The Emotion and Rhythms of Ireland’s Past

by Roisín Higgins

Each time I move house I take with me a box full of letters that I have received or never sent. They are fragments of my younger self that I keep because they contain memories of homesickness and heartbreak, adventure and love. They are a good example of how objects carry meaning and feelings into the present. When I joined the team at ‘National Treasures’ I hoped to find things that captured the emotions and rhythms of Ireland’s past. I was sure that we would better understand our history and society by listening to the widest range of its individual stories. In each city we visited there were objects that were personal and yet cast a light on significant aspects of the country’s past.



The Handwoven Picture Box

Dolores Kelly brought a little box her mother made while in a TB sanatorium in Peamount Hospital, Co Dublin in the 1940s. Dolores’s mother was in the sanatorium for three years and throughout this time was only allowed to see her child through a glass partition. The box is a treasured part of the family’s story and is used to keep letters and mementos gathered in the years since it was made.

Almost every family in Ireland has a story about Tuberculosis. It was one of the major causes of death in the 1940s and it was not until the introduction of streptomycin and other antibiotics that mortality rates began to decline in the 1950s. When he became Minister for Health in 1948, Noel Browne introduced free screening for TB and spearheaded the building of new hospitals and sanatoria. Browne had himself suffered from the disease, and both his parents died of it.

Tuberculosis was infectious and therefore it was attended by enormous fear, and the treatment in sanatoria sometimes meant years of separation. Therefore TB affected entire families very deeply and the memory of this has been passed down through generations. Dolores’s little hand-made box contains this much larger story.

Industrial School Ledger

In Cork, I met Thomas Wall. He had a letter which he had not received until many years after it had been sent. The letter was from his aunt, written to him while he was a child in Glinn Industrial School in Limerick, asking if she could come to visit. Tom found the letter among records left by the Christian Brothers who had run the school. He salvaged some material after the school was closed in 1966 (records of the food children were given, the documents they signed on release), and in the process found his own letter.

The industrial school system is among the most shameful parts of Ireland’s recent past. At least 173,000 children entered industrial and reformatory institutions between 1936 and 1970. Poverty was the defining factor in their incarceration. The average age of the boys committed to Glinn was nine years and 10 months, and the average sentence was five years and eight months. The Commission to Investigate into Child Abuse (set up in 1999) found that Glinn had a severe systemic regime of corporal punishment; that it failed in its fundamental requirement to provide care, education and training for the boys and that the Department of Education had failed in its supervisory duties.

It might seem impossible to include an item relating to industrial schools in a programme called ‘National Treasures’. How could we possibly treasure these institutions? However, it was really important that we didn’t edit out these parts of history. If Tom hadn’t come along we wouldn’t have been able to tell this story. We were relying on members of the public to bring their history to us. In keeping these records and sharing them here, Tom has done us all a service.

Bed of Nails

Nowhere was it more important to make sure we conveyed the complicated messiness of history than in Belfast. For me a bed of nails summed up perfectly the exuberance of a city amidst the sharp edge of conflict.

Nora Greer arrived with a variety of colourful objects from the Belfast Community Circus School. She had been married to one of its founders, Mike Moloney, who sadly died in 2013. Mike was an Australian who arrived in Belfast in 1981. Along with his friend Donal McKendry he began running workshops in areas like Tiger’s Bay, the New Lodge and Travellers’ camps on the Glen Road, eventually establishing the Community Circus School in 1985. They worked with people who didn’t necessarily fit into the mainstream and taught them how to walk on stilts, juggle and eat fire. Almost everyone he taught said Mike believed in them when they weren’t able to believe in themselves.

To publicise the Community Circus, Mike would lie on his bed of nails to the amusement and bemusement of those who passed by. During the worst years of the Troubles he brought people together by acting the clown.

Mike Moloney went on to become Director of the Prison Arts Foundation. An Arts Bursary Fund for former prisoners set up in Mike’s name is designed to recognise and support the possibility of change. Mike’s bed of nails represents a similar belief.

Dr Roisín Higgins is a Senior Lecturer in History at Teesside University. She is an expert on historical memory and has published widely, including her award-winning book Transforming 1916: meaning, memory and the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Roisín is a founding director of the Irish Association of Professional Historians.

National Treasures: Sport and Identity

by Dr Richard McElligott

Sport has always been a powerful platform for the expression of identity. We see this in the crowds decked in their parish colours who flock to county championship matches the length and breadth of Ireland, or the legion of supporters clad in green that follow our national soccer and rugby teams across the world. Yet Ireland is also a country where sport has always been surrounded by wider questions of political and cultural allegiance.

