Do you know of any heirloom silver pieces that Grandma has hidden in her attic? Well now is the time to get it valued, because the demand for antique Irish silver is going through the roof.
Antique silver items have always grabbed the attention of collectors. But here’s the good news for Irish people: The price of Irish silver antiques is creeping up. This is because collectors have worked out that Irish silver is 100 times rarer than English silver made at the same time. Most Irish antique silver items were made in Dublin, and their prices are rising. But even more interesting is that provincial Irish silver is even rarer. Centres such as Cork and Limerick produced some silver items in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and these are becoming veryvaluable. And if you find something made in Kinsale, you are on your way.
The diaspora abroad (mainly in the U.S.A) with Irish heritage have worked out to their advantage that silver heirlooms can mean payday has come. Such items that came to America and Canada on ships crossing the Atlantic now can have extraordinary value. But if you have antique silver here in Ireland, there’s good news for you too: The diaspora have been scouring Irish websites and getting the Irish silver shipped to them to add to their already impressive collections. So you can sell items easily to hungry collectors. Is it time to check the homes of your elderly relatives, or in your very own attic?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Silver items have always been a “thing” in Ireland. Of course, possessing such items was mainly a pursuit of the wealthy. And yet, middle-class Irish families still had stashes of heirloom silver that they hung onto and passed down through the generations. It is these hauls that could prove to be a bonanza.
So you are now asking yourself, what do I look for? A good start is any tableware. This isn’t tableware that we would use today, necessarily. But if you come across anything that resembles a silver cup, with a lid, then you could be onto a winner. Tankards were used on special occasions, and they were incredibly fashionable in Tudor times. Silver tankards were produced in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the Irish versions were copied somewhat from those found in Europe. Irish tankards can be very rare. The term only appears very occasionally in documents of the mid-16th century; hence their value as rare items increases. They don’t appear in wills that often, but they have been named in inventories of the household goods of grand houses and castles. For example, in 1590, paperwork from the castle on Castleisland records ‘two tankers gilt,’ valued at a substantial £10. An inventory of a sixteenth-century Dublin merchant, Robert Fitzsimons, lists ‘1 silver tankard, double gilt’ and ‘1 small tankard.’ One has to wonder where these are today.
Tankards are not something we use today, probably because of the inconvenience of the lid. So why the lid? There are many theories. Some say it was designed to keep poisons out that could be administered via a treacherous “friend.” This method of enemy disposal became less “fashionable” as time wore on, so eventually covers fell out of fashion. Another theory is that the lid kept flies and fleas out of the vessel, important as plagues came and went. Another theory is that it stopped the drink from spilling when things got raucous or when child servants carried the vessels. According to upper class etiquette of the day, silver items like cups and plates were arranged on a sideboard, and the vessels were brought to the guests when needed. Drinks didn’t remain on the table, they were removed back to the sideboard until wanted again. Having a lid would have halted many potential spills in laps of very fancy dress-wearers. (In great houses, a variety of cups were displayed on the cup horde; the more numerous and more magnificent the cups, the higher the social status of the family. A cup horde was a board or plank on which drinking cups were placed. These became open shelves constructed in steps and then of course, it became the “cupboard.”)
If there was a silver tankard in the Irish family silver, it did usually survive the cull when the owner died. So check out that family silver stash, you may get lucky.
CUPS AND GOBLETS
Silver was a favourite for a long time for cups and goblets because people believed that precious metals were more healthy to use than other metals or wood. In 1602, a Dr Vaughan, writing in his book Fifteen Directions for Health advised his followers that, “The cups whereof you drink should be of silver or silver and gilt.” (Gilt is when the centre is silver but the outside has been finished with a layer of gold.)
When it comes to going through your family heirlooms, something to note is that there may be a variety of drinking vessels that have value. An inventory of the goods of Christopher Galway, of Cork, compiled in 1582, for example, listed a ‘goblet for aquavita’ while Robert Fitzsimons, a Dublin merchant, had an ‘aquavitae cup’ amongst his possessions. Fancy!
Drinking vessels seemed to hold great importance to the Irish upper classes in the mid-16th century. In a famous woodcut image of the Gaelic Irish MacSweynes seated at dinner (see the woodcut picture in the poetry feature) the drinking vessel shown is a large tankard with a lid, which we can only suppose is silver.
Another fashionable item in the late sixteenth-century was for two-handled cups with covers. These were known as ‘porringers’ or ‘potingers.’ They were used for holding interesting-sounding liquids such as ‘spiced alcohol’ but also for the alarmingly-sounding ‘gruel concoctions.’ Mostly, this would be known today as porridge or soup. Amongst the Castleisland inventory are ‘six newe potingers’ valued at 6s and ‘six elder potingers’ valued at 4s.
TABLEWARE AND FLATWARE
If you are really, REALLY lucky, you may have a marrow scoop amongst your heirlooms. This is something really rare, if you find one of these you are in big money territory. Pictured is a Kinsale marrow scoop. It is an extremely rare piece of early tableware, made in Kinsale circa 1750 by J&W Wall. Which means that only a very serious collector could buy this.
So what was a marrow scoop used for in the 1700s and 1800s? To get the delicious marrow out of meat bones without abandoning table manners. In the 1600s, upper class diners invented new rules of etiquette. Forks appeared so that people would stop using their hands on cooked food so much. But forks didn’t do the job of getting the marrow out of bones. Francis Hawkins (1628–1681) was an English Jesuit, known as a child prodigy and translator. He translated many etiquette books from French into English so that English speakers could read them. All of the books he translated were overly concerned with social behaviour. Published in 1641, Youth’s Behaviour, or, Decency in Conversation amongst Men said, “Suck no bones. Take them not with two hands. Gnaw them not. Knock no bones upon thy bread, or trencher, to get out the marrow of them, but get out the marrow with a knife. To speake better, it is not fit to handle bones, and much lesse to mouth them.”
Marrow was quite the delicacy back then, a trend that has disappeared today. If you find a marrow scoop, get yourself to the nearest antiques dealer and fast. Especially if it was made in Kinsale.