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Spectacular new Irish museum shares lifelong collection of unassuming fish shop owner

BALLINA, County Mayo – A spectacular new museum in West Ireland that allows visitors to immerse themselves in centuries of Irish history through original documents and artifacts has opened in the town where the material’s unassuming collector lived.

Jackie Clarke, son of a family of merchants who as an adult owned a salmon smoking business in Ballina, accumulated a treasure trove of 100,000 mostly Irish historical pieces spanning 400 years. The collection includes letters, books, maps, handbills, diaries, photos, posters and other authentic items from every significant period of Irish history.

“We brought in scholars from all the different periods – the 1916 Easter Rising, the Famine, the Civil War – and every one of them was astonished,” said Sinead McCoole, director of the Jackie Clarke Collection.

Clarke started collecting information and artifacts as a child. The museum displays a notebook he filled with interesting newspaper clippings and notes and carefully labeled “J. Clarke Scrapbook” in 1940, when he was just 12 years old.

Clarke’s interest in the history of his country was pervasive and lifelong. He was involved in politics, serving as a local Sinn Fein counselor, and was once mayor of Ballina.

Several of the priceless items he owned are both significant and breathtakingly poignant. There is a letter requesting that a priest visit the imprisoned and soon-to-be executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, which declared Ireland’s independence from Britain. Visitors to the museum can also see a small, faded red, white and blue fabric garland that Theobald Wolfe Tone wore on his hat when he was captured by the British in 1798, and whose removal communicated to him that he would be denied his only remaining wish, to be shot as a soldier rather than hanged as a traitor. (Tone committed suicide in his prison cell to avoid that ignominious death.)

From adolescence on, Clarke haunted used bookshops across the country, attended estate sales, wrote to newspapers and connected with other collectors by mail. He seldom showed his acquisitions to his family, which included his wife and five sons. While he preserved his finds in brown paper wrapping and other materials used in his fish shop, he did not categorize them.

Five years after Clarke died in 2000, McCoole met his widow, Anne, while McCoole was working on a different project. Anne Clarke agreed to donate the materials to the Mayo County Council on the condition that the materials remain in Ballina, the place where Clarke had lived. The Mayo County Council hired McCoole for six weeks in 2005 to select some highlights from the Clarke collection to be displayed. The sheer magnitude of the collections, which included priceless, one-of-a-kind items wrapped in brown paper and tied up, then stacked in rooms in the family home and in other storage spots.

McCoole had heard about some of Clarke’s collection, including one of only a few dozen copies of the 1916 Easter Proclamation, whose posting in Dublin announced the Easter Rising rebellion against British rule. But the mass and scope of the collection astonished her. Every packet she opened seemed to yield a treasure. “I came down here thinking I was an expert, and I was humbled,” said McCoole, who specializes in the history of the Easter Rising.

Years after McCoole first began working with the collection on a temporary basis, she is now its permanent director. It is now housed in the former Provincial Bank building on Pearse Street, built in 1881. The Proclamation is now displayed in the former vault.

A main room downstairs called “Ireland’s Memory” contains the gems of the collection, a few from each era. One part of the exhibit focuses on Clarke himself, now recognized as a “genius collector,” who sought specific items for his own brilliant reasons. Another, the “Memory Room,” immerses visitors in images of the past. A copy of the first newspaper ever published in 1617 is displayed near an interactive touch-screen archive allows visitors to explore the collection’s vintage newspapers.

“If you do have a knowledge of Ireland, this gives you a sense of seeing it from all sides,” said McCoole. “Jackie Clarke’s idea was, ‘I give every side of the viewpoints; now make up your own mind.’ This collection gives you a grasp of the whole of Irish history.”

The collection, which opened in April, admits the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. An adjacent walled heritage garden is planted with native species and decorated with local materials.

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