Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916

Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916
The Signatories of the Proclamation

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

History unwrapped, parcel by parcel

In an article in the The Irish Times dated Saturday, August 20, 2011 entitled "History unwrapped, parcel by parcel", describes a collection of historical pieces researched by Jakie Clarke.

The article states "Next week the public gets its first view of the Jackie Clarke Collection, a trove of 100,000 items assembled by a Co Mayo businessman with an interest in Irish history. ROSITA BOLAND looks at the legacy of a quiet collector.

GENEROSITY COMES in many forms. When it came from Jackie Clarke, a Ballina businessman who died in 2000, it presented itself modestly, in the form of hundreds of parcels wrapped in brown paper and string. From those many packages, some of which have yet to be opened, emerged an astonishing record of recent Irish history, including a 1916 Proclamation, Douglas Hyde’s Bible, letters from Roger Casement, Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse and Wolfe Tone, maps, newspapers from the 17th century, and thousands of other documents.

“When the people of the town went into his house, they saw only pandemonium,” says the curator of the collection, Sinéad McCoole, who has been working on it for six years.

Clarke, who was born in 1927, lived in the Co Mayo town almost all his life. He had a lucrative smoked-salmon business that did a brisk overseas trade, plus various other enterprises. As McCoole tells it, he lived an unpretentious life: he did not drink, smoke, travel abroad or appear to live in any way that suggested wealth. He was an under-the-radar collector who remained carefully vague about the nature of what he was accumulating. “What he did was invest in his interest,” McCoole says. That interest was Ireland and its history. “There was little or no value in a lot of what he bought at the time. For instance, he bought bundles of political newspapers in the 1940s.”

Clarke purchased a wide range of historical documents: handbills, letters, newspapers, posters, manuscripts, pamphlets, maps, political cartoons, periodicals, photographs and papers relating to the Land League and the Moy fisheries. The material he accumulated spans 400 years. He attended the sale of Douglas Hyde’s library in 1949 and bought several items there, including the cockade that Hyde reputedly wore at his trial.

Clarke added to his collection in a variety of ways, often through private sales from people who wanted items to remain in Ireland, as well as through the specialist network of dealers who handled Irish historical material.

The 1916 Proclamation hung in his home in the centre of Ballina. Many of his visitors assumed it was a copy, like those hanging in schools and public buildings across the country. “Some people knew he was collecting, but they didn’t know what it was,” says McCoole. “People’s perceptions of what they saw in his house were totally wrong, because they didn’t know his methods. To visitors, it just looked like the house was full of junk.” Over time Clarke built a corrugated-iron structure on his roof to store his expanding collection. Not even his wife, Anne, knew what he kept up there.

In 1996, Clarke pledged his collection to the people of Ballina, on condition that a suitable building be found to display it in. “The problem is that since nobody knew what was in it, they didn’t know what to do with it,” McCoole says.

Clarke died in 2000 with nothing further having been decided about a building or other space in which to display his collection. Five years later his widow loaned the collection to Mayo County Council, which had the key task of establishing what it contained.

McCoole, a historian and writer, was invited to come to Ballina for the summer of 2005 to select the most interesting items. At that point nobody had looked at it, so it was a dream assignment for a historian. “It was unlisted and unsorted,” she says. “In his early stages of collecting, Clarke wrapped items in brown paper. Later he started to wrap things in modern newspaper and put them in old cardboard fish boxes. His wife thought those boxes just contained modern newspapers.”

By the end of the summer McCoole had opened enough boxes to realise that the collection was far more extensive than anyone had guessed. “It wasn’t a question of picking out the highlights or the best bits,” she says. “The more I looked at it, the more I realised what a superb and focused collector he had been. It was impossible to pick out the highlights, because I knew there was so much more to see.”

In 2007, a landmark building on Pearse Street in Ballina, previously used as a bank, came up for sale. It dated from 1881 and was designed by Thomas Manly Deane, who was also the architect of the National Museum of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street in Dublin. Mayo County Council bought the building for a little less than €3 million, to display Clarke’s collection. Anne Clarke then made over the collection to the council in perpetuity, with the understanding that it was to remain in Ballina.

McCoole was invited back to continue her work, and she has remained ever since. Her base, then as now, is a room in the public library on Pearse Street. The floor of the large upstairs space is almost entirely covered with stacks of boxes. There is also an unopened bundle, wrapped in brown paper and string.

The discoveries continue. Once Clarke wrapped up his treasures he apparently never again opened the bundles. “We initially thought we were dealing with about 40,000 items,” McCoole says. “And then I realised the extra space had been built on top of the house for storage, and so I went to look at that.”

The result? The collection is now estimated to number 100,000 items, and Mayo County Council anticipates that students and researchers will make Ballina known as a place to work with a wide range of primary sources relating to Irish history.

At present, a small team is working on Clarke’s collection. Four document assistants, Anne Marie Forbes, Louise Gilmartin, Cathy Flynn and Dawn Blanquier, are working part-time on cataloguing; Killian Downing is employed as an archivist; and Vincent Virga is the American adviser, as the county council is promoting the collection in the US.

Renovations are almost complete at the Manly Deane building on Pearse Street. During National Heritage Week, which starts today, the public will have six opportunities to visit and take a guided tour of the rooms that will showcase aspects of Clarke’s collection. Each room will have samples of what will be on show when the collection opens officially, towards the end of next year. The plan is to have a newspaper room, a room containing political cartoons, a room for manuscripts and letters, a room for rare books, and a memory room, where the public will be invited to record stories. The displays will change frequently once the building is opened.

There will also be a space dedicated to the life of the quiet Ballina man who lived at the other end of the street, and whose name is set to become better known from now on.

The first guided tours of the house, including its temporary displays, are on Monday at 11am and 3pm, Wednesday at noon and 2pm, and Friday at noon and 2pm. See

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