Life Home & Garden

Thursday 17 October 2019

Treasures: Carving out a niche business

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Killarney davenport desk
Killarney davenport desk
Butterfly brooch

Eleanor Flegg

THE enterprising folk of Killarney have been flogging souvenirs to tourists for some 250 years.

As early as 1825, the enterprising Jeremiah O'Connor set up a workshop making small saleable items. His chess boards, snuffboxes, card cases and jewellery were made from various local timbers - elm, ash, holly, yew, and bog oak - but especially the wood of the arbutus or strawberry tree.

Business was small at first but in 1853, the Great Southern and Western Railway finally reached Killarney, bringing a new influx of tourists with money to spend on souvenirs and several other makers began to produce similar work and larger pieces.

These pieces, ranging from trinket boxes to tables, became known as Killarney work. "It's very unusual to find a whole design movement that's completely indigenous to Ireland," says Jennifer Goff of the National Museum of Ireland.

"Killarney work used native timbers and was made and designed locally. It was imitated in England, but there's no evidence that it existed elsewhere first."

Goff suggests that skills in marquetry may have come to Ireland via Dutch Huguenot settlers. "Marquetry techniques in multiple woods begin to appear in furniture made in Ireland around the time of the Huguenots. The knowledge was imported into Ireland and applied to Irish woods.

"In Killarney, the design movement developed from small pieces for the tourist market into serious refined furniture made from indigenous timber and showing local flora and fauna. The workmanship is amazing."

In Mealy's Spring Sale this March, a 19th century Killarney yew wood and marquetry inlaid chest and foldout backgammon board sold for €650. In the same sale, a Killarney yew wood and marquetry davenport desk sold for €5,480. The desk had a triple arched back inlaid with a thatched cottage wreathed in shamrock sprays, the slope top was inlaid with shamrocks, thistles and roses, and the two cupboard doors showed romantic vistas of ruined abbeys.

Some pieces raise very high prices indeed. In October 2015, a Killarney work davenport desk sold at Adam's for €13,000. It was a beautiful example of over-the-top Victorian style, exquisitely executed and uniquely Irish, but you couldn't accuse it of decorative restraint.

The raised panel back was inlaid with a central crowned harp flanked by an eagle and a deer, and the writing section with vignettes of the Swiss cottage. The whole thing was decorated with trailing shamrocks, thistles and roses, and the cupboard base with oval vignettes of Muckross House.

In the same sale, a workbox depicting Ross Castle surrounded by trailing shamrock sold for €450 and an arbutus and marquetry breakfast table with Muckross Abbey on the central medallion for €17,000.

Killarney manufacturers did not tend to stamp their work, which is easily recognisable by its distinctive style. James Egan, who worked on Killarney's Main Street from around 1844, is the best known of the makers and his work attracted the patronage of the great and good.

Lord Castlerosse commissioned him to make an inlaid arbutus cabinet, desk and bog oak casket for Queen Victoria. In the Dublin exhibition of 1853, Egan exhibited a "ladies' work table with work box, writing stand and book stand, formed from the pillar of the table, the whole elaborately inlaid with 157,000 pieces." It was purchased by the Earl of Eglington.

Although the making of Killarney work continued into the 12th century, by this time it had fallen out of fashion. Later pieces tend to be inlaid with bog oak rather than arbutus. The designs - which were always exuberant - dissolved into a neo-Celtic medley of harps, wolf hounds, round towers, nationalist heroes, slogans and monuments, as well as the ubiquitous shamrock.

See, and

In the salerooms


Butterfly brooch

The April sale at O'Reilly's will be held next Wednesday. The sale includes several cluster rings and brooches in which smaller gemstones are used to create an ensemble.

Floral cluster brooches include a diamond spray brooch mounted in white gold, estimated between €2,000 and €2,400; and a gold mounted gem set floral basket brooch (€800 to €1,200). The Victorians loved their bugs and 19th century cluster brooches are often made in the shape of butterflies. These include a gold-mounted antique butterfly brooch, set with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls (€500 to €700) and an antique butterfly brooch set with garnets (€250 to €300). See


The next auction at John Weldon Auctioneers, which takes place on Tuesday at 2pm, includes a collection of 12 rare gold guineas. These include a rare James II gold guinea dated 1685 (€2,000 to €4,000) and a Queen Ann gold guinea dated 1713 (€300 to €500). The auction also includes a diamond three stone ring, (€25,000 to €35,000), a sapphire and diamond three stone ring set in 18ct gold (€4,000 to €5,000), and several creature-themed pieces of jewellery.

A diamond horse brooch by Alabaster & Wilson is guided between €1,000 and €2,000 and a diamond and jade butterfly brooch (above) set in 18ct gold (€1,500 to €2,500) has beautiful carvings on the wings. At the affordable end of the spectrum, a quirky silver poodle carries an estimate of €100 to €200. See


The annual History Sale at Adam's takes place on Tuesday at 3pm, with a large majority of lots relating to The Easter Rising.

Potential highlights include the rarest version of the Proclamation, the 1917 issue, one of only two known copies, signed and inscribed by the printers of the 1916 Proclamation (Molloy and Brady).

It's estimated to sell between €30,000 and €50,000. The sale also includes Pearse's 1915 recruiting handbill for the Volunteers (€2,000 to €3,000) and an entertaining school magazine by the pupils of Saint Enda's (€2,000 to €3,000).

Among other memorabilia connected with the signatories is a family photograph taken in South Africa depicting a young Tom Clarke in his mother's arms (€400 to €600) and a first edition of James Connolly's Labour In Irish History (1910) signed and inscribed by the author (€2,500 to €3,500).

The sale also contains items related to the 1798 Rebelllion: a sword (1803) by Richard Teed, presented to Charles Vereker, the "Hero of Collooney" (€30,000 to €40,000) and a presentation cup and sword.

The cup (1802) by James Scott is inscribed: "The grateful corporation and citizens of Limerick to the heroes of Collooney". The lot is estimated to sell between €20,000 and €30,000. See


An Antique Collectors and Vintage Fair will take place on Sunday at the Ard Boyne Hotel, Navan, Co Meath from 11am to 6pm. Items on sale will include militaria, coins, jewellery, ceramics, paintings, prints, books, and several Art Deco items.

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