“Auctioneering is like being an athlete really. You just don’t turn up on the day.”
Werner Herzog once described auctioneering as “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism.” It is, according to him, an “extreme language… frightening but quite beautiful at the same time.” His 1976 documentary How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck captured the World Livestock Auctioneering Championship in Pennsylvania that year. In full flow, he observed the rapid-fire volley of words, rhythms and cadences which orchestrate the sale and stoke the fever for ownership.
It’s a Friday afternoon, in mid-January, and the bloodstock sales arena of Goffs in Kildare is home to the second Novice Rostrum Auctioneer Competition of the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV). Now in its second year, this event is organised by their Young Professionals Network wing and open to anyone who is deemed a novice which means they have undertaken less than five auctions in their career to date. There are twelve competitors, of which two are female, and there’s a decent regional and age mix. Everyone competing and in attendance is white. This is not by design, but just a factual observation.
The world of auctioneering and valuation is still overwhelmingly white and male. Only two of their 19 council members are women. It is, in many circumstances, a family-business and profession in which the mantle is passed down through generations. Indeed, if someone wandered in here with no idea of proceedings, they may well feel they mistakenly happened upon a far-right rally, purely through observation, given the arm-waving which is integral to the art of auctioneering. This is also mischievous misconstruing on the part of this writer who admittedly is also white and male. We blend in perfectly, apart from being too casually dressed. Straight-up suits and ‘horsey set’ garb is the order of the day. Screensavers are of horses and a neighbouring audience member is heard saying “goes like a dinger” to his companion.
Sponsors include Property Partners ‘Local Knowledge. Nationwide’ which is a co-operative Real Estate Group. The Irish Independent are also on board informing us in the brochure that 63,000 of their print readers will sell or purchase a house or apartment in the next 12 months and 76,300 of them will purchase their first home within this time frame. Property is big business and a revenue lifeline for national and regional print titles.
The arena itself is large and daunting in scale. There are small private rooms on the top floor for stud farms such as Coolmore and Rathbarry where we assume they confer as significant sums of money virtually changes hands. There is a collection of six drawings of horses around the arena. The Castletown Racehorses date from 1768. On a busy auction day, horses would be paraded around the ring and guineas would be the currency of choice.
Today, it is reminiscent of a Colosseum on half-term, a space into which these gladiatorial figures will emerge, gavel in hand with nothing but their wit and words to save them from a savaging delivered by ballpoint pens.
There are around 60 people in attendance for the afternoon part of proceedings which will whittle the 12 contestants down to three. In turn, the finalists will take part in a live charity auction later that evening from which a winner will be crowned. Prizes for this include rugby tickets and a stable tour of trainer Gordon Elliot.
Peppered amongst the viewers are those tasked with participation in the fake bidding process, plants with questions set to throw competitors off balance as well as friends, family and three judges. Colm Farrell is the chairman of the panel and has been in the game for over 20 years running his own business out of Gort in Galway.
“In the back of my mind, I am looking for five traits,” he explains. “Presentation, clarity, accuracy, speed and rhythm… Training of voice and preparation is very important. Auctioneering is like being an athlete really. You just don’t turn up on the day. A good auctioneer would be training in the shower or when they are driving their car. Accuracy is where you have to know who bid, how much and retain that in your head, your mind has to work fast. An important thing when it comes to speed is to identify what you are selling and have an idea of how much it may sell for. If you are selling something worth €50 and look for an opening bid of €200 you are back-cycling all the way and wasting time. And rhythm is your flow of speech. It’s important that you keep an audience with you. That comes with practice.”
Just like a TD, undertaker or solicitor, an auctioneer is perceived as an august profession heavily reliant on the power of connections, especially in a rural setting. Farrell joined the Sherry FitzGerald franchise in 2003 before reverting back to being a sole trader. “I always knew that when you are dealing like I am in the West of Ireland, the business came from home connections. The business comes from being involved in the local community.”
