Life’s Work: Pat O’Donovan, antiques auctioneer, Newcastle West, Co Limerick

Who? Pat O’Donovan antiques auctioneer, Co Limerick

Pat O'Donovan established O'Donovan & Associates in 1982 in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. He runs the business with his son Patrick and in addition to antiques auctions, the firm also provides residential, commercial and agricultural estate agency services.

What’s your background?

I was born in Tulla, a picturesque small town in the east of Co Clare. Before I entered the auctioneering business, I worked both here in Ireland and in the United States in the hotels group of the late Irish-American billionaire businessman Bernard McDonough. My duties included human resources recruitment at his Irish flagship hotel, Dromoland Castle, and I also spent some time working in the group's American headquarters in Parkersburg, West Virginia. While working in Dromoland Castle I met the management of a new company called Neodata. They offered me a managerial position in Newcastle West, where I have been for 42 years and where I set up my auctioneering business.


An early opportunity to become involved in the antiquarian world came with my involvement in the restoration and development of Knockfierna Famine Village, a 300m-high isolated volcanic ridge in the centre of Co Limerick. It had been used as a refuge by desperate, dispossessed tenants during the Great Famine and remnants of their humble cabins and growing beds (strikeens) were traceable. I wrote for, and edited, a number of publications on the subject of these features and artefacts while the hilltop area was being reclaimed from more than a century of overgrowth, and subsequently I published Knockfierna Remembers the Famine Years in 1997 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Famine.

From this developed the renewed tradition of the rambling house, where storytellers, singers, musicians and dancers would meet on regular evenings to exchange and perpetuate local heritage.

When a community licence for local radio in the West Limerick area was granted, I volunteered and found that the contacts I had built up provided an ideal and expanding database from which to record for immediate broadcast and for posterity the lives and lore of the people. I’m a board member and vice-chairman of West Limerick 102fm.

How did you get into the business and why?

My interest in auctioneering came following my attendance at a couple of local auctions in Tulla and Feakle in the early 1960s. I recall a Feakle auction at which the auctioneer was selling old farmhouse contents. Among the items was a dresser which the auctioneer stated categorically had come out of the house of none other than Biddy Early, "the wise woman of Clare" or according to others, a notorious witch. The dresser was bought by local man Dr Bill Loughnane, a popular medical practitioner, Tulla Céilí Band member and subsequently a Clare TD. Two old men sitting beside me at the auction tut-tutted and said that one should have nothing to do with Biddy Early. That evening sparked my interest in the business.

Career highlights?

My time with BP McDonough was a fantastic experience and he was someone who educated me in the value and appreciation of fine antiques, and property values. During that time I also met some very interesting characters including the late US president Richard Nixon.

Another very memorable event was the flooding of my business premises eight years ago. One night in August 2008, the River Arra, normally a pretty, placid walled-in stream, burst its banks after hours of monsoon-like rainfall in the hills which surround the town. Cars were swept along like corks and water inundated streets and homes well away from the river’s ordinary course. Our office and auction rooms were flooded to a depth of nearly 2m and many rare books and maps were destroyed. The building was eventually restored and we consoled ourselves with the thought that, despite the massive damage, throughout the town and beyond, no lives had been lost.

What advice would you give to collectors/investors?

Never borrow money for a depreciating asset. Try to keep up with the trends in fashion. Gold is always a safe investment. Quality will always sell. Co Limerick, and the centre of Munster in general, has more fine rural homesteads and dignified urban residences than expected, including imposing edifices within walled estates and large townhouses with soaring ceilings and rare wood fixtures. Even many more humble homes have yielded worthy and valuable items, the true value of which is in the eye of the appreciative beholder.

What do you personally collect, and why?

I collect Belleek porcelain which I like for its delicate features and marble-like style. Probably the finest piece I have seen is on display in the Belleek Pottery Visitor Centre in Co Fermanagh. The 70cm-high Belleek International Centrepiece was designed by Frederick Slater later during the 1890s and was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The urn-shaped vase is decorated with harps and Irish wolfhounds. It is a true example of the unrivalled skill of the Belleek potters of the time.

What would you buy if money were no object?

If it went up for sale, Dromoland Castle in Co Clare which would be a fabulous place to live but you’d also need servants.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?

The Little Green Fields by Gerard Dillon, c 1945, which is in the National Gallery of Ireland. I love the scenery and the colours in the painting. I've only seen it in illustrations but hope to see the actual painting in Dublin soon.


In conversation with Michael Parsons