What makes Irish furniture Irish? "It's that the pieces are quite solid but also whimsical—original as well as humorous," says Chantal O'Sullivan. "They're just like the Irish people. And they can tell a good story."
O'Sullivan is solid, whimsical, original, humorous, and can also tell a good story. She's standing in her big, below-street-level shop in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, backed up by a militia of large, muscular antiques. Almost all of them are Irish, and that's unusual. Irish antiques are not abundant, and they're much sought after nowadays by both Irish and American buyers. At auction, Irish pieces of the Georgian period tend to be more expensive than their English counterparts—too expensive, in fact, for O'Sullivan—so she seeks out private sellers in Ireland, Britain, America, even Europe.
"The Irish craftsmen favored idiosyncratic designs," she tells me mischievously. A glance around O'Sullivan's shop suggests they also favored sturdy construction, impeccable joinery, and exceptionally deep, rich carving. They liked understretchers on chairs, and wide aprons under tabletops with masks carved into them that sometimes caricatured the local English landowner. And because a lot of boats transporting timber from Africa and Brazil to England put in at Dublin first, Irishmen slyly singled out many of the finest mahoganies.
O'Sullivan has a long relationship with Irish furniture; she grew up in a 19th-century Dublin house with a mother who was a passionate collector. "She redecorated every two years and often bought antiques at auction, so I grew up running around Dublin auction houses," says O'Sullivan. In fact, her first job, at 18, was with a dealer friend of her mother's. "I've been in the business now for seventeen years," she continues. "In that time, I've built up a network of suppliers in Ireland and elsewhere." Seven years ago O'Sullivan opened her own shop in Dublin; the New York one followed five years later.
With a wry expression, O'Sullivan concedes that it's hip to be Irish right now. You can even be hip with Irish furniture. For $16,500 you can offend people by step-dancing on an early-19th-century wake-table. You can throw your muddy wellies and brollies all over a $5,000, 90-year-old fairyland coat-and-umbrella-stand from Malahide Castle that crawls with carved wolfhounds and shamrocks. Or you can reel backward into the glass panes of a pristine $95,000, 15-foot-long Georgian bookcase while doing your Uncle Paddy imitation. The bookcase, a quasi-architectural affair, comes with a tale of its own: one of those Irish stories O'Sullivan is fond of. She says she found its three detachable parts in different rooms of a cottage in Sligo; there simply was not enough space to put it together. "The owner's grandmother had worked in Westport House in Dublin," O'Sullivan states. "When she left domestic service, she got the bookcase in lieu of a tip."
We look at a cute little bureau bookcase, a library table, a pair of pier-mirrors. "Some of this stuff is so brilliant, but it looks as though the carvers were drunk," O'Sullivan concedes. "Look at the backs on that set of chairs. When they carved those snakes, they might have been thinking they were swans or something."
Next we stop before a wooden confessional. O'Sullivan sits down for a moment in the sinner end. "I just had to buy this," she muses, unrepentant. "Every Irish house should have one, don't you think?"
O'Sullivan Antiques, 51 East 10th Street, New York; 212-260-8985. 4344 Francis Street, Dublin; 353-1-454-1143.