The winner today will receive the Ron Duff Memorial Rose Bowl. Ron was a former CEO of IPAV who passed away in 2018. They will also receive a week’s training in America’s Auction Academy in Texas. This is the holy grail of finishing schools for the profession. Colm Farrell attended it with his daughter a few years ago. ABC News turned up and he was on it. This is a jump-off place for big time celebrity auctioneering where you end up on cruise liners or might help Elton John sell some sequins for charity. One of Ireland’s ‘top auctioneers’ Denis Barrett is in this category, competing abroad in places like Qatar. He is expected to turn up later tonight.
And so to the competition. There are two lots in the first round which will whittle twelve to six. They have to sell a former church with a guide price of €350,000 and Chalkie, a prize-winning shorthorn bull. The plants want to know is the property BER exempt and will transport be arranged for Chalkie. Everyone seems to grasp that the property is exempt owing to its age. The Chalkie conundrum throws people into a little bit more of a tailspin. I never quite find out what the right answer is other than assuming it’ll be sorted.
The competitors mostly assume an air of confidence mixed with the attendant nerves from taking to the rostrum. Lorraine Mulligan is the effervescent owner of Remax in Celbridge and Lucan. She’s gushes enthusiasm and is straight out of central casting for self-motivators. “I’ve been in the business 20 years. I love people, I love property and I always want to learn and improve.” She sets herself a list of goals every year and the is one of the many on her list. “They say it’s like conducting an orchestra, you are working the room.” You can be assured she will tick all those goal boxes by the end of the year. Her website is listed under teamlorraine.ie and a Google-search later that night throws up an article on The Journal with the pull away quote “I lost my marriage, my car and my home, but I kept going. Failure wasn’t an option.” Lorraine fails to make it through the first round.
Ciaran Fox, from Manorhamilton, is more on the mild-mannered side of things. One of the oldest contestants, backstage he discusses how he sees this as a “learning curve”. He’s been out of the business for a decade owing to family reasons but is looking to get back into it. “I think it’s a very interesting and rewarding career,” he says. Unfortunately, the nerves scalp Fox. My ‘dinger’ neighbour references how “a man could die here” when he pauses during his lot sale. Ciaran doesn’t progress either.
There are phrases which add to the mirth and egg on the buyers delivered by other contestants. Choice lines include: “You’re making me blush, sir,” (Charles McEvoy) “Small steps but it’s all money,” (Michael Ryan) and the trusty old adage that, “The day you buy is the day you sell,” (Ryan Finnegan).
Finnegan is a contender. He brings all the pizazz and flair one associates with an auctioneer. He gesticulates and swivels his body as if his feet are on a hoverboard. There’s a velocity to his delivery which is engrossing. It’s straight out of the Herzog documentary where words rhythmically tumble into one another and the pertinent information pokes through with distinct clarity. He’s a young lad in his early twenties from Galway. This is everything to him.
“That there today is my dream. Some lads like football. Some lads like whatever. That’s my dream,” he says. And I wholeheartedly believe him. While it’s clear he’s in the running, he’s anxious about how great he actually is. He’s been in training for this all his life. “I remember going to a mart in my grandfather’s arms while my father went out around the lots. When I was smaller, my mother would be giving out to me at home. I’d be going around roaring. I’d be selling a chair.” His preparation for today involved “sitting on a bale of straw in a shed with a few sheep or a weanling or cow in front of you” as well as attending marts and talking to other auctioneers. He’s undertaken the property management course in Limerick IT and is currently doing his placement in Winters Property Management in Galway. Ryan makes it through to the next round. And then to the final.
In the final he is joined by Adrian Kelly from Leitrim and Michael Ryan from Tipperary. Early on, it seems like Ryan is the one to beat. He’s referenced as one to possibly talk to. The inaugural winner Nicholas Maher mentions him as one he expects in the final too. He’s clearly assured, has panache in his delivery and can dot what I assume are auctioneering phrases such as “have a hundred on the house” and “fill it up and take him home”. When the gavel is struck for the final time later that night, he is crowned the winner.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Sean Breithaupt