For several centuries the City of Cork was noted for the skill of its craftsmen in the manufacture of silver. In the Cork Records of the 15th and 16th centuries were found several references to goldsmiths, and there are a number of exquisite chalices and patens of this period preserved both in the City and County, testifying the unique skill of the goldsmiths and silversmiths of old Cork. This industry attained to considerable importance and prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries, and several of the Master Wardens of the Goldsmith Guild were elected Mayors of Cork. After the Union it rapidly declined, and before 1850 the Guild had ceased to exist. The only piece of silver work between that date and 1910 that is known to have been made in Cork is a model of Shandon Church, made for the Exhibition of 1883 by the late Mr. Clare, foreman jeweller at Messrs. Wm. Egan and Sons, Cork. During this period Cork was entirely dependent on imported silver, and the old traditions, which had existed for so many generations, of pride of craftsmanship and excellence of workmanship, disappeared absolutely. Of the score or more of busy workshops, humming with industry, ringing to the sound of many hammers, cheery with the sound of workmen's songs, not a vestige remained.
In 1910 the late Mr. Barry Egan, head of Messrs. W'm. Egan & Sons, Ltd., who had been contemplating the revival of the Industry for some time, had a conversation with Sir Bertram Windle, President of University College, Cork, who wanted a silver mace for the College, to be made if possible in Cork. A start was made, and premises which would admit of considerable development were taken. Workmen were brought from Dublin and the necessary machinery installed. The mace in solid silver, jewelled and enamelled with the arms of the chief towns of the Counties assigned by the Act to the College, was made in the various workshops belonging to Messrs. Egan. Very soon the fact that the firm were making their own silver ware began to spread abroad. In 1911 the Coronation Cup in solid silver, presented by His Majesty King George V. to the Cork City Regatta Committee, was made in these workshops, and many important orders for presentations, household silver, church plate, etc., came from various parts of the country.
In carrying on their work Messrs. Egan at once saw that their chance of permanent success lay in the production of articles which would compare for excellence with the old Cork Silver which to-day, having outlasted the ravages of time and use, is so valuable. They realised from the beginning that it would be impossible to compete with the cheap work turned out by machinery in immense quantities in English factories. They, therefore, bent their energies to the production of articles hammered out by hand, perfect in form and ornament, and of a standard that would compare favourably with the best of the antique work. Silver manufactured in this way, hardened and tempered under the hammer—as it was made one or two centuries and more ago—resists the effects of time and use, while the machine made silver finishes in a soft state, and after some years breaks down and is fit only for the melting pot. We have never lost the craft of the hammersman—the silversmith proper—in Ireland; in England and elsewhere machinery has driven him out. An English trade journal on this subject some years ago said, probably the only silver made to-day that will be fit for use in 40 years' time is the Irish hand made work ; all the rest w ill have broken down and vanished into the melting pot. Ireland, it said, is the last home of the silversmith proper. Messrs. Egan have steadily developed their work, and not only are they manufacturing all classes of household ware, cups, shields, church plate, and reproductions of old Irish silver, but they are extensively engaged in the making of ecclesiastical metal work, and the renewing, relacquering and replating of old work of every description. The founder of the firm, Mr. W'm. Egan, employed one of the last of the old Cork silversmiths ; the present generation of the firm is building up a new school of craftsmen who will bridge the past, and hand on to future generations of craftsmen the traditions of an industry that once was a source of fame and pride to the City of Cork.
CHURCH EMBROIDERIES, VESTMENTS, &c.
The firm of Messrs. Egan & Sons, Cork, has been engaged in the embroidering and manufacturing of church vestments and altar requisites for a considerable period. Until some years ago this industry was on a small scale, giving employment only to a few makers and embroiderers. Then one of the members of the firm, just returned after several years' experience of the industry on the Continent, realised the possibilities here, and at once took steps to develop the industry in Cork. An important order was obtained from the Right Rev. Monsignor Arthur Ryan of Tipperary for a set of vestments in Celtic hand embroidery on cloth of gold. This order was executed so successfully that many others quickly followed, the firm being able to increase its staff as required from the students of the School of Art. In 1914 the most remarkable set of vestments the firm ever undertook to make was commenced, and for over two years nearly thirty expert needlewomen were busily engaged in producing a series of embroideries that are perhaps unequalled in these islands. These vestments are now in use at the Collegiate Chapel of the Honan Hostel, Cork. It is to the enthusiasm and the goodwill of Sir John R. O'Connell, M.A., LL.D., Dublin, for Irish art and craftmanship that the creation of these vestments is due. They are an expression of Celtic art in needlework that is unique. Beauty of form, wealth of detail, gorgeousness of colour, and solidity of work are all seen in these vestments, and will serve as models of Irish ecclesiastical artwork for many generations. Two of these vestments shown at the recent exhibitions of Arts and Crafts in Dublin, in Belfast, and in Cork were much admired.
As well as these articles of artistic craftmanship, this firm has been paying attention to the more usual requirements of this branch of its work. The ordinary vestments used in the Church are embroidered chiefly bv machinery, and all this was of course done on the Continent. Some years ago, after a variety of experiments, Messrs. Egan & Sons installed their first machine, driven by a small motor, and this proved so successful that they quickly put in several more. For several years before the war important orders were executed, not merely for all parts of Ireland and Great Britain, but also for America and Canada. The result was that when war broke out, and imports from France were becoming scarce and more difficult to obtain, the firm were fully equipped for supplying all requirements. Their machines are working fully loaded all the working hours of the week, and they look forward to very important developments after the war. They were the first house in the United Kingdom to install and work these machine embroideries for cheap vestments, and their efforts have been attended with most successful results. These embroideries on Irish poplin, turned into finished vestments in their own workrooms, enable Messrs. Egan and Sons to compete on equal terms with any part of Europe for the ordinary requirements of the Church.
Besides vestments this Cork firm are makers on a large scale of all manner of Church fittings and embroideries, such as lace albs, surplices, oak altars, pulpits, brass candelabra, gongs, thuribles, sanctuary lamps, medals in gold and silver, which they supply in large quantities to all parts of the Kingdom. The development of the department of Applied Art of the Municipal School of Art has given a great stimulus to enamelling, metal working, wood carving, and lace making. Twenty years ago the majority of the medals, Celtic crosses, brooches, badges, clasps, etc., sold in Cork, bore a foreign hall-mark; today ninety per cent, are designed and manufactured in Cork.
Source: Cork, its trade & commerce : official handbook of the Cork Incorporated Chamber of Commerce & Shipping - Cork Incorporated Chamber of Shipping and Commerce - 1919