The Hennessy family armorial crest must be the world's most recognisable Irish heraldic device. It shows an arm wielding a battle axe and you'll find it on brandy bottles the world over. The Hennessy cognac distillery was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy, an Irish Jacobite from Cork, who gave the brand its name and his family's armorial crest.
When the same crest turned up recently on a pair of 19th-century Chinese chairs, it sent auctioneer Philip Sheppard flying to the history books. The pair of Qing Period Chinese Export ceremonial armchairs (Lot 1107: est €8,000 to €12,000) is going under the hammer at Sheppard's Knochaphuca House sale next week.
It seems likely they came from Rostellan Castle, Co Cork, the home of Sir John Pope Hennessy (1834-1891). Hennessy was a medical doctor, born in Cork, who went on to become the Eighth Governor of Hong Kong (1877-1883).
When Sheppard saw the chairs, he knew instinctively that there was a story behind them. For a 21st century chair to be labelled "Made in China" is no great claim to fame, but for a 19th-century Chinese chair to carry the crest of an Irish family is quite remarkable.
The chairs are altogether a meeting of the cultures. The vase-shaped and unusually wide back splats (the middle bit of the chair's back) identified the chairs as non-European but it was the dragon that gave away their Chinese origins. The beast carved on the crest rail (the top horizontal rail) is a symbol of good luck that Sheppard describes as a "potent and auspicious snake-like four-legged-dragon".
The dragon is flanked on either side by shou characters - they look a bit like circular labyrinths - for longevity. The styles, or side bars, are carved with bats (they look like Space Invaders). These are the unlikely symbols of joy and happiness. In a group of five, bats signify the Five Blessings: long life, wealth, health, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. In the late 19th century, displays of heraldic arms were used by aristocratic families to distinguish themselves from the rising middle classes. Almost anything with a suitable surface was emblazoned with this stamp of snobbery, but the usual candidates were carriages, crockery, silver, and furniture.
These displays were enthusiastically taxed by the British administration. From 1936, having armorial bearings on your carriage carried a duty of two guineas a year and you were meant to pay a guinea for having a crest of any kind on any household object, whether it related to your own family or not. This nuttiness was repealed in 1944. Early armorial porcelain often came from China where it was made to commission.
British china manufacturers were slow to cash in on this market because, as Josiah Wedgewood complained, crested seconds had very little resale value. But Sheppard had never seen a piece of Chinese furniture carved with an armorial crest. When he heard the vendors say that the chairs came, by repute, from a castle in Cork, he began to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The Irishmen who enjoyed successful careers in the British colonial service have often been airbrushed out of history, simply because they didn't fit into the 20th-century nationalist narrative. But the Irish could do well in the colonies. Of the 28 governors of Hong Kong, nine had Irish connections, and Hennessy was the only Catholic among them. According to the historian, Hiram Morgan, "Hennessy saw himself and his generation as not only reversing the wrongs of the past, but also altering the trajectory of British imperial policy".
Writing in History Ireland, Morgan describes Hennessy's governance of a succession of colonies - Labuan, the Bahamas, West Africa, Barbados, and Mauritius as well Hong Kong - as causing "havoc in these places and headaches for the colonial office by promoting the locals".
During his tenure in Hong Kong, he lifted the ban that forbade Chinese people from buying lands, constructing buildings, and running businesses in the Central District, and allowed Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong to naturalise as British subjects. This made him popular among the Chinese but not amongst the British of Hong Kong.
It is probable that Sir John Pope Hennessy commissioned the chairs, had them made in Hong Kong, and brought them home to Cork. "We know that Hennessy was governor. We know that he ended his days in Cork. And the chairs are consistent with the period," Sheppard says. "They belong to an aspect of our history that was neglected for a very long time... They would look really well in the Crawford [Art Gallery]. They're part of the history of Cork."
The sale takes place at Sheppard's in Durrow, Co Laois, from Tuesday to Thursday March 3-5 (sheppards.ie).