This year I decided to mark Saint Patrick’s Day with a post celebrating some peculiarly Irish furniture.
Ireland is a country that incites endless superlatives as the result of her lush scenery and vistas, culture, and – amongst many unique products – peerless antique glass, silver and mahogany furniture. In their eighteenth-century hey day, Irish cabinetmakers equalled and frequently excelled their London counterparts.
As in England, the great houses of Ireland were fashionably furnished, but Irish cabinetmakers also addressed a couple of areas of domestic inelegance in typically Irish style.
Plates were customarily brought from butler’s pantry to dining room in rope- or iron-handled coopered wooden pails and after each course, the dirty plates were collected and removed to the scullery in the same pails and set directly into large sinks for washing.
One Irish personage obviously thought the frequent appearance of these drab common domestic utensils during mealtimes was beyond the pale and commissioned more felicitous replacements made of brass-bound mahogany to both confirm his own importance, and impress invited diners.
Mahogany plate buckets mirrored the form and construction of their common cousins, employing coopered construction, though with brass handles rather than of rope (fig. 1). These refined buckets, however, were not dunked in sinks full of scalding water and lye.
Wealthy patronage soon drove bucket decoration to new heights, with reeding (horizontal and wrythen) being popular (figs. 2, 6 & 8).
Pierced buckets were also popular, with and without brass liners (fig. 3).
My property in Ireland was situated on a small hill that rose out of a bog and although I harvested alder and birch firewood from the borders of the ‘moss’, by far my favourite fuel was turf (or ‘peat’ as it’s known outside Ireland) from the bog. Turf burns with a low flame, yet produces good heat and the distinctive aroma of its smoke clinging to the landscape on damp days is one of the most endearing and lasting memories I have of home.
Turf is cut, stacked and dried on the moss before being brought out, traditionally in osier creels on the backs of donkeys (fig. 4), or on a slipe, pulled by a donkey or horse (fig. 5).
In cottages and ordinary houses, the turf was kept in a creel – or simply stacked on the floor – near the hearth, but in the great houses, mahogany buckets (some as large as 26″ tall and 20″ in diameter) found service by the fireside for containing turf (or – altogether more likely – ash or oak logs).
Turf buckets are in as great demand now as ever, with genuine eighteenth-century examples selling for up to six figures. As a result, reproduction mahogany buckets are pouring out of Asia and selling in-the-white and polished for quite ridiculous sums, often with fraudulent claims of age and provenance.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.