CLOUDS of wood shavings and dust amid the noise of saws and chisels escaping from a cabinet maker’s workshop on Patrick Street in Cork back in 1852, provided little clue of the masterpiece that was taking shape inside.
Nobody who sneaked a look within this dusty gloom could foresee that the table, coming along nicely under the skilled craftsmanship of Cork furniture maker John Fletcher, would have a ballad written in its honour, or that it would grace a leading international design exhibition in New York.
The ultimate statement table, comprising 13 different woods with a shamrock shaped top, it is known as the ‘Cork table’. At its centre is an allegory of Ireland, symbolised by a woman, head bent in sadness, a silent harp beside her. Delivering an evocative history lesson, the table is raised up on a tri-part stem and platform base mounted by a harpist and two ancient warriors.
Its maker, John Fletcher, was already an international name and the table was a perfect showpiece, taking pride of place at an exhibition in Cork to promote the excellence of Irish manufacture, to try and change attitudes and snobbery concerning home-produced design.
After failing to sell, it was packed off to America, inspiring the Cork poet Daniel Casey to write the ballad The Lament on Fletcher’s Shamrock Table On its Departure for the New York Exhibition, that depicted the table as another reluctant emigrant.
Luckily, it was acclaimed and widely admired at the New York Exhibition, finding a home across the Atlantic. Now it has re-emerged on the Irish auction circuit, to go under the hammer with estimates of up to €120,000 at Sheppard’s Great Interiors (online) sale Durrow, Co Laois this week.
Gracing the front of the catalogue, and spanning 150 years of Cork furniture craftsmanship, is renowned furniture maker Joseph Walsh’s set of six of his Figure 6 chairs and his Prism round dining table.
The chairs in the Figure 6 series are the only examples he made in oak. The master designer/furniture maker built the extraordinarily sensual chairs on commission for a client. His Figure 6 chairs were among the first designs that brought international recognition for the Riverstick studio of the Cork master craftsman, whose work can be found in leading global museum collections.
Until late last year, when pandemic lockdowns finally brought the curtain down on over 50 years of specialising in period furniture, Mary O’Connor, a by-word in Munster’s antique circles and beyond, was buying and selling beautiful pieces of furniture craftsmanship.
A native of Douglas, her base for all those years was near Charleville, where she settled after marrying a dairy farmer. She started off when few women were involved in the antiques business and kept going when most of her peers retired.
Now a youthful 92, O’Connor admits she never had a ‘real find’ to equal off pieces like the ‘Cork Table’. But through the years, she had countless antique tables through her hands and says she always had difficulty resisting anything from the Regency period.
As a child, she went to auctions with her mother, and later Mary and her daughter, Limerick city-based Carol, had their own stand at regular antique fairs all over Munster.
“To be honest, I went into the business as a hobby because I loved meeting people and enjoyed the buzz of handling beautiful things,” she says.
“I love furniture, especially inlaid hall, card and tea tables. I think everything goes round and is cyclical and antiques will come pack into fashion again, especially because the craftsmanship they embody has largely disappeared. People talk so much about sustainability and re-cycling now. What a shame to see the bygones made with love disappear.”
Mary finally locked the doors on her Fortland Antiques shop at the end of last year, and reflects: “Time caught up with me, I had such a lovely time in all those years buying and selling antique furniture; it was like I was playing shop sometimes, buying back pieces from people I had sold them 40 years earlier because they were now downsizing.”
The entire shop and contents of her home, Fortland House, Charleville, Co Cork is being sold by Sheppards next month. As well as furniture, silver, objects d’art, jewellery, china, art and other items will go under the hammer.
Carol says her mother won’t let any nostalgia get in the way of enjoying all the action online.
“She is up to speed with everything online, it was no bother to her at all to get up to speed with technology and adapt to a new world of online auctions.”
“Yes, up to speed with everything except for the knees,” Mary jokes, before adding: “There comes a time when you have to end things and go into another phase; now I am relaxing, looking forward to meeting friends when we’re all vaccinated, maybe a holiday later.”
But she admits she will still take a keen interest in watching much of her own life in terms of worldly goods being auctioned by Sheppards (see www.sheppards.ie) on May 19 and 20.
“Oh, I’ll keep a good eye on that alright,” she says, “and I won’t buy anything back this time”.