DIGGING around car boot sales in the hope of stumbling upon a dusty old bottle or two may not sound like much fun but for one Donegal man it has become almost an obsession.
For nearly two decades St Johnston man Thompson Graham has been unearthing pieces of local history that few remember even existed.
Milk bottles, mineral bottles, beer bottles, poison bottles, you name it and there is a good chance the 70-year-old has it. Not to mention his vast array of pub ashtrays and water jugs.
So big has his collection become that it has earned him the nickname ‘Bottle Boy’ Graham.
Recently, as part of Monreagh Heritage Centre’s annual Heritage Afternoon, Thompson laid out the hundreds of colourful pieces of glassware he has accrued over almost 20 years.
He told the Donegal News how his collection began and how it has expanded to the point where it now requires its own shed.
“I worked for years in agricultural stores for the likes of Donegal Creameries and Gibson Agri but because of problems with my back, I was forced to retire early,” he explained.
“Then one day we were putting up a shed at the back of the house and we had to dig a hole for a girder. While we were digging I came upon this bottle for Sloan’s Liniment. I thought it was interesting so I decided to try and collect a few more.”
The call went out to family and friends that if they were disposing of any bottles, they should box them up and hand them over.
“I asked a few local people that if they were throwing any bottles out, would they mind bringing them to me. I said it didn’t matter what kind they were and the ones that were no good, I sent them for recycling.”
Embossed mineral bottles were the most popularly donated pieces and it got to the stage where Thompson had to decide on a different approach.
“I have a fortune of mineral bottles and it got to where I had that many, I had to change track. So I started collecting milk bottles instead.”
During the 1950s dairy farmers regularly bottled their own milk and sold it directly to their customers. Their bottles were often personalised, painted on using a once popular technique known as ‘pyroglazing’.
In these times of strict regulation brought on by successive health scares such as the BSE crisis and foot and mouth disease, the idea of milk being sold from farm to fridge is almost inconceivable.
But the practice, along with the ornate bottles the milk was delivered in, remained popular up until the late 1970s.
Many of the bottles, bearing the names of people like John L Vance of Momeen in St Johnston and S Craig of Lifford, now form part of the Thompson Bottle Boy Graham collection.
“I used to find them at car boot sales and there used to be quite a few of them about,” said Thompson.
“But in the last five years or so they have become rare and the price has gone up on them. When I started going after milk bottles, you would have paid a fiver unless it was a very scarce one. Now you might pay €10 or €15 and for a rare one, it could be €20 or more.”
Also among the collection are several stoneware bottles, the kind of which adorn pub shelves right across Ireland. Find a rare one of those bearing a Donegal inscription and you could be looking at an easy €100 and beyond.
For Thompson Graham there are a few that he would dearly love to get his hands on, including a whiskey bottle that was born in Burt.
About 13km from Monreagh on Bohillion Farm stands the chimney and some buildings of the old Burt Distillery established by William Leathem in 1814.
In its most productive period of the 1830s the plant was producing 40,000 gallons of high grade grain whiskey. Burt Distillery went out of business in 1841 and Bottle Boy Graham says he would dearly love to find one of the original bottles.
Another one on his hit list is from a pub that once stood in Carrigans.
“Most of the stoneware bottles would have been made in Scotland,” Thompson said.
“The pub landlord might have ordered in 150 or 200 of the bottles at a time. So it’s surprising that a pub in Carrigans might have ordered so many bottles yet there are only something like four known to still exist. Where did the rest go? What happened to them?”
Rather than simply gathering dust, the Graham collection is kept on the move. Thompson regularly takes it around vintage fairs and rallies and last weekend he was in Muff, showing off his wares to interested enthusiasts.
As for the long term, the Donegal man says he has no intention of selling off any of his hard won items.
“I’ll keep it until I die and then it will pass on to the family and hopefully they will take it out the same way I do,” he said.