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A powerful reminder of our history

Comment & Opinion

FOSTERING A LOVE OF HISTORY Young Emily Fitzpatrick attended the War of Independence exhibition launch at the Jackie Clarke Collection last Friday with her mother, Siobhán (left), and Lauren Massey (centre). All three are members of Ballina Girl Guides. Pic: Henry Wills

Sitting on display in the War of Independence exhibition in the Jackie Clarke Collection is an old autograph book that records a seminal moment in Irish history. It is a tally of the votes in Dáil Éireann on January 7, 1922, for and against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
In the pencil writing you can see just how close the vote was – an indication, with hindsight, of just how likely civil war was becoming. At the time, though, the prospect of such a war was a lot less obvious.
“None of them knew that six months later they would all be at war, [and that] this time it wouldn’t be British soldiers they’d be fighting, it would be their brothers, their sisters, their wives, their family members, their best friends,” said historian Liz Gillis in the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina on Friday last.
She was the special guest at the official opening of the museum’s War of Independence exhibition, and she described the autograph book as a ‘particularly poignant’ part of an ‘amazing exhibition’.
It is impossible to argue. The War of Independence was not the end of the violence; much more was to follow after that fateful vote.
The breadth of Jackie Clarke’s collection is demonstrated by the fact that for every anniversary in Irish history, there is a copious amount of material with which to launch an exhibition that suits the occasion.
The Ballina man, who died in 2000, was a passionate collector. During his lifetime he amassed an astonishing 100,000-plus items of Irish historical material that spans across 400 years.
The Jackie Clarke Collection’s Easter Rising exhibition was required viewing, and it will come as no surprise that the War of Independence exhibition is no different.
It contains a wide range of newspapers, letters, documents and pamphlets covering the aftermath of The Rising, the conscription crisis and the First Dáil, leading into the War of Independence and The Treaty. Mayo-specific exhibitions will follow later this year.
Among the many items on display is a pamphlet, ‘Arguments for the Treaty’, written by Arthur Griffith; a powerful original Freeman’s Journal front page marking the death of Terence MacSwiney, saying he had made the ‘supreme sacrifice’; original pages from the Evening Herald on Kevin Barry’s death, also described as the ‘supreme sacrifice’; handbills supporting and protesting conscription in 1918; and a police notice with a £1,000 reward for the capture of Daniel Breen.
Also on display is a photograph of Mayo man James McDonnell, the Royal Irish Constabulary officer killed in the Soloheadbeg Ambush on January 21, 1919, widely considered to have marked the start of the War of Independence.  
It was an operation that did not have the authorisation of the First Dáil, which, coincidentally, met for the first time on the same date.
Casualties like James McDonnell were, said Liz Gillis, ‘inevitable’, as RIC officers were the ‘frontline soldiers’ in the War of Independence, not British Army soldiers.
His photograph is a reminder of how it was not just the Civil War that pitted Irishman against Irishman.
The Jackie Clarke Collection allows us all to examine the past, reflect on it personally and be very aware of what has come before.
It is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in Irish history. Jackie Clarke has left a fine legacy.
Thousands of items can be seen on display in the Jackie Clarke Collection in its superbly appointed museum in the old Provincial Bank building on Pearse Street in Ballina.
In 2005,  the collection was presented to the people of Ballina by Jackie Clarke’s widow, Anne, now also deceased. It was a tremendous gift to bequeath to the town and the county.
Fittingly, Anne and Jackie’s son, Peter, lit a candle in their memory at Friday’s launch.
Thanks to the Clarke family’s incredible act of generosity, this wonderful collection shines a bright light on so many seminal moments in Irish history. If you haven’t been, you really should check it out. It is a jewel in Mayo’s crown.