Heritage and repatriation

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Letters, Letters, Volume 17

A chara,

—For over 40 years I have been dealing in antiques, collectables or just pure honest-to-God bric-a-brac. The subject of heritage, repatriation or just moving old objects from one area or country to another has always both fascinated and haunted me.
A letter (HI 17.4, July/Aug. 2009) on the Akwiten Canoe and the Book of Kells has motivated me again. Gerry McAlister’s interesting letter adds another dimension to the debate. He correctly introduces the word ‘culture’: ‘Returning heritage objects from one culture to the culture of origin is, as you say, tricky’.
I sent container-loads of Irish country furniture to California in the 1980s, most of it bought by the wider Irish diaspora—one culture to the same culture? Can I relax in the thought that this is kosher? Or do I have to now go back to the USA to retrieve it so we can redistribute it here in Ireland?
Recently I had two unnamed Irish Volunteer medals, awarded for service during the War of Independence. I bought them directly from the relatives of this Volunteer. He was their uncle and had died in his early 70s in 1980. He was reputed to have taken part in a well-known County Clare ambush against Crown forces. We calculated that he was only sixteen years old at the time, so possibly he was awarded the medals for scout work. Anyway, I put these two medals up for public auction along with the above provenance. A young academic type contacted me beforehand to say that he was willing to bid on the medals to make sure that they stayed in the county because of the ‘importance of the medals to Clare’s history’. Of course I encouraged him to bid away. For some reason he missed them. The medals ended up in Cork City. My academic friend went ballistic. He wrote me several abusive emails. I had ‘taken a valuable piece of heritage out of its county. The only thing worse than people who think they can buy heritage are those who sell it . . .’ When I suggested that I would be interested in opening up a discussion on the subject, he totally dismissed me. ‘I have no interest in trading insults with someone who thinks it acceptable to deal and profit from the sale of our county’s heritage. I hope your little monetary profit is worth our cultural and historical loss.’ Who says that I bought them in County Clare? Who is to say that I made a profit? What about the Cork man who bought them? He could have been the Volunteer’s son, nephew or brother-in-law. Not alone did these medals stay in the country, they stayed in their province of origin.
Three years ago I purchased online from Canada a nineteenth-century Irish sword, made by the well-known Dublin cutlers, Reads of Parliament Street. It stayed on my shelf for a couple of months, in comfort back on the old sod again. In time I offered it to the National Museum of Ireland but they had no interest in it as they already had at least four similar swords from this same maker. I offered it for sale again online. A collector in Texas bought it, and if my memory serves me right his name was Read. Now what had I done?

—Is mise le meas,
Miltown Malbay


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