Thursday 14 December 2017

Treasures: Taking the revolutionary road to riches

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Joseph Plunkett's 1916 medal.
Joseph Plunkett's 1916 medal.
An Irish Volunteers' cap badge.
1916 back to front Tricolour
17th century chart of Ireland

On Easter Monday 1916, a splendidly uniformed soldier with a white scarf around his neck lay on a mattress in front of the stamp counter in the GPO.

The young Roddy Connolly, son of James Connolly, commented that the man on the mattress "didn't look like much of a leader, lying down in the middle of a revolution". He always remembered his father's reply. "That's Joe Plunkett and he has more courage in his little finger than all the other leaders combined."

Plunkett, who was a poet and a journalist as well as a revolutionary, was terminally ill. He suffered from tuberculosis and had recently undergone an operation on the glands of his neck (hence the scarf and the mattress). Despite this, he had led the charge from Abbey Street on the GPO, where he served as Padraig Pearse's chief of staff for the duration of the Rising.

Joseph Plunkett's 1916 Rising Medal will be offered for sale in Whyte's History and Literature auction on March 13, 2016. It carries an estimate of €70,000 to €100,000.

The service medals posthumously awarded to the signatories of the Proclamation are amongst the most valuable of 1916 memorabilia, but Plunkett's had a surprisingly narrow escape.

It was issued to his widow, Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford), who he had married in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol a few hours before his execution. Grace Plunkett was an anti-treaty republican who had served time in Kilmainham Gaol during the Civil War.

By the time the medals were awarded in 1941, she was thoroughly disenchanted with the Irish government. She was about to throw the medal in the bin when her friend stopped her. Grace gave the medal to her friend.

In terms of 1916 memorabilia, Peak Rising is approaching fast. Three of the major Irish auction houses are now consigning for sales specifically geared towards the Rising and there has been considerable activity on the international front. Just yesterday, the Liberty Collection of Medals and Artefacts Related to the Rising and Ireland's Fight for Independence went under the hammer at Spink & Sons of New York.

The collection was clearly amassed by someone who knew what they were doing. It included medals awarded to Sean O'Kelly, who served as Pearse's staff captain with the GPO garrison and later as the President of Ireland (1945-59) and a group of four medals awarded to Bridget Connolly, who also served with the GPO garrison.

Prices too are probably approaching a high point. On December 15, 2015 a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic sold at Sotheby's of London for £305,000 (€396,599). Whyte's also has an original Proclamation in their March sale.

"Original 1916 Proclamations were printed on cheap newsprint in black and white. They were 30in high and 20in wide," says Stuart Purcell of Whyte's, reminding would-be vendors that any document showing colours or with different dimensions is not the genuine article.

Adam's 1916 History Sale, which takes place on April 19, includes a commemorative version of the Proclamation which was printed in 1917 on the first anniversary of the Rising. This version is even rarer than the original, with less than a handful of copies known to survive. Kieran O'Boyle of Adam's is not aware that one has come up for auction before.

Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' Centenary Sale, which takes place in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, on April 23, includes an original 1916 Proclamation which comes from the family of James Ryan, a medical student who tended to the wounded in the GPO and, with Connolly, was one of the last to leave the building.

"One of his last acts was to remove the Proclamation from the wall," says George Fonsie Mealy. "It sends shivers down your spine to think that it might be the very one that was intoned by Pearse."

It is estimated between €100,000 and €150,000. The sale also includes a particularly poignant piece of memorabilia - the white handkerchief waved to cease hostilities after the evacuation of the GPO, prior to Pearse's surrender.

Collectible items associated with the Rising might range from manuscripts and eye witness accounts to uniforms or firearms. "The important thing is provenance," Purcell explains. "We need to know the full story of the object to establish the link with the Rising."

He is currently cataloguing an eyewitness account from a fisheries inspector who cycled into Dublin every day to watch the Rising and then went home to write up an account. "He must have been a bit bonkers," says Purcell.

As a rule of thumb, random items that date from 1916, like newspapers and train tickets without a direct connection to the Rising, are not of interest to collectors. Similarly, buttons from uniforms are generally not of value as the same buttons continued in use by the Irish defence forces and it is almost impossible to tell the difference.

For those interested in selling or learning about 1916 memorabilia, the Irish Independent/ and Whyte's will be holding an exhibition, lecture and valuation day this Sunday at the Gresham Hotel, O'Connell Street, Dublin from 11am to 4pm. The exhibition will include an original example of The Proclamation of The Irish Republic, Joseph Plunkett's 1916 Rising Service Medal and many letters and autographs from the leaders, including Pearse, Connolly, and MacDonagh.

Experts from Whyte's will offer free valuations of items associated with the Rising and the War Of Independence and Ian Whyte will give an illustrated talk on the range and values of 1916 Rising and 1917-21 War Of Independence collectibles between 4pm and 5pm.

Whyte's auction of 1916 Rising and other Irish historical collectibles takes place Sunday, March 13, with further details on

The History Sale - 1916 takes place at Adam's on April 19, with further details on Fonsie Mealy Centenary Sale takes place on April 23, with further details on

In the salerooms

17th century chart of Ireland


R J Keighery's next auction takes place at City Auction Rooms, Waterford, on February 1 at 10.30am. Some of the more unusual lots include an African marriage tent liner made of wool and camel hair, estimated to sell between €160 and €220, and a rare Victorian needlework picture of British triple masted naval ship in a maple frame (€650 to €850).

The online catalogue is available at with live bidding at


The first of the big Dublin fairs of 2016 will take place in Clontarf Castle this Sunday, January 31 from 11am to 6pm with around 40 traders showing an array of items.

Loughgall Antiques from Northern Ireland will have a Victorian oak barrel chair, a Victorian mahogany dumb waiter, and a rosewood chiffonier, while Athlone Fine Art and Antiques show a selection of paintings by 20th century and contemporary Irish artists.

At the more affordable end of a wide price bracket, Strictly Vintage will bring a range of wearable and collectable costume jewellery. For further details, call Joan Murray on 087 2670607. Also on January 31, an antique and collectors fair organised by AVA Antiques Fairs, will take place at City North Hotel, Drogheda, from 11am to 6pm.

The following weekend, on February 6 and 7, Cork National Antiques Art and Vintage Fair will take place at Clayton Silver Springs Hotel, Cork. Admission is €3.50 for adults (children are free).

The ticket price includes a raffle ticket and further details are available from Robin O'Donnell on 0876933602.


A limited edition complete set of A Broadside (1908 to 1915), edited and illustrated by Jack B Yeats and printed by Dun Emer and Cuala Press, sold at Adam's for €6,000 as part of the auction of Tim Vignoles' collection of Irish books on December 14, 2015.

Some early publications of Seamus Heaney's work sold particularly well. These included a first edition of Eleven Poems (1965), published by Festival Publications, Queen's University, and signed by Heaney which reached €3,000.

This was Heaney's first book and pre-dates The Death Of A Naturalist (1966). The auction of the Richard SJ Clarke Collection of cartography took place the following day, also at Adam's.

The top lot in the sale was a chart of Dublin Bay and Plan of Dublin and Environs on four sheets. It sold for €12,000. A 17th century chart of Ireland and the Irish Sea sold for €7,000. The chart comes from Dell Arcano del Mare, which translates as "The Secrets of the Sea". This great atlas by Robert Dudley (1573-1649) was published in Florence in 1646/7.

The 'Connacht bulge' is missing from this version of the map of Ireland. An even earlier map of Ireland by Baptista Boazio (1588-1606) sold for €5,000.

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