) probably made after the candle tax was abolished in 1831.
The auction includes a fine collection of early spongeware - simple ceramic bowls, mugs and basins decorated with sponge-printed patterns and dating from the 19th century (estimates range from €50 t0 €300).
If these remind you of contemporary pottery by Nicholas Mosse, that's because his life's work has been inspired by these early pieces. "Spongeware was a home industry," Mee explains. "Women decorated the blanks at home and brought them back to the pottery for firing." Some of them come from Belleek - you can tell by the shape of the handle - and others from potteries around the country.
Then, before I can get nostalgic, he points out a large iron contraption on the wall (Lot. 173: €1,000 to €2,000).
"We think that's a man trap," he says. "It would have been used on one of the big estates to keep poachers away." We shudder and move on.