08 April 2006

Nation's heritage for sale to the highest bidders

Irish Independent

THE nation is about to witness the tragic dispersal of a unique treasure-trove relating to the centuries-long struggle for independence.

Ironically, this will happen in the week running up to the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. An enlightened government might have purchased this irreplaceable archive in the public interest to safeguard our heritage. This one is standing idly by as the family silver is sold off to diverse ownerships abroad or at home, notably to the private collections of the wealthy Irish diaspora and the Celtic Tiger's nouveaux riches.

Invaluable documents and memorabilia from the 1798 Rebellion, Young Irelanders, Fenians, Home Rule, the Land League and the men and women of 1916 will all go under the hammer at private auctions.

The first commercial exodus of cherished socio-political and cultural gems takes place tomorrow in Dublin's RDS when "The Irish History Sale" is held by Whyte's, followed on Wednesday by "The Independence" auction of Adam's & Mealy's. The centre piece of Whyte's splendid collection is The Official Peadar Kearney Archive with a fully authenticated signed and dated manuscript of the National Anthem, (Soldiers' Song), and Kearney's own handwritten account of its history.

It also offers signed letters from O'Connell, Davitt, Parnell, Pearse, de Valera, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, as well as the War of Independence Ceasefire Order by General Mulcahy, a valuable 1916-22 film archive, Erskine Childers execution archive, historic collectibles with Celtic gold ring money, 1798 Rebellion weapons and a 1912 Titanic telegram.

The Adam's & Mealy's auction trumpets the "the most important sale of Irish Historical Documents ever held" including the Thomas Clarke Archive, the Brendan Brennan Collection Part I and the National Anthem (Amhran na bhFiann) first draft manuscript.

Also advertised in a superb Adam's and Mealy's catalogue are "important and previously unknown" documents from Padraic Pearse, Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, John Devoy, Thomas Clarke's last letter, a 1916 Proclamation, the original drawings for the design of the GPO, the telegram confirming Ireland's Free State status and Michael Collins' Sinn Fein membership card.

My gripe is not with the two auction houses which have done a civic service in assembling such a marvellous collection. Nor do I begrudge those collectors with financial means to do so, to acquire such coveted items. Indeed, I envy them.

What enrages me is the lack of foresight, not just by the Coalition but also by successive governments since the foundation of the State, in not passing legislation and allocating sufficient budgetary resources for the acquisition in the common good of such, literally priceless, historical material.

I indict our elected representatives for not having constructed a modern museum-research centre for holding these materials, to which scholars, students and school-children, as well as interested individuals and tourist visitors, could have access.

While Dublin has a National Library and a National Archive, both suffering from lack of adequate finances and facilities, it does not have the kind of public shrines displaying its history that adorn London, Paris and Washington.

Hopefully, as has been done by the Government in the case of a Kearney manuscript, its appointed servants and our academic institutions will be there with cheque-books to salvage as many items as possible for the people. Of this, I am not optimistic.

The millions of euro a philistine government has squandered on failed computer systems, unoccupied buildings, an underwater Millennium clock and a moronic Spire on O'Connell Street could have been better invested in a national museum with well-stocked materials that tell our history so graphically and tangibly.

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