Sidelines

Published in Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), News, Volume 19

First the good news: Germany has finally managed to repay all the reparations owing from the First World War, just over 90 years after it ended. The defeated nation was handed a bill of 132 billion gold marks (about €300 billion in today’s money) by the Allies to compensate for damage caused during the war. So we’ve borrowed €85 billion to bail out the banks and cover government debt. Shouldn’t take more than 80 or 90 years to pay that off, then. Our great-great-grandchildren will no doubt appreciate our efforts.
Perhaps the government could loot our national museums to raise cash. It seems that many families are raiding the attic in search of historical memorabilia to sell. And who could blame them, with high prices being fetched even in a recession? At a recent auction an 1867 Fenian flag went for €5,200, Patrick Pearse’s belt buckle for €7,500, and even a collection of documents relating to the Peace Process for €2,700. What am I bid for this beautiful Ardagh chalice?
Irish entrepreneurs are getting a bad press at the moment, what with zombie hotels and ghost estates, but none of them has resorted to body-snatching (as far as we know!). New evidence has emerged that one of Ireland’s most notorious businessmen, the grave-robber and murderer William Burke, is buried in the old workhouse graveyard in Newry, Co. Down. Burke hailed from Tyrone, but his partner, William Hare, was from Newry. Infamously, Burke got off scot-free after ratting on Hare at their trial for murder. He ended his days in poverty in the Newry workhouse. A new film about the pair has resurrected interest in them.
A new business called Tell Tales was launched recently in Galway to document and preserve your family history in a personalised book. Founder and historian Colm Muldowney set up the company to safeguard the knowledge and stories of our older generation for the future. Tell Tales offers to document your loved one’s history through a series of interviews, which go into a personalised hardbound book. More info at www.telltales.ie.
Shocking news! British royal converts to Catholicism! Well, not quite, but it seems that former British PM Tony Blair is related to William of Orange. Blair is a descendant of William Lipsett, believed to be an illegitimate son of ‘King Billy’. Despite coming from such good Protestant stock, which put manners on the papists of Ireland in 1690, Blair, much to the Orange Order’s annoyance, converted to the Church of Rome on leaving office. What would his royal ancestor say?
A show of a different kind is being put on at Belfast’s Grand Opera House. Designed by the famous Frank Matchem and opened in 1895, it is a historic building but now it has its own museum. The permanent history exhibition features an old beer bottle, memorabilia of famous performers, a programme signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, opera glasses and tap shoes, and, bizarrely, the poster of a show in which Van Morrison played along with Paddington Bear. Mr Morrison doesn’t look so cool now, does he?
The Black Death, the plague that spread across Europe in the Middle Ages, left a legacy that is still being examined today. The science of genetics has come to the aid of historians, as for the first time DNA evidence from the plague-carrying flea is being used to track the origins and progress of the disease. This fascinating study places the origin of the Black Death in China, from where it spread along the Silk Road and sea trading routes throughout the world. It took twelve years of painstaking work to complete the plague genome. The scientists have shown that the plague was around 2,000 years ago and continued to wreak havoc centuries after the Black Death episode in Europe.
A lost painting of the Battle of Aughrim has resurfaced almost a century after it disappeared. Last seen in Denver in 1914, it was painted in Dublin in 1885 by John Mulvany. Depicting the final field battle in 1691 between the Jacobite and Williamite armies, Mulvany painted it during the cultural revival, when there was renewed interest in recreating historical events. Sold and taken to America, it went missing until it recently turned up on eBay. Irish art expert Prof. Niamh O’Sullivan recognised it for what it was and the painting was bought by Dublin’s Gorry Gallery, which put it up for auction at a starting price of €165,000 in December. Let’s hope one of our national institutions can afford it.
Ireland is all too familiar with the displacement of native people and the seizure of land by colonists. Now in Australia a land seizure has been reversed and the territory returned to the Aboriginal people. Thirty years after it was taken over and turned into a national park, about 200,000 acres of land have been handed back to the Wik Mungkan people. Archer Bend on the Cape York Peninsula was turned into a national park in 1977, effectively preventing the Wik Mungkan from living on it or pursuing their traditional way of life. Now, after a long, hard-fought campaign, the government of Queensland has renounced its claim to the area and it is being returned to the management of its indigenous population. But don’t be getting any ideas!
It’s all change at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The premises on Belfast’s Balmoral Avenue has closed down so that the archives can be moved lock, stock and barrel to new purpose-built offices in the city’s Titanic Quarter, the regeneration project around the old shipyards. If all goes well, the new premises will open to the public in April this year.

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