Sometimes you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.
“Well I suppose what happened is that it started out as a job over a summer.”
That’s Sinead MacCoole – she’s an Irish historian. Her summer job began four and a half years ago, in 2005. She was asked to look over a collection of documents belonging to a local Ballina businessman: Jackie Clarke, who’d died a few years before. She told me about it on a recent trip to New York.
Now the claim was that Jackie Clarke’s collection included — among other things — an authentic 1916 Proclamation — a document that means about as much to the Irish as the Declaration of Independence does to Americans.
It wasn’t very likely.
“So you can imagine how mind-blowing it is to be sitting in New York four and a half years later and telling the world that this is the most important collection of Irish material in private hands anywhere in the world.”Jackie Clarke was born in Ballina, County Mayo in March 1928 – just as Ireland was emerging from a civil war and – before that – hundreds of years of British rule. In 1945, he set himself up in the smoked salmon business.
Ballina, remember, is the Salmon Capital of Ireland.
But along the way, Clarke collected the story of his town, his country and his people. Starting at age fourteen he filled scrapbook after scrapbook with newspaper clippings. He continued until the year of his death — a chronicle of Irish history that formed day by day.
Clarke’s success with salmon allowed him to buy rare books and documents too, anything that might shed light on Ireland’s story. By the end of his life, in 2000, his home was full.
“Five hundred and fifty-seven boxes.”
Sinead MacCoole started sifting.
“And it was in every room. It was in the sitting room, a room built off the kitchen, all the upstairs bedrooms, the bookcases were overflowing, it was on the floor, it was everything. But I just assumed that like anyone else in any ordinary house, you’d go into a box and find paint cans or you’d find utility bills.”
But in every box she found the stuff of Irish memory. Manuscripts and photos. Maps and pamphlets.
“Scraps of notes and receipts.”
Legal papers, cartoons and letters. MacCoole began sorting everything into piles. About 100,000 meticulously-selected items in all — some of it going back 400 years.
“Everything was important.”
News of the discovery travelled to scholars of Irish history around the world. Like Robert O’Neill, who directs the Burns Library at Boston College.
“Well, it was certainly a surprise to me. I had heard of Jackie Clarke but I had no idea of the extent of his collection.”
O’Neill called Sinead MacCoole over the phone. He was particularly interested in documents related to Wolfe Tone, a pivotal proponent of Irish independence from the 18th century.
“And one of the things that he asked was does he have Wolfe Tone’s Treatise on Catholics, and I’m probably not even using the title correctly, and it dates from 1796 or thereabouts. I was in search of the first edition of a pamphlet by Wolfe Tone on Catholic emancipation. The Burns Library had a second edition of this pamphlet, but it’s one of those cornerstone works in Irish history. When he asked me this I hadn’t looked at the 1798, but I knew exactly where it was. I’d put it to one side. And I went and I rummaged through, rummaged through. She looked through the holdings and discovered that she not only had one copy of it, she had two copies of it. And that was sort of the tip of the iceberg.”
MacCoole’s work never seemed to end. She’d clear a section of the house. Then Jackie Clarke’s family would produce another box from somewhere.
“I came back after a weekend and I remember shaking my head and saying, oh my God, it’s like the magic porridge pot — it keeps filling up every time I think I’m going to the bottom of it.”
One day she saw what was in the storage room.
“I cried for two whole days. Because all I wanted to do was get to the end of it.”
Sinead MacCoole listed everything. Other scholars will now join her to pore over the details: expect more surprises. But MacCoole isn’t just committed to the archive; she also wants to do right by Anne Clarke, Jackie’s widow.
For decades, Anne shared her home – and her husband – with those thousands of documents and papers. Now she’s sharing the archive with the world — she’s donated it to Mayo County Council. And MacCoole intends to honor that.
“I want to see how much I can do, because before she passes away she has to see something of what she gave and what her legacy is.”
Soon the legacy of Jackie and Anne Clarke will have a new home. MacCoole is overseeing the renovation of an old bank building in Ballina — it’ll house the entire archive when it opens next spring.
For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent in New York.