Philanthropy, history and heritage

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17

 Muckross House, Killarney—today an award-winning institution run by a voluntary and not-for-profit organisation, the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Ltd, in tandem with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. (Clemensfranz)

Muckross House, Killarney—today an award-winning institution run by a voluntary and not-for-profit organisation, the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Ltd, in tandem with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. (Clemensfranz)

Philanthropy is not the prerogative of the wealthy alone. We must think long and hard about what philanthropy in this country could and should mean—creating a better place for one’s fellow citizens by sharing one’s expertise and skills as well as capital. It is time for reflection on and a renewal of an old concept.
Kilmainham Jail is one of the most visited and profitable heritage sites in the country. It was restored from a roofless ruin that had been abandoned over 30 years before. A small group came together as the Kilmainham Restoration Society with the idea of saving the building ‘from the ravages of time and the indifference of the politicians’. The bold idea of restoring the jail with completely voluntary labour was unprecedented. By 1960, two years after the idea was first mooted, there were 200 tradesmen and skilled workers giving of the sweat of their brow, working night after night and on Saturdays, and some of them even using their annual holidays to complete the mammoth task. People of all ages and walks of life worked side by side. Volunteers came from as far as Sydney and New York, all sharing ‘a deep sense of history’. They did it for nothing but the love and respect for those who fought and died for Ireland’s freedom. The materials required for the task were supplied by businesses free of charge. At one point it was stated that all these businesses would be listed in the jail, but there is no listing. There is no plaque with the names of those men and women in the jail today, but the building stands as a testimony to their hard graft and as a living memorial to those who shared the same patriotism. They were philanthropists.
In Kerry, the Killarney National Park became a reality as the result of a gift to the Irish people of 4,000 hectares by Arthur Rose Vincent. An act passed in 1932 allowed for the establishment of the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park (as it was originally known), Ireland’s first national park: lakes, mountains, rivers and forests of immense beauty once belonging to a landlord, on which it was a criminal offence to trespass, it is now a free public amenity as stipulated by the benefactor, to be made available ‘for the recreation and enjoyment of the public’. The area of the national park is now 10,000 hectares, with the acquisition of the Kenmare estate. At its centre is Muckross House, today an award-winning institution run by a voluntary and not-for-profit organisation, the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Ltd, in tandem with the Heritage Service. This was not a given; it was made possible by the vision and drive of local people over 40 years ago. Muckross House was empty from 1933 until 1964 (with the exception of a short time when the Irish Army occupied it), until a local initiative was granted the use of the house as a folk museum for an initial trial period of five months. Forty years later it has become a beautifully restored house, a wonderful archive, a traditional farm and magnificent gardens. In both of these cases the transformation of these places was due to the voluntary efforts of men and women who wanted to create something not only for their own generation but also for future generations.
Despite the terrible poverty in Ireland in the nineteenth century even the poorest sections of society were involved in philanthropy. Tasks and skills were shared and exchanged. Public subscription and voluntary labour raised some of Ireland’s finest buildings—its cathedrals, its shrines, schools and hospitals. This continued into the twentieth century, and in Mayo public fund-raising even built an airport.
Monuments, before the advent of public art, were memorials to the dead. The statues, monuments and graves were paid for with the pennies of the poor. The National Graves Association was formed in 1926 and continues today as an organisation of voluntary workers. They accept no grants and are apolitical. The members seek to preserve those monuments of the past. These landmarks are maintained anonymously not by the public purse but by donors giving of their time, money and expertise because they wish to remember the deeds of those who died for Ireland. I am aware of one man who invested huge sums of his own money by way of men and equipment in restoring the Teeling Monument in Collooney, Co. Sligo. It was not for fame or for his own immortality but for the value of restoring this visual reminder of the heroic deeds of a man who died in 1798.

The monument to United Irishman Bartholomew Teeling at Collooney, Co. Sligo—restored by a local man who invested huge sums of his own money by way of labour and equipment— but now sadly neglected again. (Nick Maxwell)

The monument to United Irishman Bartholomew Teeling at Collooney, Co. Sligo—restored by a local man who invested huge sums of his own money by way of labour and equipment— but now sadly neglected again. (Nick Maxwell)

Throughout the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger era’ many argued that in gaining this newfound wealth we lost something of ourselves—our sense of place, our identity. Did the last ten years see a growth in civic duty, or further the ideals of the nation? The Ireland of our forefathers was a poorer country in terms of wealth, but there was a pride, a sense of nationality, a love of one’s country that was tangible, not a tourist gimmick.
My own life has been touched by an act of great philanthropy: Mrs Anne Clarke fulfilled her husband’s wish to give his library, his archive, to the Irish people, c. 100,000 items spanning 400 years of Irish history collected in the lifetime of one man. Jackie Clarke (1928–2000) had pledged his collection to the people of his town of Ballina in 1996, but the authorities moved slowly and he did not live to see his gift accepted and housed. It has parallels in an older story. In 1908 Sir Hugh Lane gifted his collection of modern French painting on condition that a permanent gallery would be built to house them. When this was not forthcoming, he brought the paintings to London, where, owing to his untimely death and an unwitnessed codicil, the paintings remained. Through the tireless work of individuals such as Lane’s aunt, Lady Gregory, however, the plan for a gallery was kept alive, although she did not live to see the return of the paintings. In 1933 Charlemont House in Parnell Square was renovated to become the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, and today a reciprocal loan agreement allows the paintings to be shared between Dublin and London.
Jackie Clarke’s bequest was not acted on in 1996, but through the perseverance of his widow, Anne, the collection was gifted to the nation in his memory in 2007. Her donation was documented in the press in terms of its market value, but she shared her husband’s philanthropy, believing that the true value of his collection lay in its use by scholars for countless generations to come. As a republican socialist in the tradition of Connolly, Jackie Clarke was an ordinary man who had a true belief in the common good. He did not feel that he was the owner of this material but merely its custodian in his lifetime; he collected it not for himself but for all the people of Ireland.
In these times of economic hardship, which may last for over a generation—beyond 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Rising—acts of philanthropy will be essential. Culture, arts and even history do not seem to have a place in a country stripped of its assets. In 1908 the Dublin authorities had jurisdiction over a city with the worst slums in Europe and an infant mortality rate worse than that of Calcutta when Sir Hugh Lane offered his gift of paintings.
A true form of philanthropy is when the benefactor obtains nothing in exchange except the knowledge that what is being achieved will help those in the future. Philanthropy in all its forms is very necessary in this time of economic depression, for it is imbued with hope for the future, a belief in humanity and compassion for one’s fellow citizens. HI

Sinéad McCoole is manager of the Jackie Clarke Library and Archive, Ballina, Co. Mayo.

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