Monday 22 July 2019

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

Jackie Clarke. Courtesy of the Jackie Clarke Collection
Jackie Clarke. Courtesy of the Jackie Clarke Collection
The Jackie Clarke Collection is housed within the old Provincial Bank building in Ballina, Co Mayo
A copy of the 1916 Proclamation at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It is stored inside an old bank vault.
Edel Golden browsing the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo
Facsimilies of The War News. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A 12-year old Jackie Clarke's scrapbook. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A copy of The Sunday Independent from January 8, 1922.
A portion of Clarke's collection. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke and his wife, Anne. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Stacks of historical documents kept in brown paper parcels tie with tweed. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke's shop in Ballina. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

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.

A copy of the 1916 Proclamation at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It is stored inside an old bank vault.
A copy of the 1916 Proclamation at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It is stored inside an old bank vault.
The Jackie Clarke Collection is housed within the old Provincial Bank building in Ballina, Co Mayo
Jackie Clarke. Courtesy of the Jackie Clarke Collection
Facsimilies of The War News. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Edel Golden browsing the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo
A 12-year old Jackie Clarke's scrapbook. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A copy of The Sunday Independent from January 8, 1922.
Clarke and his wife, Anne. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Stacks of historical documents kept in brown paper parcels tie with tweed. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke's shop in Ballina. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A portion of Clarke's collection. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection

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.

Clarke and his wife, Anne. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke and his wife, Anne. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Stacks of historical documents kept in brown paper parcels tie with tweed. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A copy of the 1916 Proclamation at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It is stored inside an old bank vault.
The Jackie Clarke Collection is housed within the old Provincial Bank building in Ballina, Co Mayo
A portion of Clarke's collection. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke's shop in Ballina. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A copy of The Sunday Independent from January 8, 1922.
A 12-year old Jackie Clarke's scrapbook. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Facsimilies of The War News. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Edel Golden browsing the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo
Jackie Clarke. Courtesy of the Jackie Clarke Collection

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.

Edel Golden browsing the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo
Edel Golden browsing the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo
The Jackie Clarke Collection is housed within the old Provincial Bank building in Ballina, Co Mayo
Stacks of historical documents kept in brown paper parcels tie with tweed. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Clarke and his wife, Anne. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
Jackie Clarke. Courtesy of the Jackie Clarke Collection
Facsimilies of The War News. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A copy of the 1916 Proclamation at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It is stored inside an old bank vault.
A 12-year old Jackie Clarke's scrapbook. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A copy of The Sunday Independent from January 8, 1922.
Clarke's shop in Ballina. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection
A portion of Clarke's collection. Courtesy: Jackie Clarke Collection

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?

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