Sinead McCoole surrounded by material from Jackie Clarke’s collection. More Photos »
From: The New York Times
By DAN BARRY
Published: March 15, 2013
A county “Where, in the 19th century, the potato famine and the decades of high emigration that followed reduced the county population by two-thirds, to about 115,000.”
BALLINA, Ireland — In this removed County Mayo town at the mouth of the River Moy, the widow of a local fish merchant decided one day to share her husband’s collection of Irish miscellany with the public. Better to have it on display here in his beloved Ballina, as he had always wished, than to lose it, God forbid, in a fire in the family home above the family shop, Clarke’s Salmon Smokery.
The Irish actor Páraic Breathnach explores the background and motivation of Jackie Clarke, a fish merchant in Ballina, County Mayo, who quietly amassed a stunning collection of Irish artifacts and memorabilia that spans the last four centuries. (Produced by Martello Media, in Dublin, for the Jackie Clarke Collection.)
Jackie Clarke Collection – Jackie Clarke in 1945. More Photos »
The six-week job of selecting the best items for an exhibition fell to Sinead McCoole, an author and historian who came the 150 miles from Dublin. She knew that this curious fish man, Jackie Clarke, was said to have acquired a rare, original copy of the 1916 Easter Proclamation — Ireland’s Declaration of Independence — but local collections rarely warrant the enthusiasm of their owners. Her expectations remained at low tide.
Ms. McCoole made her way down the town’s ancient commercial row to the home above the shop, where the sight of some old but unremarkable books left her wondering whether six weeks in Ballina would be a few weeks too long. But then the widow, Anne Clarke, led the skeptical scholar to her husband’s “locked room,” for many years off limits even to family. Inside were bundles and bundles wrapped in parcel paper; fish boxes and fish boxes packed with documents; stuff, and stuff, and more stuff.
Six weeks became six months, and then a year, and then — well, Ms. McCoole is still in Ballina nearly eight years later, still immersed in what is now known as the Jackie Clarke Collection: an astounding treasure of more than 100,000 items that provide an intimate retelling of Ireland’s long struggle to free itself of English rule. Fragile maps and rare newspapers, political posters and editorial cartoons, books, diaries, photographs, films, and even a scrapbook that Clarke began as a boy.
Looking back on that summer in 2005, Ms. McCoole cannot point to any one moment of epiphany. Was it when she saw the 1916 letter from the commander of Kilmainham jail, asking a priest named Father Aloysius to visit the Easter Rebellion leader Padraic Pearse before his execution? Was it the 1910 poster advertising a talk by another rebellion leader, James Connolly, at Cavanagh’s Restaurant in New York City?
Or was it the fabric flower, called a cockade, that Wolfe Tone — Wolfe Tone! — wore affixed to his hat when he was captured while leading a failed rebellion against the English in 1798? When Ms. McCoole showed the cockade to a scholar friend steeped in that era, the scholar began to weep.
Another scholar, Christine Kinealy, an expert on 19th-century Ireland and a professor of history at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., spent some time with the collection two years ago and remains astonished by the rural merchant’s curatorial eye and command of Irish history. She was especially impressed by Clarke’s respect for the roles that ordinary people — those not named Wolfe Tone or Michael Collins — played in that history.
“It’s history from the below,” Ms. Kinealy said. “And for each of the major watershed moments in Irish history Jackie Clarke has amassed an amazing collection of records.”
As the collection mesmerized historians and antiquarians, and as the provenance of central items became certain, Ms. McCoole’s academic skepticism gave way to what she calls “a gradual reveal.” The original plan had been to exhibit pieces of the collection in the town library, but local officials decided that something grander was in order, which is why, beginning in April, these artifacts will be on display in an 1882 bank building rechristened the Jackie Clarke Collection.
It is named after an acquisitive and inquisitive man who spent his life rescuing vital bits of Irish history from sliding into the dull void of the forgotten — but who, in the months before his death, fretted that he had lost the possession he prized over all others: that 1916 Easter Proclamation.
To understand Jackie Clarke you must first understand County Mayo, in the west of Ireland. It is a landscape both inviting and forbidding, one of serene greens and rocky grays, megalithic tombs and medieval abbeys, famine roads, mystical mountains and the violent sea — all combining to assert the lingering presence of what has come before.
“You’re so close to the past all the time,” Ms. McCoole said.
