A pure drop of Irish history in this pub memorabilia sale

Contents of old Donegal pub, Sweeneys of Ballyshannon, among top lots at Victor Mee

Year on year, as vintage whiskeys continue to break auction records around the world, the “pure drop” of the past gets pricier – and more elusive. At Bonham’s sale of Fine and Rare Wine and Whisky in Hong Kong in May, a bottle of 60-year-old Scotch which sold for more than €900,000 was described as “the Holy Grail of Macallan’s”.

On the face of it, the quiet roads around the village of Cloverhill in Co Cavan are a long way from this kind of international razzmatazz. But there’s a distinct buzz at Victor Mee’s auction rooms this week, and it’s not the bees in the hedgerows. The catalogue for Tuesday’s sale of Irish pub memorabilia contains items to whet the appetite of the most astute global collector.

The star of the show is expected to be an advertising mirror featuring Mitchell’s Cruiskeen Lawn Old Irish Whiskey. Lot 465 in the sale, it has a a hand-painted central panel showing a number of gentlemen who are imbibing the product with obvious relish, and carries a pre-sale estimate of €4,000 to €6,000 – making it something of a Holy Grail of pub mirrors.

Why is it so special? “Well,” says Victor Mee’s son Bryan Mee, “Mitchell’s had loads of different brands, but Cruiskeen Lawn hardly did any advertising. They had stoneware jars – you see a lot of those – and a showcard, which turns up occasionally. But the mirrors are extremely rare. And this one is in great condition.”


Tangible link

The mirror is complemented by a bottle of Cruiskeen Lawn whiskey from the same period (Lot 486, €4,000-€6,000). “We believe it dates from between 1890 to 1910, and there are very, very few examples of that particular bottle of whiskey still out there,” says Bryan. The bottle comes complete with the paper it was originally wrapped in, which not only creates an incredibly tangible link with the past but also – from a collector’s point of view – means the colours on the label are still clean and bright.

Lot 487, a bottle of Dunville’s whiskey, also dating from the 1890s and also from Belfast, has an estimate of €800-€1,200.

And there are two bottles of vintage Jameson: Lot 487A (€600-€1,200), bottled before 1919 on Donegall Square in Belfast, and 487B (€400-€800), which was bottled in Blackrock, Co Dublin, probably in the 1940s.

Like many of the top lots in the auction, these treasures have come from the collection of the Co Donegal publican John Sweeney. His grandfather bought the Commercial Hotel in Ballyshannon in 1902, the first of a number of traditional pubs in the area to be acquired by the Sweeney family. “Three generations have collected this memorabilia, and John has decided it’s time to let it go,” says Bryan.

Having specialised in the pub memorabilia market for more than a decade, Victor Mee Auctions has built a reputation for unusual and quirky collectibles.  “We still do a small amount of furniture, but this is our main business now – and it goes all over the world,” says Bryan. “We ship everything from a small package to a container. We have containers going to Australia, Canada and America on a regular basis. Online bidding has really opened up the market – it’s wonderful for a small auction house out in the countryside.”

Pub mirrors

This week’s sale contains a large selection of pub mirrors, among them a Cowan’s Old Irish Whiskey mirror (Lot 466, €3,000-€5,000), a Power’s Whiskey Pure Pot Still mirror (Lot 517, €1,000-€1,500), a Persses’ Galway Whiskey Nuns Island Distillery mirror (Lot 564, €1,200-€1,800) and a rare framed Cantrell & Cochrane’s “Club” Ale and “Club” Kola mirror (Lot 585, €3,000-€5,000).

There are also some rare Guinness collectibles, including a watercolour painting showing a sandy beach with a tall ship just off shore. Unusually for Guinness advertising, you have to look very carefully to see the word “Guinness”, inscribed on a wooden crate which a man is carrying on his back (Lot 562, €400-€800). “It was an Australian advert, and this is probably the only one known,” says Bryan. “It was in the Steve Smith collection, which was sold in England a couple of years ago.”

A toucan lamp has its original 1950s shade (Lot 484, €400-€800). The colours of a double-sided toucan sign are as intense as the day it was first hung (Lot 516, €800-€1,200). Even more outrageously colourful are a couple of rare rubber leprechaun truck mascots from the 1950s (Lots 303 and 194, €300-€600 each).

The sale will continue on Wednesday with some 742 lots of garden statuary, furniture and decorative objects – everything from a set of high-quality wrought and cast iron railings which are rumoured to have come from the French embassy in Egypt (Lot 71, €12,000-€20,000) to a 1959 Citroën pick-up van (Lot 4, €5,000-€8,000) via tribal masks, lamps, rugs, paintings and swords.

Back at the bar, I admire the cut glass whiskey dispensers (Lot 529, €500-€750 and Lot 537, €500-€700) which give a cool elegance to the amber liquid contained within. Has Bryane ever tasted the kind of vintage whiskey he’ll be selling this week? “No,” he says firmly. “I would never open one. That’s sacrilege.”

Victor Mee Auctions Ltd, Cloverhill, Co Cavan: Rare collectibles, Irish Pub Memorabilia and Vernacular Furniture, Tuesday July 24th, 5.30pm. Garden Furniture, Decorative Interiors and Antiques, Wednesday July 25th, 5pm. For online catalogues, viewing times and bidding details see victormeeauctions.ie

Arminta Wallace

Arminta Wallace

Arminta Wallace is a former Irish Times journalist