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Sinead McCoole surrounded by material from Jackie Clarke's collection Photo by: New York Times

New museum in west of Ireland displays fish shop owner's astounding historical collection

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Sinead McCoole surrounded by material from Jackie Clarke's collection Photo by: New York Times

A new museum has opened in the west of Ireland that shares an unassuming fish shop owner's astounding collection of 100,000 historical pieces spanning 400 years. Visitors to the museum can view letters, books, maps, handbills, diaries, photos, posters, and other authentic items from every significant period of Irish history.

“We brought in scholars from all the different periods – the 1916 Easter Rising, the Famine, the Civil War – and every one of them was astonished,” said Sinead McCoole, director of the Jackie Clarke Collection.

Jackie Clarke was the son of a family of merchants who, as an adult, owned a salmon smoking business in Ballina, Co Mayo. He was also involved in politics, serving as a local Sinn Fein counselor and was once mayor of Ballina.

Clarke began collecting information and artifacts when he was only a child, BuffaloNews.com reports. The museum displays a notebook filled with newspaper clippings and notes that is labeled "J.Clarke Scrapbook" in 1940, when he was just 12 years old.

The collection includes many priceless and significant items, including a letter requesting that a priest visit the imprisoned and soon-to-be executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Visitors to the museum can also view a small, faded red, white and blue fabric garland worn on Theobald Wolfe Tone's hat when he was captured by the British in 1798, and whose removal communicated to him that he would be denied his only remaining wish, to be shot as a soldier rather than hanged as a traitor. (Tone committed suicide in his prison cell to avoid that ignominious death.)

Clarke, who haunted used bookshops and estate sales from adolescence on, preserved his finds in brown paper wrapping and other materials used in his fish shop. He did not categorize his items and he seldom showed his acquisitions to his family, who included his wife and five sons.

Five years after Clarke's death in 2000, McCoole met his widow Anne, who agreed to donate the materials to the Mayo County Council on the condition that the materials remain in Ballina, the place where Clarke had lived. The council hired McCoole for six weeks in 2005 to select some highlights from the Clarke collection to be displayed.

The massive scope of the collection astonished McCoole.

“I came down here thinking I was an expert, and I was humbled,” said McCoole, who specializes in the history of the Easter Rising, and is now the collection's permanent director.

The Clarke Collection is housed in the former Provincial Bank building on Pearse Street, built in 1881. One of only a few dozen copies of the 1916 Easter Proclamation is now displayed in the former vault.

“If you do have a knowledge of Ireland, this gives you a sense of seeing it from all sides,” said McCoole. “Jackie Clarke’s idea was, ‘I give every side of the viewpoints; now make up your own mind.’ This collection gives you a grasp of the whole of Irish history.”

The Clarke Collection, which opened in April, admits the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

Visit www.clarkecollection.ie for more information.

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