Bog Oak Carving

By Oonagh Murray

Ireland, in the 19th century, had a thriving bog wood industry in Dublin, with representation also in other main cities and in the tourist towns such as Killarney. The wood was thought to be hallowed by its very nature, being the trunks and stumps of ancient trees that had lain in the bogs for thousands of years, including oak, fir and yew. Bog wood was highly desirable with pieces ranging from emblematic jewellery, book ends and candlesticks to intricately carved suites of furniture.

Following the wholesale destruction of the native forests in the 16th and 17th centuries with the employment of timber for building projects, ironworks and ship building yards, the inhabitants of Ireland were forced to turn to the bogs for turf and consequently timber.

For much of the rural population in Ireland, timber came from the cheapest imported softwood. However, for the most impoverished, there was a range of alternatives to buying new timber, and depending on the location it included such materials as bog oak, bog yew and bog fir. Bog wood, especially oak and fir, were utilised throughout the country in a variety of ways including house building, furniture making, small furnishings, ropes and even domestic lighting. However from the 1820′s onwards, bog wood took on a more decorative role.

In the 19th century Neo- Celtic style reflected the growing fascination with Ireland’s ancient, cultural and artistic past. This was a decorative style based on Celtic motifs and designs which were inspired by various archeological discoveries. It was characterised by the use of symbols such as the shamrock, Irish harp, round tower and wolfhound, with interlacing patterns incorporating Gaelic script from the Book of Kells. This was the only style based exclusively on a native Irish source. During this period carved bog wood, incorporating many of these designs, was used for a wide range of decorative pieces.

Bog yew was thought to resemble rosewood, but be superior to it in colour, texture and firmness. It was also very durable. Bog oak became black when exposed to the air and was valued for its great strength, hardness and for the high polish it was capable of receiving. Intricately carved furniture was produced from both bog yew and bog oak. Bog oak was predominantly employed in the manufacture of small articles such as personal or dress ornaments, house hold ornaments, and functional articles.

There is evidence from the 1820s onwards that the fashion for carved bog wood grew rapidly and by the middle of the century, what was once a cottage pastime had become a highly organised and lucrative industry.

By the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin, bog wood carving was a firmly and fashionably established feature of the Arts and Crafts scene in Ireland. Of the Irish bog wood manufacturers listed in the Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1853, certain basic information can be gleaned to identify the individual craftsmen and their work.

Killarney, by the middle of the century, had what was reputed to be a flourishing tourist trade especially after the railway reached it in 1854. The raw bog timber was plentiful in this area and accounts for the predominance of artefacts, depicting both Muckross House and Abbey.

Irish cabinetmakers utilised their native bog wood to great effect, however, it was in the field of jewellery and small ornaments that its greatest popularity was achieved. Personal account books show that by the late 1850s girls aspired to owning more than one piece of bog oak jewellery.

The popularity of jewellery in the 1860s was undoubtedly due to the widespread use of mourning jewellery after the death of Prince Consort in December 1861, when, following the example of the Queen, thousands plunged into mourning. In some circles, mourning jewellery was very fashionable. In England, jet was mostly used; in Ireland the more durable bog oak quickly became fashionable and it soon spread to Britain.

Bog oak remained the consistently favoured style of Irish jewellery throughout the rest of the century, although manufacturers were regularly criticised for indifferent standards. Bog oak bracelets, brooches, necklaces, earrings, tiaras, pins, studs, links, solitaires and chatelaines were made in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Killarney. It was the predominant type of jewellery sold at the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876 and the Paris Exhibition of 1887, and remained popular at the Cork Exhibition of 1883.

Bog wood design in both furniture and jewellery can be divided into three main categories including Irish emblems (such as the harp and the shamrock), emulations of Irish antiquities and designs depicting the flora and fauna. There were also symbols iof the Union between Ireland and Britain depicted on many pieces which incorporated many of the designs, mentioned previously.

The most popular national emblem, the shamrock, is depicted in the majority of bog wood furniture and jewellery. The shamrock had become a universally recognised symbol of Ireland. In the 1850s the designs in bog wood ware increased with the addition of the Brian Boru harp. The harp was made sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries and was restored in the1850s and put on daily display in Trinity College. The Irish wolfhound, another national emblem, was said to be the product of the Celtic Revival. There are frequent references wolfhounds in the ancient stories of Fionn and Oisin. There was certainly great interest in the Irish wolfhound in the mid 19th century and it often appeared as an emblem, with accompanying a figure of Hibernia or Erin or in a group with a round tower and shamrock.

The discovery of the ‘Tara’ Brooch in 1850 gave added impetus to the fashion. It was found on Mornington beach, just outside Drogheda, who in turn sold it to Waterhouse jewellers in Dublin. The brooch became known as the ‘Royal Tara Brooch’ after Waterhouse had the honour of showing it to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1850. The Queen brought two copies and imitations became very popular, many in bog oak. Another popular symbol of antiquity was the round tower, chosen because it was specific to Ireland. Various abbeys and castles and high crosses were also depicted on furniture, bracelets, brooches and necklaces.

