House clearance sales can sometimes yield extraordinary treasures for very small investments. Sometimes it takes time for the monetary or historical value of such items to emerge, even after purchase. And this has been the case with the acquisition of a rather plain looking wooden box recently and the subsequent discovery inside it of a trove of items, including a hitherto unknown letter from death row by the 18-year-old republican Kevin Barry.
On the day of Kevin Barry's execution, the tricolour at University College Dublin flew at half-mast. The medical student was hanged on November 1, 1920. Since his death, Barry's famous photo - in which he is seen wearing his Belvedere College rugby shirt - has become a recognisable icon of Irish nationalism.
Kevin Barry's poignant last letter, written to his friends the night before he died, sold for €105,000 at Adam's auctioneers, Dublin, in April 2010. It was part of an annual Independence Auction, then run jointly between Adam's and Mealy's Auctioneers of Co Kilkenny. That letter, written in blue prison pencil, carried an estimate of between €14,000 and €18,000. It was catalogued as one of three letters written by Barry on the eve of his execution. But now, a fourth Kevin Barry letter has come to light.
This is signed by Barry and addressed to Dr Denis J. Coffey, first president of UCD. It will be auctioned at Sheppard's sale of The Irish Revolution and Beyond on May 3 (est. €20,000 to €30,000). It's a heart-breaking document. He writes:
Dear Dr. Coffey
Thank you for your kind words of encouragement and praise. I am glad you all think so gladly of me. Fr. Albert comes in to see me later and I hope to have a good old chat with him in the Gaelic. Do not worry too much about me I will be going to a much better place. Tell my fellow students to say a prayer for me and tell them I will miss them, but I will remember them in my prayers tonight and also say a prayer for Frank Flood.
Parting is such a sad thing but we will meet again someday in heaven. This is not goodbye but simply adieu for now. Canon Waters will give me communion upon the event in the morning and I will go to the gallows as an Irishman with love in my heart for a free Ireland.
Barry had joined the Irish Volunteers as a 15-year-old schoolboy and used to cycle around Dublin after school, delivering messages to fellow Volunteers. When the War of Independence began in 1919, he was a member of the first battalion of the Dublin Brigade. In the summer before he died, Barry took part in two successful raids for arms. The third raid went wrong.
The raid took place on the morning of September 20, 1920 (Barry was due to repeat his end-of-year exam in the afternoon). He was one of a group of Volunteers that ambushed a British army lorry, which had stopped to get bread at Monk's Bakery on Church Street. Their aim was to disarm the soldiers and escape with their weapons but a shot was fired and the ambush party opened fire on the British soldiers.
Private Harold Washington (aged 15) died at the scene; Private Tom Humphries (aged 20) and Private Marshall Whitehead (aged 19) died later from their wounds. Kevin Barry, who had taken refuge under the lorry when his weapon jammed, was taken prisoner. All four young men were victims of the conflict.
To a certain extent, Kevin Barry has been mythologised.
Versions of an anonymous ballad written shortly after his death have been sung by Paul Robeson, Leonard Cohen, and the Dubliners. But there is no doubt that the historical Barry was a remarkably brave young man and the dignity with which he faced his death was reflected in his final letters. "He was a very bright guy," says Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. "He was able to formulate thoughts under the most stressful conditions imaginable. Can you imagine someone of 18 years of age being able to compose such a letter, let alone on the eve of his execution?"
He also points out that the letter, written in response Coffey's "kind words of encouragement and praise" deserves further study. "Ideally it will be purchased by an institution for scholarly research, but in practise it will go to the highest bidder," says Sheppard with a sigh. The letter was discovered in a military trunk, inscribed: "Q. M. GENERAL FELIX CRONIN OGLAIGH NA H'EIREANN".
Major General Felix Cronin (d. 1961) was a veteran of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War and served as quartermaster general of the Irish Free State army in the 1920s. In 1925 he married Kitty Kiernan (1893-1945), the former fiancée of Michael Collins. The trunk was purchased by its current owner at a rural house clearance in 1995. In terms of historical and monetary value, it slipped under the radar.
"Nobody would have paid much attention to it," Sheppard explains. "If you'd got £50 it would have been the top price at the sale." The trunk provided a remarkably rich haul and contained all 69 lots in the current sale. The Kevin Barry letter is potentially the most valuable, but the trunk also held a metal memorial cross (est. €8,000 to €1,2000) that once marked the site of Michael Collin's assassination at Béal na Bláth. The cross is scarred with holes, apparently made by bullets, and comes with a note that it was "desecrated by Irregular Troops who used it for Target Shooting".
The sale also includes many minor items relating to the War of Independence and the Civil War with estimates of under €200. "There's no precedent for this kind of stuff," Sheppard explains. "It's an opportunity for collectors with very limited means to acquire a piece of Irish history."
In the Salerooms
In 1955, you could pick up a pair of Jack Butler Yeats watercolour and ink paintings for just £25. A typewritten note affixed to the back of The Bold Captain Frenay II (est. €5,000 to €7,000) describes how the collector made the purchase: "He showed me several of his latest impressionist type of oil paintings, priced at that time £100. But I wanted one of his earlier works (of the style in the Irish Grammar books that he illustrated). After a search he discovered these two at the back of a curtained shelf. They were already framed. When I challenged him that they might be a print from the Cuala Press he said "Anyone can tell that these are original!" The painting is coming up at Morgan O'Driscoll's Irish & International Art Auction at the RDS Minerva Suite, Dublin, on Monday at 6pm. morganodriscoll.com
Herman & Wilkinson
The Irish and International Art Auction that takes place at Herman & Wilkinson, Dublin, on Wednesday, May 2, has an emphasis on accessibility and includes works from Louis Le Brocquy, Jack Butler Yeats, Markey Robinson, Kenneth Webb, and John Skeleton. The sale also includes a collection of works by Edward Augustine McGuire (1901-1992). One of these, EcceHomo (est. €2,000 to €3,000), was shown at the Exhibition of Living Art 1950. The sale begins at 7pm in the Swan Hall. hermanwilkinson.ie
A sale on Tuesday, May 1 and Wednesday, May 2, includes an unusual tableaux of Victorian shopkeeping. A reconstructed 19th century chemist's ship includes the original counters, wall cabinets, apothecary drawers and glass labels as well as a rare McQuaid rubberoid advertising figure, Fry's Chocolate advertising cabinet and rare Young's Medical gilt and wooden shop sign. This shop, originally from Co Tipperary, was once a pillar of its local community, providing residents with potions, lotions and remedies for more than 100 years. Viewing continues until April 30 from 11am-6pm. victormeeauctions.ie
A rare first edition of The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937) (est. €20,000 to €30,000, pictured) by JRR Tolkien is going under the hammer at Fonsie Mealy's Rare Book & Collector's Sale which takes place at the Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel on Wednesday, May 2 at 10.30am. The book comes complete with map and pictorial dust jacket and is one of just 1,500 copies sold from the original print run. A first edition of Irish fantasy fiction, Touchstone (1989) by Peter Regan, with original illustrations by Pamela Leonard, is estimated to sell between €3,500 and €4,500. The book is signed by the artist and includes the original illustration of Captain Skiron with a waitress, then considered "not suitable for a children's book". Viewing continues next Monday and Tuesday. fonsiemealy.ie