Sunday 25 February 2018

Treasures: Inspired carpets of Dun Emer

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

This Dun Emer carpet sold for €10,000 at Adam’s in September
This Dun Emer carpet sold for €10,000 at Adam’s in September
Founder Evelyn Gleeson

Eleanor Flegg

'I like Miss Gleeson," quipped Roger Casement loudly, in the middle of a tea party. This greatly annoyed Elizabeth Yeats, which was probably why he made the remark in the first place. Lily and Elizabeth (known as Lollie) Yeats were the sisters of the famous poet William Butler Yeats. By 1904 they were at loggerheads with Evelyn Gleeson, their former partner in the Dun Emer Guild.

The Dun Emer Guild was an arts and crafts enterprise, founded in 1902 by Evelyn Gleeson. It was based in a rented Georgian house in Dundrum at the foot of the Dublin Mountains. The house was originally called Runnymede but renamed Dun Emer after Emer, wife of Cuchulainn, who was skilled in weaving and embroidery. Interestingly, as things turned out, she was famous for her jealously too.

The Dun Emer Guild was an idealistic project. It was part of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, but also linked to the Irish Literary Revival. Its purpose was to produce handmade objects and, through these, to express a new sense of Irish identity. As the 1903 prospectus of the Dun Emer Guild describes, Gleeson aimed to use "Irish hands and Irish materials in the making of beautiful things".

The guild also had philanthropic ambitions: to train and employ "village girls" to use "materials honest and true" with "deftness of hand, brightness of colour and cleverness of design". Evelyn Gleeson specialised in carpet design, weaving and tapestry, but wanted the guild to include other crafts.

For this reason, she went into partnership with Lily Yeats, who took charge of the embroidery aspect of the co-operative, and Elizabeth Yeats, who was responsible for printing on a hand-press. These lovely things would be made in "the spirit and tradition of the country" - books from Irish paper, tapestries from Irish wool, and Irish designs embroidered on Irish linen.

Soon, the "little artistic beehive" at Dun Emer was producing carpets, rugs and tapestries, embroidered cushions, church vestments and ecclesiastical banners, including a prestigious commission for 24 banners for the new Loughrea Cathedral.

Gleeson designed the rugs. The earliest of these mimicked the style of Turkish carpets, but she soon began adapting the designs from the 'carpet pages' of Celtic manuscripts, while also showing a sensitivity to the colours in the Irish landscape.

The Dun Emer Press, run in an upstairs room by Elizabeth Yeats, was under the stormy editorial direction of her brother WB Yeats and their first book was a collection of his poems In The Seven Woods (1903). It was a beautiful piece of printing, but it made a loss. Despite some remarkable achievements, within two years, the co-operative had run aground. The fundamental problem was lack of money. This, as the historian Patrick Kelly describes, was "exacerbated by the difficulty of three strong-willed women trying to conduct an artistic enterprise on a shoestring".

The fight was mighty. Yeats' father, John B Yeats, weighed in, describing his daughters' opponent as "that old devil, Evelyn Gleeson". He congratulated himself, with some justification, that his family were "good haters".

The warring parties went their separate ways. The Yeats sisters formed the Cuala Press, while Gleeson retained the Dun Emer brand.

Gradually, she rebuilt Dun Emer as a major producer of handicrafts which continued until and after her death in 1944.

Highlights of this period included the commission to make the carpets for Dáil Eireann and one that was presented to Pope Pius XI following the first Dublin Eucharistic Conference of 1932. The Pope used the carpet in his own private study.

When a large (434cm x 350cm) Dun Emer carpet went under the hammer at Adam's on September 6, 2016, the auctioneers' expectations were a modest €2,000 to €4,000. The carpet was puce in colour, with a central medallion of Celtic knot work, its borders decorated with Celtic-style birds on a navy background.

It came from the Alton collection and, according to family legend, had once graced the floor of Áras an Uachtaráin. The design was graceful, the colours coherent and the craftsmanship of the highest order, but the carpet was made in a decorative style that is now far from fashionable.

"It was anything but calm and muted," says James O'Halloran of Adam's. "There aren't too many interiors where you'd put a carpet in purple and navy and green." His feeling is that, although Irish people appreciate the work and legacy of the Dun Emer Guild, they don't want to live with the actual carpets. In the event, two warring bidders from outside the country upped the ante and the carpet sold for €10,000.

"That doesn't mean it will happen again," warns O'Halloran, who has recently been contacted by the owner of a similar Dun Emer carpet.

George Mealy of Mealy's in Castlecomber has sold a number of Dun Emer carpets over the years, including some smaller rugs. These, while also showing the characteristic Celtic designs, are more domestic in aesthetic as well as scale and tend to sell for between €400 and €1,000. "Any time you have a Dun Emer carpet, it creates a lot of interest," he says. "They've come in pretty often over the years."

None yet have reached the heights of the large (486cm x 339cm) Art Nouveau style Dun Emer carpet that sold at Mealy's for €21,000 in 2008. The price reflects an appreciation of Irish design and craftsmanship, but it was also a sign of the times.

With thanks to Patrick Kelly for sharing unpublished research presented at the Gleeson Gathering in August 2016. See and

In the salerooms


"My view is that one should always have part of one's wealth in gold," says John Weldon. "The values are high, it's easy to transport and it can be cashed in anywhere in the world."

Gold won't pay interest (but then neither will the bank). There are a number of gold coins at Weldon's next auction, including a gold five pound (est €1,400 to €1,800); nine proof gold sovereigns in boxes/cases (est €250 to €350 each) and three Swiss gold 10 Franc coins (est €100 to €200 each).

Weldon is often asked how to store gold. "A well-hidden safe is the most obvious choice, but one of my clients buries it under his roses in the garden."

The Fine Jewellery and Silver Auction takes place at John Weldon Auctioneers on Tuesday at 2pm. For full details, see


Everyone loves a 'barn find'. There's great joy in dreaming that the clapped-out vehicle at the back of the shed is worth good money. Most of the time it isn't, but there are exceptions.

One of these is a 1914 Talbot Invincible, which is up for auction as part of Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' Chatsworth Fine Art Sale on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 15-16. Only 350 cars of this model were made and this is one of a handful of known survivors. It is estimated to sell between €17,000 and €22,000.

The car was issued by County Borough Council of Southampton to Brig Gen D Brady and first registered in Ireland on January 1, 1927. The lot includes the original Irish Tax Book and the "Instruction Handbook". For full details, see


The Waterford Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair takes place at Lawlor's Hotel, Dungarvan, on Sunday. It will be followed, on Saturday and Sunday, November 12 and 13, by the much larger National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair. This takes place in the South Court Hotel, Limerick, and will include interesting and unusual items from around the country. Both events are organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs with further details on

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