This is where, in the 17th century, the ruthless Oliver Cromwell banished the Irish families he forced from better land in the east and south. Where, at the close of the 18th century, French forces joined Irish patriots like Wolfe Tone in the valiant but ill-fated rebellion known as the Year of the French. Where, in the 19th century, the potato famine and the decades of high emigration that followed reduced the county population by two-thirds, to about 115,000. And where, in the 20th century, local people figured in rebellion, civil war and the eventual formation of a republic.
Clarke was born into this self-governing but partitioned Ireland in 1927, in the Ballina home of his prosperous parents, owners of a news shop. Early on, he burned with a need to trace and chronicle Irish history. When he was 12, for example, he wrote “J. Clarke Scrapbook” in a fresh notebook and began pasting in newspaper clippings of local consequence: obituaries, sports results, and, especially, events reflecting rebellion’s aftershocks. His first page included an article with the headline “Sister’s Visit to Sentenced Man.”
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Sent to a boarding school in Dublin, he spent his free time not at rugby matches but in the old bookshops along the quays, searching for paper pieces of Irish history. He began a correspondence with Joe Clarke, an Easter Rebellion veteran and lifelong republican — one devoted to a united Ireland — who guided the unrelated younger Clarke in choosing items for his growing collection.
When he was only 18, Jackie Clarke opened a fish store a few doors down from his parents’ shop. Over the years it grew into a salmon smokehouse that provided the income to cover his many acquisitions and kindnesses. He bought suits for anxious emigrants bound for London and paid for bodies to be returned for burial in Irish soil. He became a town councilor (on the Irish republican ticket of Sinn Fein), a mayor, an elder of Ballina.
After a relatively brief Irish courtship of four years, he married Anne Smyth, from County Carlow, who was taken with the crisp whiteness of his fish merchant’s coat. (“He looked like a doctor,” she recalled recently.) They settled in Ballina, of course, and spent happy weekends in Galway City, perusing Mrs. Kenny’s famous bookstore there for hidden gems.
Clarke never drank or smoked. Beyond selling fish and helping to raise five children, all boys, he focused his interests on All Things Irish: the Irish language, the local Irish community, and, particularly, those touchstones in Irish history that reflected the country’s quest for independence. Yet he also seemed determined to collect items reflecting all sides of a debate, whether over a postal strike or a hunger strike.
The Clarke family adapted to living among the stacks of rare books and odd papers that the patriarch was accumulating through his vast network of booksellers and antiquarians. Mrs. Clarke, now 72, never fully realized the extent of her husband’s ever-growing collection, partly because she was not welcome in that mysterious locked room. But she well remembers his excitement whenever a wrapped acquisition arrived by post.
“He would never open it straightaway,” she said. Instead he’d wait until day’s end, close the shop and head upstairs like a boy with a birthday package. “He enjoyed opening the packet and seeing what was in it,” she said. “The cockade I remember very well.”
Not everyone does. “I never saw it until after he died,” said Peter Clarke, 44, the couple’s youngest.
Who knew about the 1665 copy of The Oxford Gazette, considered by some historians to be the first modern newspaper? Or the trove of late-19th-century eviction notices bearing familiar Mayo surnames? Or the small notebook containing a handwritten tally of the Irish Parliament’s fateful vote in 1922 on the Anglo-Irish Treaty that would keep 6 of Ireland’s 32 counties under British rule? A pencil line divides the page into “for” and “against,” foreshadowing the civil war soon to come.
One of Clarke’s friends, Cyril Lonergan, 86, had an inkling. Sometimes, he said, his friend Jackie was too busy to chat, saying, “I have to get the fish out.” Other times, though, Jackie would share a gem, as when he allowed Mr. Lonergan a glimpse of the 1916 proclamation, then rolled it up and shoved it into a corner of the locked room.
“You should have that in a bank,” Mr. Lonergan recalled saying.
“Ah, it’ll be all right,” Clarke replied.
One day, though, Clarke could not put his hands on the proclamation. The thought of its loss, or theft, or misplacement, haunted his final days before he died, of a stroke, in 2000. He was 72.
Afterward family members scoured their home for the proclamation. “It was in the locked room,” Peter Clarke recalled. “Under a few papers.”
Then along came Ms. McCoole.
A scholarly force of nature who speaks in quick, complete and ever-flowing paragraphs, Ms. McCoole had written several books — she has expertise on the role of women in the Irish Rebellion — and was often featured on Irish television and radio. While researching another book project in 2005, she had a chance encounter with Mrs. Clarke, which led to a long, meaningful chat over tea at Gaughan’s Pub, next to the fish shop.
