One Man, 100,000 Items: The Jackie Clarke Collection of Irish History

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2013, Vol. 37, No. 1


Image of a broadside entitled, "The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland"
Irish Declaration of Independence, 1916

We’ve all learned by now that the phrase “one person can make a difference” is verily true but truly variable. That is, the scope and direction of that difference may vary greatly from one person to the next. When someone loves a topic or a project or a hobby so much that he or she sticks with it and dedicates a lifetime to it, the results can be astounding. In the case of Jackie Clarke (1927-2000), the topic and project and hobby all came together to the benefit of documenting Irish history via primary objects. As a boy he first began collecting physical remembrances of Ireland’s past, starting a scrapbook at age 12. In boarding school in Dublin, he consulted a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising for tips on items to collect. Thus, many of his off-hours were spent in moving among the bookshops, second-hand doodad mongers and antiquarian dealers adjacent to the quays of the River Liffey, adding to his incipient stash whatever seemed to fit his increasingly sophisticated collecting profile. Part of that profile was to seek out rare and unique items. Another strongly motivated aspect of the profile, however, was to gather primary evidence of the fits and starts, the failures and successes, along the path to Irish independence. As a young man he opened a fish store in Ballina, County Mayo, at age 18 — an establishment he was later to expand into a salmon smokehouse. Ballina, as Mother Nature and the salmon and angling businesses would have it, lies at the mouth of the River Moy in northwestern Ireland, unquestionably the Salmon Capital of the Emerald Isle. He began to earn enough income to support his prodigious collecting habits and later philanthropic deeds.

Image of a building in Ballina, likely the Clarke residence
Humble Home of the Jackie Clarke Collection of Irish History


Over time, even as Jackie married and began a family, even as he became a city councilor and then mayor of Ballina, the assortment of diaries, notebooks, pictures, newspaper clippings, cartoons, books, posters, pamphlets, films, maps, manuscripts, miscellany and physical mementos grew and piled up inside the Clarke residence above the smokeshop on O’Rahilly Street. This “material texture of the past”1As expressed by Luke Gibbons, a professor of Irish cultural studies at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth (and quoted in the New York Times article referenced here). eventually included the cockade — or fabric flower — taken from the hat of Theobald Wolfe Tone. In a North American simile, Wolfe Tone was like an Irish George Washington who lived too early in the crush of history for fate to smile upon, a hero who crossed his Rubicon but failed to make good his escape across the metaphorical Delaware. In chronological reality, he died one year before Washington did. by his British captors during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. This would rank right up there with laying one’s hands on the feather in the cap of Yankee Doodle. Somehow Clarke acquired a rare original copy of the 1916 Easter Proclamation, a Declaration of Independence issued almost exactly 140 years after our own. He collected the voice of the people as well, getting at history from the grassroots, from the unknown evicted tenant farmers, from those ravaged by famine, from labourers locked out from their jobs, as well as from the Irish history-book names destined for greatness and disconcertingly-guano-prone monuments on O’Connell Street in Dublin.

After Mr. Clarke died in 2000, his widow began to realize the extent and the potential historical impact of her husband’s “hobby.” Since he had specified that he wanted the collection to be gifted to County Mayo, she set that in motion, and by 2005 the private collection had a public owner. One of the truly brilliant2This adjective is used very extensively in Ireland, at times overused, but it is offered here in its rich and full connotations. strokes of genius on the collection’s pathway from private closets to the public good was the consultation that same year of the talented author and historian, Sinéad McCoole. Ms. McCoole came to town a skeptic (how many people think their trash is a treasure?) but was soon impressed by the scope of the cache, then blown away as a trained historian by its content, then driven to tears by the urgent need to categorize and classify the vast piles and piles of unique artifacts. Her six-week gig designed to pick out items for an exhibition has now turned into a stay of over eight years, as she is the curator, cataloger and jill-of-all-trades in charge of the collection. An American photo editor, Vincent Virga, likewise came to stay for a visit of eight hours and has stayed on for years as a consultant. Following a series of economic, political and even familial-sibling challenges to the dream of a proper showcase for the collection, County Mayo was able to buy a beautiful heritage bank building on Pearse Street in Ballina to house a rotating display of its newly acquired, identified and oft-quickly-annotated bonanza. Part of my reason to visit was to offer digitization plans for extending the reach of the collection, but the Mayo County Commission sees the collection as a tourist draw that will bring tourist Euros (Dollars, Pounds, Franks and Rubles) to a town still recovering from the financial debacle of the last decade: ergo, digitizing the fine bits of the collection might keep visitors away.

The collection only opened to the public in its new space this past April, shortly after having attained international note beyond the boundaries of County Mayo and beyond the shores of Ireland when featured in a New York Times article. One of the truly attractive features of the Jackie Clarke Collection as it is today, following targeted grants from the European Union and the Irish government, is its display infrastructure. The collection’s website itself offers a virtual tour that carries you, borne along by a liltingly haunting folksong, among the exhibition spaces, into the former vault — now housing the Easter Proclamation — and out into the garden for contemplation. If you look closely, you’ll see an exhibit trick channeled from Harry Potter: dynamic cinematic windows of historic action playing between static newspaper headlines and text blocks from the same era. Among other things, the cutting-edge interactive electronic displays tease out powerful pedagogical possibilities for the visiting public. This is a dream destination for a teacher of Irish history with a small group of students. Or for any interested person on a self-guided tour of discovery. If your institution sponsors history internships, museology training or study-abroad tours that include Ireland, you would do well to include Ballina on your agenda.

Image of a river and old church in Ballina
The River Moy and St. Muredach’s Cathedral


The city and its citizens are delightful as well. If you arrive by Irish Rail in Ballina’s tiny train station,3Behind which, next to a country road through fields punctuated by sheep, is situated an ancient dolmen from over five millennia ago. you may likely find that your taxi driver is the local Peace Commissioner (Justice of the Peace), an excellent amateur photographer and respected man about town who drives a taxi, as he puts it, “to meet the interesting people who come to town.” As you speak with him further on the short drive into town, perhaps to stay at the large hotel with rooms overlooking the Moy Ridgepool salmon weir, he may confide that Jackie Clarke was a close personal friend of his. On a stroll you will see a monument to the Frenchman Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, who led an expedition up the Moy against the British during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 (not the first such rebellion and not the first cooperative foreign power). You will find fishing shops everywhere, but the cost of a license is so prohibitive that you will undoubtedly much prefer to fish for historic gems at the aforementioned collection on Pearse Street. The librarians of the Ballina Public Library, six doors down from the Jackie Clarke Collection, will likewise welcome you with smiles and information. And, if needed, the keys to the restroom. There is surprisingly good food for such a small town, salmon of course, as found at the Market Kitchen on the opposite bank of the river itself, but also excellent fare at The Broken Jug pub, the Bond Cafe & Bistro, and more. Celtic music is played vivace irlandese each Wednesday night in a pub adjacent to the Bond. If you have a car, you can scout out the castles and Celtic crosses and ancient monuments that abound in the vicinity. If you don’t, or even if you do, be sure to view the ruins of the 15th-century Augustinian Abbey next to St. Muredach’s Cathedral. But I digress. The main attraction in town is the Jackie Clarke Collection.

Image of a man fishing in a river
Ballina is the Salmon Capital of Ireland

Richard Hacken
European Studies Librarian
Brigham Young University
hacken @ byu.edu