A SALE OF TWO CENTURIES

REPUBLICANS AND SOCIALISTS PICKET AUCTION OF IRISH HISTORICAL ARTIFACTS

Clive Sulish

(Reading time: 5 mins.)

On Saturday 25th July tourists and other passers-by were treated to the sight of people picketing the Freemason Hall in Molesworth Street, Dublin, where the Whyte’s company was holding an auction of Irish historical artifacts.  The picketers flew the historical flags of the Sunrise of na Fianna Éireann and the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army and a banner proclaimed OUR HISTORY IS NOT FOR SALE – is linne uilig í. Placards displayed by the picketers denounced, in Irish and English, the sale of artifacts of Irish history. Among their periodic chants were “Irish history is not for sale!” and “Shame on Whyte’s!”

Picketer inside the Freemason Hall (Photo: Rebel Breeze)

          Very shortly before the event some people had learned of the forthcoming auction by the Whyte’s company, which has an office and shopfront in Molesworth Street (also the street in which the Freemason’s Hall is located), a couple of minutes’ walk from Leinster House, the location of the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament). The glossy brochure for the event listed a huge amount of items, including an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation of which the Irish State has only one original copy and others have been sold in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Also up for auction were writings of Thomas Ashe, who died from force-feeding while on hunger-strike in 1917 and a copy of Wolfe Tone’s speech – in his own handwriting — at the trial that condemned him to hang in 1798.

One of the Auctioneer company representatives tried to convince the picketers that he was carrying out a useful national historical service (though he admitted also at a tidy profit) by bringing some of those items for auction to Ireland. Wolfe Tone’s speech notes were a case in point, he claimed, since they had been in the family of a former English Army general. The picketers however were adamant that the item was “stolen property” and that the Irish Government should demand the return of that item and others like it, to which the auctioneer replied “That’s nonsense!”

Banner on display facing the location of the auction.
(Photo: Rebel Breeze)

The Auctioneer soon shifted tack and asked the picketers whether they had permission to hold their protest. They responded that they did not need one and were in a public place; the auctioneer went inside the building calling out that the picketers were mistaken.

Shortly thereafter, a Garda patrol car drove into the street and stopped near the protesters, disgorging two serving Garda and a trainee. The picketers explained their presence and that it was a peaceful protest, also assuring the officer in charge that they had obstructed no-one from entering and that indeed a half-dozen or so had entered the building already, passing them on the way; the officer then collected her team, got back in the patrol car and drove away.

The protesters, who had arrived at around 12.30, a half-hour before the advertised start time for the auction, remained until 1.30pm and left. At intervals their chants echoed around the street, no doubt clearly audible to people staying at or using Buswell’s hotel about 50 yards away.

Diarmuid Breatnach, an independent revolutionary socialist, spoke at the event, as did Sean Doyle, of Anti-Imperialist Action and Ger Devereux of the Saoradh organisation.

NOT THE HISTORY OF THE GOMBEENS

          Breatnach denounced the sale of historical artifacts in general but focused in particular on the speech notes of Wolfe Tone, going on to relate how Tone and other Republicans and liberals had tried to build a nation of equality between the various religions in Ireland. They supported the liberal Grattan’s bid to extend the franchise and representation in the Irish Parliament (in which only the tiny minority of Anglicans were permitted to enter) to Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants such as the Presbyterians). When the majority in Parliament rejected the bid by Grattan, Tone and Edward Fitzgerald and McCracken and others knew there was no way forward except revolution, explained the speaker.

In 1798 they had risen in three great uprisings in Wexford, Antrim and Mayo and many smaller ones and along with many others, Wolfe Tone had paid with his life. What kind of ghouls could take and sell the last words of such a man as Tone, Breatnach asked rhetorically? And what kind people could buy them?

Some people wonder how the Irish capitalist class were capable of selling their own history, commented the speaker and went on to say they could do so because it wasn’t their history. It was not the “Gombeen” class that risen to fight for freedom and equality in 1798 nor since but it was they who had “climbed up on our backs in 1921”. That was why the Gombeens could not only sell Irish history but also destroy our sugar beet industry, so that we had to buy sugar from the USA which subsides its industry, hand part of our country over to a foreign power, sell our public services to foreign companies and try to sell our water to one of their own.

Just as there was no way forward to build an Ireland of equality but revolution in 1798, Breatnach concluded, there was no way forward now without getting rid of the Gombeen rulers and the only way that could be done is by revolution.

(Photo: Rebel Breeze)

Speaking in a quiet voice, Sean Doyle introduced the piece he was going to read, which was an extract from the speech from the dock of another Irish Republican martyr, Roger Casement, hanged by the British in 1916 in Pentonville Prison, London.

Doyle alluded to the irony of Britain going to war allegedly to save Belgium, when Casement had reported on the the exploitation and mutilation of indigenous people in the Congo by forces operating under King Leopold of Belgium.

Casement’s speech also pointed out the fake independence that Ireland was being offered under Home Rule (which some might compare to the “independence” of the Irish state today in partitioned Ireland) and described the nature of true patriotism.

Some of the picketers inside the Freemason Hall.
(Photo: Rebel Breeze)

WHOSE HISTORY AND HERITAGE?

          Ger Devereux of the Saoradh organisation gave a short speech in which he pointed out that the items were of historical importance and belonged to the Irish nation alone, that they should not be sold to private collectors, nor should anyone be making a profit out of them.

The protesters concluded their protest with some more chants including “Whose history? OUR history! Whose heritage? OUR heritage! Irish history is not for sale!”

The Irish State has only three original copies of the Proclamation: one is in Leinster House and only two on regular view to the public, one in the GPO and another in the National Museum. Another copy is on display in the Long Room of Trinity College. Others have been sold by auction in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.

VIDEO thanks to Anti-Imperialist Action. 

REFERENCES:

https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/0725/1155496-1916-proclamation-auction/

https://www.thejournal.ie/proclamation-sale-auction-5159850-Jul2020/

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