“My mother would say it was the Holy Spirit,” said Ms. McCoole, 44.
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Mrs. Clarke told Ms. McCoole that she dearly wanted to honor her husband’s wishes to have the collection displayed. Ms. McCoole told Mrs. Clarke that the collection first needed to be itemized. Mrs. Clarke said that Ms. McCoole should be the one to do it. Ms. McCoole laughed. But Mrs. Clarke persisted.
Not long after, Ms. McCoole was hired by the Mayo County Council to the six-week summer task of making sense of the Clarke treasure — “forensic anthropology,” she says. The collection was not the result of some Collyer Brothers-style hoarding, but of careful selections in the many thousands, much of it newspapers, made by a man whose system of cataloging was known only to him
“There were multiple collections within the collections,” Ms. McCoole said. “It took years to yield the secrets.”
She developed her own system. After having the material hauled down the street to a second-floor room in the Ballina library, she sat amid the mounds of history, created a semicircle of general categories, and began distributing artifacts like a card dealer at a casino.
The 1916 material here, the 1798 material there, the land wars, the war of independence, the civil wars, the hunger strike, County Mayo, Ballina, handbills, posters, Bloody Sunday, on and on. At one point she came across a newspaper page from 1997 that had been clipped and folded to emphasize a photograph of an Irish author giving a lecture in London.
That author: Herself, Sinead McCoole.
Often, as Ms. McCoole set out to begin another wearying day of academic mining, one of the fish shop’s employees, Smokey Gorman, would give her a cryptic greeting: “And you haven’t even gotten to the roof yet.” For a while she thought this meant that Mr. Gorman might have spent too much time in the smokehouse, but Mrs. Clarke eventually told her that Mr. Gorman was referring to some “modern stuff” that he once helped Jackie Clarke carry to a storeroom built onto the roof.
One day, with the end of her papered tunnel in sight, Ms. McCoole went to that room on the roof, where loads of bundles were wrapped in relatively recent copies of the local newspaper. Inconsequential modern stuff, she thought. But when she opened a bundle or two, she found rare political pamphlets and newspapers dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
“Instead of being euphoric, I cried for two days,” Ms. McCoole said. “I cried and I cried and I cried. It was just more things to do. I knew the job hadn’t ended.”
But when she recovered Ms. McCoole realized that she was immersed in something very rare and wonderful, a feeling now validated by other scholars.
After all, here were artifacts of monetary and historical value, commingled with political handbills, shop receipts and other disposable items that provide “the material texture of the past,” according to Luke Gibbons, a professor of Irish literary and cultural studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
“It does an unusual thing: It converts history back into memory — into a lived relationship with the past,” Mr. Gibbons said. “And it opens onto the byways, as well as the highways, of history.”
Vincent Virga, an American photo editor and author who spends a lot of time in Mayo, agreed. He became so taken with the visual elements of the material — the posters, the maps, the editorial cartoons — that he began working closely with Ms. McCoole on the collection.
“Jackie Clarke collected things that told Irish history in documents and images,” Mr. Virga said. “It’s a visual delight.”
A few years ago Ms. McCoole, Mr. Virga and other Mayo supporters set out to create a proper home for the collection. This effort met challenges along the way, including the collapse of the Irish economy, the occasional criticisms of Clarke’s lifelong republicanism, and a particularly unpleasant Clarke family feud over what to do with the collection, which has been valued in the millions. But the Mayo County Council managed to buy a landmark bank building on Pearse Street, just down from the fish shop. Then sizable grants from the European Union and the Irish government helped to pay for the transformation of that building into the Jackie Clarke Collection.
Now visitors to the building can see Wolfe Tone’s cockade, or trace their ancestral home place on ancient maps, or record their memories of Mayo in a sound booth. They can step into the bank’s old vault to study its only display: the 1916 Easter Proclamation, one of only three dozen or so still extant.
“My whole memory of staying was that I wanted to do right by the collection,” Ms. McCoole said, as she wandered among rooms chockablock with artifacts. “An Irishman’s collection.”
But Ms. McCoole knows that her work continues. On the second floor of the town library, just a few steps up the street, 64 boxes wait to be sorted through. They contain more and more bits of Irish memory, captured from oblivion by a fish merchant in Ballina, beside the burbling flow of the River Moy.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 24, 2013
Because of an editing error, an article last Sunday about a remarkable private trove of historical documents and artifacts chronicling the Irish struggle for independence misstated the year that the Irish Republic was established. It was 1949, not 1922.