Thursday 23 January 2020

Troubling memorabilia

Controversial: A Troubles-era riot mask
Controversial: A Troubles-era riot mask
A helmet, gas mask and truncheon
An Unwelcome Caller

Between 1968 and 1998, almost everyone who lived in Ireland was affected by "The Troubles". During these 30 years, armed conflict and political deadlock in the North tore communities and families apart. Thousands died, including almost 2,000 civilians, and tens of thousands were injured. It is all recent and raw.

The Good Friday agreement, signed in 1998, brought The Troubles to an official close, but the divisions and difficulties that led to the conflict have never been fully resolved. For this reason, you're unlikely to find a great deal of memorabilia from The Troubles in antique shops around the country.

In 2016, the Ulster Museum launched an initiative, Collecting the Troubles and Beyond, inviting people to come forward with objects, photographs and stories. "Inevitably the interpretation of these events is contested in terms of significance, meaning and responsibility," said William Blair, head of history at National Museums. "While we have a shared past we do not have a shared memory." The exhibition, To the Troubles and Beyond, opened to the public on Good Friday (the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). It explores how politics and conflict influenced the everyday lives of people and communities.

Memorabilia from The Troubles has also begun to emerge on the auction circuit. Some of this will find its way into museums, but there is also a growing level of interest among private collectors, including some that were priced out of the market for 1916 memorabilia during the centenary of the Rising. The Troubles is a new area of collecting: it is recent history, which means that there's plenty of material out there and, because it's controversial, not everyone wants to get involved. This means that most objects and photographs are accessibly priced.

A helmet, gas mask and truncheon
A helmet, gas mask and truncheon

Memorabilia from all sides of the conflict is collectible, but it's not evenly distributed. Paramilitary organisations didn't have uniforms and the decommissioning process got rid of many of their weapons. Consequently, uniforms or weapons relating to The Troubles will almost certainly relate to the British Armed Forces or the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Some of these are instantly recognisable as part of the conflict.

An RUC "Skulgarde" riot helmet with a metal badge and a leather neck-guard (below) is one of the items on offer at Whyte's Eclectic Collector Auction on 5 May. Scarcely more than a motorbike helmet, and without a visor, it is of a type used in the Battle of the Bogside (1969). The helmet is for sale along with a truncheon and a gas mask of a type issued to the RUC (est. €200 to €300).

The riot lasted three days, during which Free Derry was declared in the Bogside and James Chichester-Clarke, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, requested that the Army be deployed on the streets of Derry. This was the first deployment of British troops in the Troubles. A similar RUC helmet, adapted with a visor, was reputedly worn in the Divis Street riots of 1969 (est. €150 to €200).

The sale also includes a British Mk IV steel helmet, fitted with a Perspex visor for riot and crowd control in the North (est. €100 to €150). It was recovered from Raglan Street, Belfast, following the "Falls Curfew" riots in July 1970. This British Army operation began as a house-to-house search for weapons and escalated into gun battles between British soldiers and the IRA. A curfew was imposed on the area and its residents subjected to increasingly destructive searches. The curfew ended on 5 July when a procession of women from the Andersontown breached the British Army cordon with supplies of food for the residents.

Because of the nature of the conflict, Republican memorabilia tends to be ephemeral. Often, it's confined to printed material. Early posters were simple silk-screen prints. There is a pair of these in the auction, both dating from 1969, for sale as a single lot (est. €150 to €200). One is captioned "Do You Trust the Mad Major?" and shows Major Chichester Clark juggling five balls alternately labelled "Mick" and "Prod"; the other shows an RUC officer wearing a gas mask and carrying a pistol and truncheon, and is captioned "Take Down Your Barricades and Let Us In!". Later posters were more sophisticated. This February, a 1980s two-colour IRA poster, "Stay Clear - Keep Them In Fear" sold at Whyte's for €380. It showed a photograph of a British Army patrol with the strapline, "Isolate the enemy", and a warning to the civilian population to "stay clear of all crown forces personnel". It was sold with a 1980s promotional poster for An Phoblacht and an early 1990s election poster for Martin McGuinness.

Foreign journalists who reported on the conflict are among the most consistent sources of memorabilia from The Troubles, and the sale includes a collection of press photos with images of informers having their heads shaved, people being tarred and feathered, and one of a man with a donkey cart being searched at the border by the RUC. Collections of press photographs relating to The Troubles have sold at Whyte's in the past decade, each fetching between €300 and €650.

See and

In the Salerooms


There's an interesting piece of design history at Adam's At Home auction, which takes place on Sunday, April 15 at 11.30am. The Independence sofa suite (est €3,000 to €5,000) was designed in 1968 by Karl Wittmann of the Wittmann Möbelwerkstätten, and consists of two easy chairs and a sofa, upholstered in black leather, with panelled seats and timber legs. The sofa converts to a bed. Paintings in the sale include Feeding Time (est €4,000 to €6,000), a scene of workhorses at the trough by John Frederick Herring Senior (1795 - 1865). Herring was a painter, sign-maker, and coachman, and his depictions of horses are closely observed.

An Unwelcome Caller

Of Irish interest, An Unwelcome Caller (€3,000 to €5,000, pictured) by Richard Staunton Cahill (1827-1904) shows a rent collector, one assumes, arriving at the cottage of a family (above). Cahill's work is sometimes used as an historic source for furnishing and clothing, and this painting is typically detailed - the rent collector is only a little less ragged than the tenants. Other items of interest include a George I silver teapot, Dublin 1715, mark of Thomas Bolton (est €10,000 to €15,000) that was once in the collection of James Weldon; and a collection of 14 gold pocket watch cases (est €4,000 to €6,000). See

Lev Mitchell

The antique action at Milltown Country Auction Rooms on Monday includes the contents of No 5 Queens Street, Warrenpoint, Co Down, as well as 150 lots of china from Riverside House, Drogheda, Co Louth. Items include a Regency mahogany inlaid sideboard fitted with four drawers, a wine compartment and a brass gallery rail (est €500 to €600); a Victorian mahogany arch top two-door bookcase (est €400 to €500) and an 18th-century carved oak panelled mule chest (est €600 to €800); as well as a pair of Chinese urns and lids with mounted lions stamped and dated 1895 (est €600 to €800); and a pub mirror advertising the Drogheda brewery of Wm Cairnes & Sons (€300 to €400). The auction is held at Joe Lennon, Milltown Country Auction Rooms, Milltown, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Co Louth, in conjunction with Lev Mitchell & Sons Auctioneer and Valuer, and begins at 12 noon with live bidding on ­ Viewing is from Saturday to Monday. See ­

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

The Carlow Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place on Sunday at Woodford Dolmen Hotel, Carlow, from 12 noon to 6pm. Organised by Antiques Fairs Ireland, it will include antique and vintage jewellery, silver, rare books, curios and vintage homeware and will run alongside a 'Vintage Fashion Fayre' with a range of fashion and accessories for both men and women. Admission is €3.50 (see ­ Also on Sunday, a Hibernian Antiques and Vintage Fair will take place in Cahir House Hotel, Cahir, Co Tipperary, from 11am to 6pm.

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