Dublin’s antiques shops and auction showhouses are brimming with old stuff, stuff that at first glance is ordinary and everyday, yet somehow it manages to embody fascinating human stories – of both the original owners and other people along the subsequent provenance “trail”.
If it doesn’t sound too bombastic, these are objects that have been touched by history, as it were.
Take the following four objects from a sale by Adam’s and Mealy’s of 1916-related memorabilia back in April 2011.
(Prices of Irish 1916 collectibles have gone all over the shop in the intervening five years, but you’re welcome to make a rough guess at the final hammer price for each object at the time of the sale. Put your guess in the comments box below, in the currency of your choice, and I’ll reveal all tomorrow.)
(And no cheating.)
(And no prizes.)
Lot 31: Enamel advertising sign (damaged)
This sign measures 70 x 102 centimetres. So it’s quite big, the kind of thing you might come across on the wall of a Genuine Irish Pub nowadays.
It came from Eason & Son in Lower Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin. Easons is a household name in Ireland, as one of its best known bookshop chains, wholesalers and distributors of newspapers, magazines and related products.
But look carefully: this is not any old sign. As the auction brochure puts it, it “displays clearly the damage it received by gunfire during the Rebellion”. In fact, there are so many dents and holes – and the sign is so day-glo – that I suspect it was being used for target practice.
Lot 135: A ball of twine
And not just any ball of twine either (I’m beginning to sound like one of those Marks & Spencer food commercials).
This particular ball was handcrafted by the rebel Frank McGrath. It was made (in the auction catalogue’s words) “to resemble a sliothar or handball, for use in the prison yards during the period past the 1916 Rising… Rare.”
A sliotar or sliothar is a hard ball used in the game of hurling. Handball is also an ancient Irish sport, played in handball alleys or – in this case – against the walls of a prison. Who won? Who were Ireland’s twine-ball kings that year?
Lot 523: One printed card for target practice (used / damaged)
Near the top of the card, somebody has scribbled “Given to K. Healy 1922”. It’s also signed “Constance de Markievicz”.
Constance Markievicz, often also called the Countess Markievicz, was the most famous female leader in the Easter Rising. To put it mildly, she was well able handle a gun.
The auction brochure goes on to explain that there are “seven perforations of which two are in the bulls-eye section and two more very near it… The target card was used at 25 yards distance, and it certainly bears witness to the Countess’s proficiency as a marksman.” Or markswoman even.
The shooting range in question would probably have been at Joseph Plunkett’s farm in Kimmage.
But I’m trying to picture the scene, trying to cut from the target practice to the…
OK, start again: what kind of situation was it, this handing over of the card to this K. (Kathleen?) Healy in 1922? Who gave it? Markievicz herself, or someone else? Why would someone have held onto it after the target practice? Would the Irish Civil War have already started by then?
Lot 591: Restaurant menu (handwritten, and badly)
Of all four objects, this is my favourite. A handwritten menu that came from the family collection of an extraordinary journalist called Kathleen Napoli (née McKenna), who was originally from Oldcastle in County Meath.
The card is signed on the back by Micheál Ó Coileáin (Michael Collins) and Art Ó Gríofa (Arthur Griffith) among others. It comes from the eve of the Treaty talks in London on 10 November 1921. The menu that night included the following, and don’t blame me for some of the worst puns in 20th-century Irish history:
- A choice of two soups – Peace (thick) or Publicity (clear)
- A fish course of “Hans Plaice” or “Caddugan Steaks” – the Irish delegates were staying at Hans Place and Cadogan Gardens
- Entrées such as “Economic Cutlets (Reparation Gravy)” and “Minced Ulster (North East Sauce)”
- Roast Beef of Old England, with Aide Memoire of Potatoes
‘The Dail girls’
The nationalist leader Arthur Griffith employed Kathleen McKenna as a confidential typist during the struggle for independence. In autumn 1921 she was one of the “Dáil girls” (as the auction catalogue puts it) who were sent to London for the Treaty negotiations.
Then in the fledgling Free State she became a typist and confidential secretary for senior ministers including Michael Collins, Desmond FitzGerald, Kevin O’Higgins and W.T. Cosgrave. It seems that at each historical turning point, Kathleen Napoli-McKenna was there. Or as the auction catalogue puts it:
“She is not to be found in the principal works of reference, though she was perhaps as significant a person as some of those included… Many of the significant documents of the Irish history of this period passed through her hands and her typewriter.”
That’s an understatement. She wasn’t “just” a typist (at a time when “just typing” certain things could put you in jail or far worse), nor was she “just” a (safe) pair of hands. She was a key member of the editorial production team of the Dail’s underground daily news update, The Irish Bulletin. She collated it, typed it, mimeographed it, all by hand, all under wartime conditions, in premises that changed from day to day as the authorities searched for the machinery.
The Bureau of Military History has later statements from her, and transcripts of her radio talks about her underground work:
By the time of the Truce the Bulletin ran into two, three or more pages daily and two Gestetner Rotary Machines were necessary to roll off the many thousands of pages required to supply five copies a week to each person on the list which had become a long one of some twelve hundred recipients.
Kathleen Napoli died in Rome in 1988, but two years ago her daughter Teresa – at the sprightly age of 90 – brought out her mother’s memoirs as an eBook, A Dail Girl’s Revolutionary Recollections.
I’ll have the auction results in a separate blog post tomorrow. Promise.