Cork Silver Part 1

Premises of William Egan and Sons, 32 Patrick St, Cork
Premises of William Egan and Sons, 32 Patrick St, Cork

Last month I spoke briefly about Cork Republican silver and promised to come back to the subject. Seeing the queen being presented with a brooch of Cork silver last week reminded me, so I pulled out John Bowen’s book on Cork silver to make sure I had my facts straight.

Since this is such a huge area I’ve split it into two posts, before I go into the period of Republican Silver in the 1920’s I’ll give a brief background into silver in Cork. Like many provincial cities in Ireland, Cork has a great history of silver.

In 1637 under the Royal Charter of Charles I the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin was established. Under this body hallmarking became compulsory and all precious metal items produced  in Ireland were to be sent to the Assay Office  in Dublin for hallmarking. If you want to know more about hallmarking you can read my article here.

The Dublin silversmiths complied with the assay office and sent their goods to be hallmarked but most provincial silversmiths ignored the laws. The practical issues when transporting the goods such as robberies and delays rendered the law impossible for most silversmiths around the country. It’s a pity so much silver produced around the country can’t ever be properly traced or dated. Although my sympathy goes out to the rebellious silversmiths. The last thing you want after putting all those hours of making in, is to have the piece lost or delayed. Thankfully swiftpost has overcome the problem of the highway men!

To avoid being fined by the Company of Goldsmiths Dublin the Cork silversmiths did their best to comply to the hallmarking laws. They would try to send some of their wrought silver to Dublin for Assay. In turn the CGD recognised that the Cork silversmiths were policing their own trade and there is no records of a Cork goldsmith being fined in the 18th century for working with below standard silver.

During this time the city of Cork petitioned heavily to have an Assay office established in the city. They watched English provincial towns succeed in establishing their own assay offices and hoped to achieve the same independence. Unfortunately they were unsuccessful in their campaign and so high numbers of provincial silver continued to be sold without an official hallmark.

UCC Mace , part of the UCC Silver Collection
UCC Mace by William Egan and Sons Cork

Cork continued to produce silver but by the 1800’s the trade had largely died out in the city. In 1910 the President of the University College Cork, Sir Bertram Windle, commissioned William Egan and Sons to make a ceremonial silver mace for the college. They had been made a constituent college of the National University of Ireland under the Universities Act of 1908 and Windle wanted the mace to reflect this new status.  The only stipulation was that the piece would be made entirely in Cork. Since the decline in skills William Egan had to bring silversmtihs down from Dublin to make the mace. As part of this arrangement he hired a number of local boys  from the North Monastery school as apprentices to the silversmiths thus passing these skills onto locals. A condition of their employment was that they would have to attend drawing classes at the School of Art and from this the craft of silversmithing was revived in Cork. Egans continued to produce hand wrought silver items until it closed it’s doors in 1986. The range and quality of the work which was produced by Egans in the twentieth century was remarkable and continues to be much sought after by collectors.

The locals continued to be employed at Egans and through a turbulent period in Irish history they would be responsible for what is now referred to as Republican silver.

Part two coming soon…



Images from J. Bowen Book, Cork Silver and Gold: Four Centuries of Craftsmanship

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