BITE-SIZED HISTORY

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2018), News, Volume 26

BY TONY CANAVAN

Above: The 1901 oil painting of Constance Markievicz by B. Szankowsky—a photographic reproduction formed part of the UK parliament’s recent ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition.

Countess Markievicz goes to Westminster

With no hint of irony, the Oireachtas, the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, has donated a portrait of Constance Markievicz to the British Houses of Parliament for an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of some women in the United Kingdom being granted the vote—the point being that she ran in the 1918 general election for Sinn Féin, whose clear policy was not to take their seats in the British House of Commons. So while she was the first woman elected in a UK election, she was not elected to Westminster. Out of eighteen women candidates she was the only one to win a seat, and in January 1919 she joined other successful Sinn Féin candidates to establish the First Dáil at Dublin’s Mansion House. Markievicz died in 1927, aged 59, in a public ward in Dublin’s Sir Patrick Dun’s hospital. The donated portrait (actually a photographic reproduction of a 1901 oil painting) formed part of the UK parliament’s ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition, where she was honoured as the first woman elected to Westminster (sic). After the exhibition, it was transferred to nearby Portcullis House for public display. It is ironic that her portrait is hanging in a place she was opposed to and did not want to enter.

Two hundred years of work and research and knowledge lost

The destruction by fire of Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro recently was a tragedy not just for that country but also for the world. The natural history and anthropology museum, founded in 1818 by King Joao VI, housed more than twenty million artefacts. President Michel Temer said in a statement, ‘Two hundred years of work and research and knowledge are lost’. The collection included art and artefacts from Greco-Roman times and Egypt, as well as the oldest human fossil found in Latin America. The museum also housed the skeleton of a dinosaur found in the Minas Gerais region, along with the largest meteorite discovered in Brazil. Other items in the museum covered four centuries of history from the arrival of the Portuguese to the declaration of the first Brazilian republic in 1889. The National Museum, which is linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has suffered from funding cuts, and these have been blamed for the fire.

Amhrán na bhFiann—it’s anybody’s now

Disappointment has been expressed that Amhrán na bhFiann will not be enshrined in law after a Seanad committee backed away from that recommendation and instead proposed protocols surrounding its use. The state has protection for the tricolour and the harp. The former is protected by international copyright, while the latter has been patented by the state. Copyright on Amhrán na bhFiann expired in 2012. The committee said that it considered renewing the copyright but had been advised against this by the attorney general. Following this watered-down recommendation, the minister for finance has responsibility to publish protocols. The Seanad committee has recommended that permission should be sought from the government before using the national anthem for advertising purposes (i.e. that the tune or the words not be modified, parodied or demeaned, or alternative words substituted). The protocols would also include versions of the anthem in Irish, English and Irish sign language, with every school in the Republic provided with copies of the three versions and encouraged to perform them. Conal Kearney, grandson of Peadar Kearney who wrote the original lyrics, said that he was disappointed that the anthem has not been given legal protection like the tricolour and the harp as an equal symbol of the Irish state.

Titanic artefacts collection coming home?

A $20 million (€17.11 million) campaign to bring 5,500 artefacts from the Titanic back to Belfast was recently launched. Premier Exhibitions, which currently owns the collection via a subsidiary called RMS Titanic Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States in June 2016. For fear that the collection might be broken up and/or end up in the hands of private collectors with no public access, three Northern Ireland-based bodies, including Titanic Belfast, have teamed up with Royal Museums Greenwich to secure the collection. The bid to save the items for Belfast has important supporters. Robert Ballard, who discovered the RMS Titanic wreck in 1985, and James Cameron, director of the Oscar-winning 1997 film, have offered their backing for the plan. The National Geographic Society announced its support with a pledge of $500,000 towards the fund. The 5,500 artefacts were recovered from the site of the Titanic shipwreck in seven deep-sea expeditions between 1987 and 2004. The collection is believed to include ship’s whistles, jewelry, luggage, porcelain dishes, floor tiles, silver cutlery and an unopened bottle of champagne. It also includes a 7m x 4m section of the ship’s hull and a bronze cherub from its grand staircase. If successful, the bid would secure the entirety of the Titanic Artefacts Collection in public ownership in perpetuity. Additionally, the organisations involved will seek to obtain the salvage rights to the wreck site and assign them to the National Maritime Museum and National Museums Northern Ireland. The sale of this collection does raise issues about the status of the wreck and the propriety of violating the site where 1,503 people died. Robert Ballard campaigned to have the shipwreck protected as a graveyard but has accepted that the deed has been done and that it is best to have the artefacts in public ownership.

Belfast history gone up in smoke

The recent fire in Belfast’s Bank Buildings is a reminder of that city’s history. The original was built in 1785, and opened in 1787 under the name of ‘The Bank of the Four Johns’, as all founders were named John. After the bank’s collapse, it was used as the residence of the bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Dickson. In 1805 it was converted into a shop, and Belfast’s last execution in a public place was carried out on its doorstep (three weavers who had attacked the home of their employer, Francis Johnston, over wages). Later it became a drapery business and then a department store. In the late nineteenth century the building went through a major redesign and W.H. Lynn installed large glass windows in the lower floors, which were the retail areas, as the rest of the building was a warehouse. In July 1923, representatives of the company attended a meeting of the Northern Amateur Football League and the Bank Buildings Football Club became one the founding members of the Amateur League, although it never played a competitive match. In 1969 Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson & Co., which owned the building, was sold to the House of Fraser but the company continued to run the shop. During the Troubles, three bombs were exploded in the Bank Buildings and a fire broke out in 1975. Four years later the structure was taken over by Primark, who went on to renovate the building and restore the exterior.

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