One man, 100,000 items: The small Mayo museum that packs a big punch
In an age of information overload, this quirky collection feels nostalgic and human, our Travel Editor writes
Ever heard of Jackie Clarke?
He was a Ballina fishmonger with a knack for smoked salmon.
He was also an avid collector. In fact, over his lifetime, Clarke amassed a trove of some 100,000 Irish historical artefacts, ranging from handwritten letters by Michael Collins to one of the few surviving copies of the 1916 Proclamation (below).
Clarke kept his hoard in the home he shared with his wife and five children above the fish shop, caching things in nooks and crannies, cataloguing in his head.
Last week, I visited the Jackie Clarke Collection (clarkecollection.ie; see galleries) - donated after his death to Mayo County Council and now housed in the old Provincial Bank building on Pearse Street.
Here, a taste of Clarke's treasure is laid out in low-key, unshowy displays, from a small scrapbook begun as a 12-year-old to a poem in Thomas McDonagh's hand - and that goosebump-inducing Proclamation, cleverly housed in a chunky bank vault.
Amidst the maps, documents and prints - most with a strong republican bent (a catalogue is now online) - you'll also find a little 'memory room' in which visitors can record stories of their own.
The collection may appear old-school and unremarkable. But it's a rabbit hole, catching you off-guard in the way of other, off-radar gems like the Little Museum of Dublin, No.14 Henrietta Street, or the Foynes Flying Boat Museum.
Visitors are gently guided into a warren of surprising stories... and Clarke's is most surprising of all.
"What people are really interested in is the story of a fishmonger who wouldn't throw out a newspaper," Edel Golden, the Collection manager, told me. "Annie [his wife] used to joke that he didn't drink or smoke, that collecting was his vice."
As we moseyed, I imagined the family living among the stacks in their home... gobbling breakfasts within a breath of Wolfe Tone's cockade; sharing cups of tea a few steps from Douglas Hyde's confirmation bible.
Fanciful thoughts, maybe. But the intimacy began drawing me in.
Every country needs its National Museums and galleries of scale. But there's something seductive about these smaller, unofficial spaces that engage us as human beings.
Jackie Clarke's collection goes down "the byways and bothareens of Irish life", as one commentator put it.
"It's kind of like a history from the bottom up," Golden mused.
In an age of screens and information overload, it felt warmly nostalgic to pore over actual handwriting, to catch the whiff of yellowing paper, to relate to Ballina's quirky 'salmon of knowledge', and wonder whether one man could apply himself in this obsessive, magpie-like way, today.
In 2019, where would you even begin?