Flora and fauna were depicted on both jewellery and furniture. Many of these included fern, oak and sycamore leaves, flowers, ivy and general foliage. Ferns were a Victorian craze, not particularly Irish, except that they were plentiful around Killarney, where a local bog oak carving industry existed.

There was a tendency, up to the middle of the 19th century, to combine recognisably Irish emblems with symbols of the British Empire. These symbols included the lion and the wolfhound, the rose, thistle and the shamrock. From roughly 1860s on, however a reversal occurred, with a noticeable absence of the emblems of the Union.

Another theme, although at the lower end of the iconographical scale were Irish comic scenes. These included such subjects as ‘donnybrook fair’ (notorious for fights), ‘the tail of my coat’, and ‘Paddy and his pig’.

Within the bog wood industry the quality of workmanship varied from the simple brooch manufactured for the souvenier trade to the more elaborately carved piece of jewellery mounted with gold, silver and pearls. The workmanship of the furniture was generally to a high standard, however there was criticism of it being too ornate.

The bog oak industry in Ireland thrived for most of the 19th century. During this period there were many manufacturers of bog wood artefacts. The rarity of the pieces of carved bog wood with trade labels or signatures makes it difficult to attribute any particular piece. However, certain information can be found in the Dublin Directories and the catalogues of the Great Exhibitions regarding the bog wood carvers and their artefacts.

Patrick McGuirk is generally credited as being the first professional practitioner of the craft of bog oak carving. In 1821 he presented a carved oak walking stick to King George IV during the monarch’s visit to Dublin. However, it was reported that McGuirk presented examples of his carvings in coconut shell to the Duchess of Richmond, who was so impressed that she suggested that he use his skill on his native bog oak. It must be concluded that this must have been some years earlier while the Duke of Richmond, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, (1807-1813).

Patrick McGuirk first appears in 1833 Dublin Directory at 1 George’s Hill and continued at that address until replaced there by Mrs. Mary McGuirk in 1847 and 1848. However he reappears as Patrick McGuirk, goldsmith and jeweller, until 1854, after which date there is no further mention in the directories of a McGuirk connected with bog oak work or the jewellery trade.

John Neate (1796-1838) from Killarney, is mentioned in The Art Journal, 1865, as having ‘so far back as 1820 manufactured articles from bog wood and was certainly among the first to profess it, if he did not actually originate the trade’. His eldest daughter Anne married Cornelius Goggin who may have been trained by John Neate, and who, in turn, became a very successful manufacturer of bog oak artefacts.

Cornelius Goggin moved to Dublin where, from 1849, he appears in the directories as a bog carver, initially at the same business address, 10 Nassau Street, as Denis Connell another bog wood carver, also from Killarney. Goggin traded at that address until 1851. In the 1853 Dublin Exhibition, he showed a candelabrum in bog oak and Irish diamonds and Irish silver, also a pie case in bog oak, Irish diamonds and Irish silver designed by the Earl of Eglinton for H.M the Queen. He also exhibited bracelets, brooches, necklaces, bookstands, chess boards and other articles and in bog oak. By 1852 Cornelius Goggin had moved to 13 Nassau Street, where he ran a bog oak and Killarney wood warehouse until his death on 1st July 1865. He had also become purveyor ‘to her Majesty’. At the 1864 Great Exhibition of Dublin, Cornelius was able to display his royal warrant, along with a bog oak inkstand copied from the antique’, other ornamental items such as models of high crosses and round towers and personal jewellery, and the candelabra designed by the Duke of Devonshire. He also exhibited a piece entitled ‘Paddy driving his pigs to Donnybrook Fair’.

A bog oak inkstand, in the shape of an owl, by Cornelius Goggin, is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

Jeremiah Goggin (1814-1898), elder brother of Cornelius, first appears in the Dublin Directories of 1855 as a bog oak manufacturer at 74 Grafton Street and where, by 1864, he was able to add ‘to Her Majesty’. In the same year at the Royal Dublin Society’s exhibition he displayed ‘a set of bog oak ornaments selected by the late Prince Consort… A set of antique ornaments made for the Princess Alice mounted in Wicklow gold and pearls’, as well as numerous other ornamental items in bog oak including ‘a time-piece representing the Minstrel boy with harp, resting on a base supported by an Irish wolfhound and richly carved with shamrocks and roses’.

Jeremiah continued in the bog oak business until his death on January 29th 1898. After his death the bog oak business was carried on at the same address by his widow until her own death in September 1918.

