HOW the papers of a man reputed to be the wealthiest man in Ireland ended up in a skip is a mystery for another day but, thanks to a chance discovery and a happy coincidence, those precious historic documents were donated to the State on Thursday.
The account, this week, of how three friends found the royal seal of four monarchs, among other treasures, in a metal chest destined for the dump is one of those stories that really captures the imagination.
It’s the Antiques Roadshow meets Who Do You Think You Are? It’s proof that the twin accidents of survival and discovery can bring about a happy ending. And it shows that the obsession of our age — decluttering to ‘spark joy’ — has significant downsides.
Think of what might have been lost if the curiosity of friends Robert Maharry, Richard Gorman and Ruary O Síocháin had not been piqued when a pristine copy of the Irish Times blew out of a skip while they were walking along Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin some 40 years ago.
When they realised it was a newspaper from 1921, they went to investigate the skip’s contents.
They found a metal chest with a name on it and some documents inside. They thought nothing more of it, but the box, and its contents, accompanied Robert Maharry each time he moved house, ending up in a garage.
Four decades would pass before another of the friends, Richard Gorman, came across the name on the chest – ‘Conolly’ – at Castletown House in Kildare. He assumed, correctly, that there was a connection.
He gave the cache to the OPW which was able to identity a collection of maps, grants, the will of William ‘Speaker’ Conolly, said to be the richest man in Ireland when he died in 1729, and the royal seals of four monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I, kings George l, James l and Charles l.
What a salutary tale for those of us who have been persecuted by the drive to embrace the “life-changing magic of tidying up” espoused by Marie Kondo in her bestselling sensation Spark Joy.
I’m with those who have pointed out that the queen of supreme order has made more work for women with her message that decluttering equals happiness, or contentedness at least.
Though that might be presumptuous; there could well be many content men out there who have adopted her patented – yes, patented – folding method to organise their sock and underwear drawers.
There are others, it has to be said, who say that clearing the clutter has really proved to be life-changing and indeed joy-sparking. Good for them, though Tim Hartford’s new book Messy is the one I’d like in my Christmas stocking this year.
It’s not that the economist and author is advocating chaos; he’s merely pointing out that there are unexpected connections between creativity and mess.
As he puts it, “the human qualities we value — creativity, responsiveness, resilience — are integral to the disorder, confusion and disarray that produce them”.
He also quotes research that will soothe hoarders. ‘Pilers’ [of papers and documents], it turns out, are more productive than ‘filers’ who tend to use filing cabinets as waste-paper baskets.
Speaking of waste, who knows what prompted the clearance of those valuable Conolly papers in the late 1970s. The decluttering trend was still decades away, though there was a rush to embrace the brand-spanking new, in an era of increasing affluence.
Worried that the old and possibly valuable might be discarded, the National Museum of Ireland would later run a campaign called ‘Don’t Turf it Out’, which was designed to raise awareness of the treasures that might be discovered in Irish bogs.
Priceless objects have emerged since — Bronze Age jewellery, leather shoes, bog butter, even a Medieval psalter.
The stars of the show, however, must be Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, the remarkably well-preserved Iron Age bodies of two men that are now in the museum’s magnificent exhibition, ‘Kingship and Sacrifice’.
If you want to come face to face, quite literally, with the past, go to see it.
In this year of commemoration, it is heartening to see the spirit of that ‘Don’t Turf it Out’ campaign still endures.
At least some of the 100-year-old papers, photographs and documents — both personal and official — that might have ended up in skips have been preserved and safely housed in archives around the country.
Thanks to the hoarders, we have been able to flesh out the events of the past and write a more complete, balanced and diverse history.
Voice of the Many, the beautiful new commemorative publication from the Cork City and County Archives Service, celebrates that archival material and shows how it can bring to life a city on the cusp of great cultural and political change between 1914 and 1916.
Compiled and edited by archivist Brian McGee, the book is dedicated to all of those who make, keep or use archives.
If you’re not among that number, this book will certainly persuade you of their value. As Brian McGee writes: “With archives, we have the opportunity to see and touch our forefathers’ written words, in this case bringing to life how Cork’s local democratic institutions, organisations, and people responded to the great challenges of a time of war and rebellion, and cultural and political change.”
In all the turmoil, life went on, as the advert for Curtin Bros shop in Blackpool, shows.
“A pleasant cup of tea is nice/ and also, now, is cocoa/ And Irish Bread of Irish Flour/ Let’s no one room to croak so./ Make a point when purchasing, / to get your money’s worth in/Goulnaspurra or Blackpool./ The name you seek is CURTIN. Irish manufactured goods a speciality.”