A Brief History of High Irish Furniture

5 minutes minute read

Often referred to as an Irish “wake” table, this extra-long oval table would have once been used year-round as a dining table. Yet, it also would have served as the focal furnishing of a wake when a death occurred. Skillfully constructed with folding side panels, it could be used to display the coffin of the deceased before burial. Irish Celtic tradition mandated that the body of the recently departed be watched constantly to prevent its removal by evil spirits. This beautiful table would have been specially commissioned by an affluent Irish family as an important part of the final rites - as well as the final celebration of the lives of their loved ones. Often referred to as an Irish “wake” table, this extra-long oval table would have once been used year-round as a dining table. Yet, it also would have served as the focal furnishing of a wake when a death occurred. Skillfully constructed with folding side panels, it could be used to display the coffin of the deceased before burial. Irish Celtic tradition mandated that the body of the recently departed be watched constantly to prevent its removal by evil spirits. This beautiful table would have been specially commissioned by an affluent Irish family as an important part of the final rites - as well as the final celebration of the lives of their loved ones.

Stunning. Eclectic. Uniquely Elegant. Irish furniture is a direct expression of its lush land, spirited people and intriguing history. Often referred to as “the long peace,” the 18th and 19th centuries were certainly a golden age of Irish furniture design. Although inspired greatly by English counterparts, furniture from the Emerald Isle crafted during this period is entirely distinct and widely considered among the finest ever created.

Whether shopping for carefully crafted chairs or historic dining tables, our beautiful collection of quality furniture and antiques allows you to transform any ordinary space into an exquisite masterpiece. At M.S. Rau Antiques, we offer only the finest selection of items from around the world. To help you better understand our collection, we’ve compiled this detailed guide on the history of high Irish furniture.

Peace and Prosperity

The restoration of King Charles II to the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1660 signaled the beginnings of a relatively peaceful period in Irish history. However, great economic differences existed throughout the country, and through cities like Dublin in the east experienced a vibrancy of development and trade, particularly with England, the western region was quite the opposite, suffering from an economic stagnation that would eventually lead to the disastrous outcomes in the mid-19th century. With a virtually non-existent middle class, almost all Irish furniture of any quality was furniture of exceptional quality, crafted for the small aristocratic, and largely Protestant population.

By the opening of the 18th century, the influx of Protestant immigrants led to the establishment of trade guilds and a marked increase in craftsmen and skilled workers, all of which brought with them the techniques and stylistic tastes of their native land. The designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton proved to be a tremendous influence. Characteristic Irish elements such as deeply hued mahogany, low relief carving, shells, claw and paw feet begin to emerge, married effortlessly into stereotypical Georgian motifs of English cabinetmakers.

this exceptional George II-period side table beautifully illustrates the very best of Irish craftsmanship. this exceptional George II-period side table beautifully illustrates the very best of Irish craftsmanship.

This graceful George II Irish Side Table is a superb specimen illustrating this point. Beautifully balanced in classic Georgian fashion, the rich carving of the cabriole legs and “ball and claw” feet add a depth of design that is distinctly Irish.

Similar elaborations and decorative elements are observed in this sophisticated 18th-Century Irish Games Table; with its distinctive low-relief carving at the knee, elegantly sweeping down to intricate hairy ball-and-claw feet.

18th-century Irish games table, crafted of Cuban mahogany. When not in use, this versatile piece of furniture serves as a console table. 18th-century Irish games table, crafted of Cuban mahogany. When not in use, this versatile piece of furniture serves as a console table.

Calm Before the Storm

Rebellion rocked the close of the 18th century, and the dawn of the 19th witness the forced union of Ireland to England, effectively giving birth to the United Kingdom of England and Ireland. Interestingly, business for renowned Dublin furniture makers such as George Murry and Mack Williams & Gibton boomed, as the predominantly Protestant upper class continued to prosper.

Irish Mahogany Games Table. A work of extraordinary beauty and rarity, this magnificent Irish mechanical dining table transforms into a stunning games table with just a few turns. Irish Mahogany Games Table. A work of extraordinary beauty and rarity, this magnificent Irish mechanical dining table transforms into a stunning games table with just a few turns.

A work of extraordinary beauty and rarity, this magnificent Irish mechanical dining table with drawers transforms into a stunning games table with just a few turns. Its elaborate structure was a true innovation in modern design during this era.

The prevailing tastes of the period centered around the Neoclassical, as displayed in the streamlined form of this Mechanical Dining and Games Table. A work of sheer aesthetic and mechanical beauty, the skill of the cabinetmaker takes center stage in this piece, demonstrating his tremendous craftsmanship and ingenuity via the gilt bronze crank, that when turned in, the hardwood reveals a hidden decanter service and game compartments that emerge from the frieze.

However, decorative elements and motifs that had risen in popularity during the previous century continued to flourish. The lion mask motif dominates this exceptionally rare and robust pair of Irish Rosewood Pedestals, each supported by a trio of winged lion figures masterfully sculpted in a stunning display of Irish grandeur.

Outstanding and highly skilled artistry distinguishes these rare Irish pedestals. The powerful carvings, supporting white marble tops, marks these stands as treasures of their era. Outstanding and highly skilled artistry distinguishes these rare Irish pedestals. The powerful carvings, supporting white marble tops, marks these stands as treasures of their era.

The decline of Ireland’s period of prosperity began with the devastation of the Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, of the 1840s and early 50s. Nearly two-fifths of Ireland’s population relied on the crop for subsistence. It is estimated that an unimaginable one million people died due to the potato blight, with at least that number or more immigrating to America to escape the disaster.

With 25% of Ireland’s population either decimated or driven away, the nation’s economy plummeted and calls for land reform, religious equality and Irish autonomy gained ground at a feverish pace. These abysmal circumstances added stress to an already volatile relationship between the Irish and the British Crown, eventually leading to the Irish War of Independence.

During this turbulent period, many of the grand homes of Ireland’s elite were ransacked, laying waste to countless works of furniture. Today, the few existing examples of Irish furniture are largely found in prestigious museum collections, including the National Museum of Ireland and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The scant number of Irish furniture creations that do find their way to the market are coveted by collectors of fine furniture world-wide.

The proof of this can be seen any time a quality Irish furnishing finds its way to auction. Similar side tables as detailed previously, for instance, have sold far above auction estimates – a trend that has been seen consistently for the past 15 years. The most notable instance occurred at a Christie’s London auction on June 18, 2008, where an Irish George II center table estimated to bring in between $150,000 to $250,000 achieved an astonishing final sold amount of $825,000!

This Irish George II center table sold in 2008 for over three-times it's original estimate range. This trend has lasted over 15 years and is a testament to the importance and rarity of quality Irish furniture. This Irish George II center table sold in 2008 for over three-times it's original estimate range. This trend has lasted over 15 years and is a testament to the importance and rarity of quality Irish furniture.

Furniture creations designed in the Emerald Isle exhibit an unmatched beauty and caliber that can be incorporated in even the most modern room designs. With a history wrought in war and famine, Ireland has proven that the true resilience and beauty of a country is directly tied to its people. The existing body of high Irish furniture is a testament to that fact, with each existing piece exhibiting a blend of strength and grace that is undeniably Irish.

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