Ellen Mary Goggin the youngest daughter of Cornelius became a bog oak carver. She participated in the ‘Irish Industrial Village’ presided over by the former Vicerine, Lady Aberdeen , at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Miss Goggin presided over the award winning, Darra-bochta store where the actual process of bog oak carving was shown as well as finished work. She carried on business for many years at 18 and 20A Nassau Street where in addition to her bog oak ornaments she also sold fine art jewellery, fancy drapery, hosiery and outfitting from about 1900, perhaps indicating a decline by that date for the demand for bog oak. Nevertheless in 1918 she was still trading in bog oak at 14 Nassau Street.

Arthur J Jones and Sons of St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin operated from 1820 to 1860. He exhibited a suite of furniture in Irish bog yew in London in 1851 and in Dublin in 1853, and a selection at the Royal Dublin Society;s show in 1861. He published an illustrated pamphlet, ‘Description of a Suite of Sculptured Decorative Furniture’, to publicise his ware in 1853. The bog yew, he said, ‘resembled the subject illustrated, Irish history and antiquities’.

The suite consisted of a cabriolet sofa (with shamrock pillows), an occasional table, a circular table, a teapoy, an omnium or what-not, a whist table, a stand for a timepiece, a pair of pole fire-screens, an armchair, a semi-circular side table, a sarchopagus or wine cooler and a ‘music temple’.

The armchair had arms in the shape of wolfhounds, one at ease, recumbent, with the motto ‘fierce when provoked’. Two of these armchairs can be found in the reception of Ballygally Castle Hotel, Co. Antrim.

Most spectacular of all was the Music Temple. On its summit sat Ollamh Fodhla, seated with lia fail, or Stone of Destiny, on a platform representing all Ireland mapped out under him, the coastline ‘exhibiting prominent scenery of the four provinces’. The four panels on the side of the piece showed (on the long sides) the opening of the Triennial Convention at Tara and the harpers in Tara’s Hall performing before the monarch and his queen, and (on the ends) portraits of Onaoi, ‘the first musician who accompanied the sons of Milesius to Ireland’, and Carolan, ‘who may be regarded as the last of the Irish bards’. The lower stretcher had the initials V and A ‘embosomed’ in the heart of a bunch of shamrocks, the date 1851, and ‘Erin’ inscribed in ornamental capitals from the Book of Kells.

The firm of James Curran and Sons, carver, was in business in Lisburn, Co. Antrim in the mid 19th century at premises in Castle Street and later in Piper’s Hill. The firm exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a catalogue entry describing ‘A sculptured and perforated armchair from the antique with fruit and foliage from nature but with grotesque figures of Irish Bog Oak found in Moytagh’s Moss, Ballinderry, Antrim. Made by three poor working men expressly for the Exhibition, it occupied the workmen for eight months of unlimited hours. The covering of the seat and back are of crimson silk manufactured by E. Jones 3, St. Andrew’s Street, Dublin; also… a piece of wood in its seasoned but unfinished state with original pencil designs by the carvers who are self-taught.’

A similar chair, by Curran and Sons, was commissioned by the Countess of Eglinton, wife of the Earl of Eglinton, Ireland’s Viceroy 1851-1852, who played a major part in the organisation of Ireland’s Industrial Exhibition held in Dublin in 1853. The chair was displayed in the Exhibition held in Dublin 1853. The chair was displayed in the Exhibition and was described in the official catalogue as ‘made from Irish Bog Oak, richly sculptured and perforated, the design from the antique’. The chair is now on display in Lisburn Linen Centre and Museum. The chair is ornamented with shamrocks, roses, thistles, vine leafs and berries, all symbols of the Union. The inscription on the back of the chair reads ‘Designed and made for her Excellency the Countess of Eglinton, from Irish bog oak, by Curran and Sons Ireland AD 1852.’ A similar chair, by James Curran and Sons, is on display in Holyrood House in Edinburgh.

The Ulster Museum has a carved bog oak chair by Dawson Bell of Belfast. It has a richly carved back, which shows a harp surmounted by a shield with the Red Hand of Ulster, and flanked by shamrock and wolfhound. Above the central group is a cap like object, an illustration which appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal of 25 August 1832, where it was described as an ancient Irish crown, made of gold, discovered in Co. Tipperary in 1692. The chair back also incorporates oak leaves and acorns, which in this context symbolize the Union. The plaque on the back of the chair reads ‘Dawson Bell, Cabinetmaker, Belfast’.

The bog wood industry in Ireland lasted for most of the 19th century. However, towards the end of the century fashion changed and with the beginning of the 20th century and the outbreak of the First World War, there was a decline in the craft of bog wood carving.

Bog wood carving in Ireland today is not on the same scale as that of the 19th century. However, it is still popular for artists and, who are, carrying on the culturally important tradition.

This article appears in the Irish Antique Dealer’s Yearbook 2006-2007