Sidelines

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

More historical artefacts may be lost to Ireland with the sale of seventeen rare books and a collection of art by All Hallows College, Drumcondra, a former Catholic seminary. One book, for example, a fifteenth-century Flemish Book of Hours, is valued at ?60,000. The paintings are mainly portraits of clerical dignitaries from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The college is in financial trouble and caused a furore a few months ago when it tried to sell letters to one of its priests written by John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline. The contents of Bantry House are also up for sale, including furniture, paintings, tapestries, carpets and some items dating back to the eighteenth century. If not bought by Irish institutions, all this material could end up in private hands abroad.

Another year, another anniversary. Plans are afoot to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Edward Bruce’s arrival in County Antrim with events, a travelling exhibition, a tourist trail and an app. The younger brother of Robert, Edward brought a Scots army to support attempts to oust the English from Ireland. The commemorations are the initiative of the Ulster-Scots Academy, which would appear to be unfazed by the fact that the Bruce brothers spoke French and Gaelic and issued a proclamation saying that they had come to free their fellow Gaels from foreign rule.

In an early example of racial profiling, a collection of police mug shots of ten Irishmen suspected of petty crimes came up for auction recently. Dating from 1902–12, the photographs were taken by police forces in Nevada, California and Washington. The men’s details recorded on the cards include place of birth, occupation, identifying features and so on. Of course, the policemen who made the arrests and took the photographs were also Irish!

Aficionados know that James Joyce was a good singer and even won a medal at the 1904 Dublin Féis. There is a widespread belief that he threw the medal into the Liffey in a fit of pique. The truth, however, is that he unsuccessfully tried to pawn it and, on being told that it was worthless, gave it to his aunt. The medal then passed through the Joyce family and various hands until it turned up for auction in Sotheby’s, London, in 2004, fetching £14,400—five times the estimate. It has now been revealed that the anonymous buyer was dancer Michael Flatley, who has quite a few féis medals and cups to his name.

Trinity College Dublin is opening its doors to all—well, in a virtual sense, in that it is now offering an on-line course in history. Given the attractive acronym MOOC (massive open on-line course), the six-week course is titled ‘Irish Lives in War and Revolution: exploring Ireland’s history 1912–1923’. The course is free but you’ll have to cough up ?30 if you want your certificate. And TCD is adamant that this is not a university qualification: you still have to go the traditional route for one of those.

Technology brings history to life in a rather gruesome way. The Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, has grown Vincent van Gogh’s ear from the artist’s genetic material. It is well known that van Gogh cut off his own ear in 1888 during a psychotic episode (in reality it was only part of his lobe), but this replica ear has been grown from cells provided by Lieuwe van Gogh, Vincent’s great-great-nephew. Scientists involved were able to extract the van Gogh strain from others in the cells to produce the replica ear. And it is now on display as a work of art. The artist responsible, Diemut Strebe, says that her aim is to combine art and science. Other descriptions spring to mind.

The recent rumpus over the Boston College tapes has not deterred Queen’s University, Belfast, professor Cathal McLaughlin from publishing his own oral history project of participants in the North’s Troubles. He has spent eight years filming and archiving 175 people who worked in or were imprisoned in the Maze (Long Kesh, if you prefer) and Armagh prisons. Those who reveal their intimate and personal stories of life inside include republican and loyalist prisoners, prison officers, clergy, probation officers and teachers. The archive can be accessed on-line at prisonmemoryarchive.com.

Work is under way to restore Dublin’s ‘Freedom Bell’, so called because it was the first Catholic church bell to be rung in defiance of the Penal Laws in the city. Just like Boston’s famous Liberty Bell, this one also has a crack, resulting from a blow by Daniel O’Connell. It is situated today in Smock Alley Theatre, which dates from 1662. St Michael’s and St John’s Catholic church was built on the site in the
eighteenth century. Its bell was tolled in 1811 by Fr Michael Blake, well before Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Daniel O’Connell defended him at the subsequent trial. The restoration is one of five heritage projects costing ?620m to boost tourism in the capital.

In 1655 two English ladies, Elizabeth Fletcher and Elizabeth Smith, introduced the Society of Friends to Ireland, starting in Youghal, Co. Waterford, and thus beginning the town’s long association with the Quakers. A conference entitled ‘A Gathering of Friends’ (19–21 September 2014) celebrates the involvement of the Quakers in the town in particular and in Ireland generally. It promises expert speakers, a field trip and a relaxed, sociable dinner. Topics include William Penn’s time in Ireland and the Quakers’ response to the Great Famine. Full details on the Youghal Celebrates History website.

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