Belfast Celtic
Belfast Celtic

Paddy Bonner’s Belfast Celtic Jersey (submitted by John Boyle) is an object which represents one of the most significant but largely forgotten forces in the history of domestic soccer on this island. Founded in 1891, in the deeply nationalist Falls Road area of West Belfast, the club took inspiration from the Glasgow Celtic team established by Irish nationalist emigrants three years previously. During their fifty-eight years of existence, Belfast Celtic became one of the most celebrated and successful teams in Irish soccer, winning fourteen Irish League titles and eight Irish Cups. But more than their on-field success, Belfast Celtic was the sporting embodiment of the city’s nationalist community and a powerful emblem for its discriminated Catholic working class.

The deeply sectarian atmosphere of early twentieth-century Belfast was reflected in Celtic’s bitter rivalry with the Unionist and protestant aligned Linfield FC. Often the broader political controversies of the period were evident on the field of play. In autumn of 1912, the Home Rule Crisis erupted as mass Unionist resistance to the measure, which would grant a Dublin parliament a limited degree of Irish self-government, was organised across Ulster. That September, serious riots broke out during an Irish League game between Celtic and Linfield. Following the bitter exchanges of sectarian songs and chants between the rival fans, the Celtic fans unveiled a giant green flag and charged at Linfield supporters flying a large Union Jack. Over fifty people were injured.
Belfast Celtic's Paddy Bonner

Yet despite their deep divisions, the Nationalist and Unionist communities of Belfast shared the trauma of the First World War and its impact on Ireland. With the War’s outbreak, the Irish Football Association took the decision to suspend all competitions and during the course of the conflict over 1,800 Celtic members and supporters enlisted, many never to return. Though the Great War gave both communities a shared communal experience, the political turbulence which enveloped Ireland in the years following 1916 frequently impacted on Celtic’s sporting activities. As the War of Independence unfolded in southern Ireland, violent disturbances broke out at an Irish Cup match between Celtic and Glentoran in March 1920 in which an on-duty police officer was shot and severely wounded. Sectarian riots continued to plague football games in the city throughout the summer of 1920, resulting in eight deaths alone between August and October. As a result, Belfast Celtic was forced to abandon the 1920 season and did not re-join the Irish League until 1924. By then over 450 people had been killed in the mini civil war which took place on the streets of Belfast as the new Northern Irish state was established after December 1920.

Belfast Celtic dominated the Irish League in the inter-war period, winning ten titles in fifteen years. Despite this success, the club continued to be the victim of sectarian motivated attacks. Matters came to a head during a match with Linfield on 26 December 1948. Following a late equaliser for their team, Linfield fans stormed the pitch and assaulted three Celtic players including their forward, Jimmy Jones, who was kicked unconscious and suffered a broken leg.

The club’s management took the painful decision to withdraw from all domestic competitions at the end of the current season because they felt they could no longer guarantee the safety of their players or supporters given widespread accusations that the police on duty at the match did nothing to intervene against the Linfield supporters. That summer the club undertook a ten-game tour of North America where they enjoyed huge support among the Irish nationalist diaspora. One of the club’s most memorable moments came on 29 May, when they defeated a star studded Scottish national side 2-0 in front of 15,000 supporters in New York. Nevertheless more controversy was generated when pictures of the team parading behind the Irish tri-colour were reprinted in the Belfast Telegraph.

Belfast Celtic never again returned to competitive action, but the club tried to keep itself viable by travelling the world playing several friendly games, including a match against Glasgow Celtic in 1952. The team’s final appearance occurred in a testimonial game in 1960, after which Belfast Celtic formally disbanded. Today a small plaque and museum near Celtic’s original ground, where Paddy Bonner’s jersey is displayed, are the only remnants of the club’s proud history.


Find out more about John Boyle’s submission to the National Treasures project here:



Dr Richard McElligott is a native of county Kerry and a lecturer in modern Irish history in University College Dublin. Richard has published widely on the history of Irish sport and also on the Irish Revolutionary period, 1912-1924. He is the author of Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934 (2013) and editor of A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland (2016).


Towards a social history of the Irish revolution

by Donal Fallon

The events which occurred in Ireland between 1912 and 1923 constitute a revolution, or at least a moment of revolutionary potential. If the state that emerged reflected the aspirations of many in that period remains a debated subject, especially as we move towards the centenaries of the foundations of both the Irish Free State (today the Republic of Ireland) and the state of Northern Ireland.

Helena Molony, a talented Abbey Theatre actor and committed revolutionary in the ranks of the Irish Citizen Army, later lamented how “we saw a vision of Ireland, free, pure and happy. We did not realise that vision. But we saw it.” To others, the birth of the state was a fitting culmination to the period. Government minister Kevin O’Higgins wryly insisted that the Irish were the “most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.”

In trying to create a canvas of Ireland in the last century, we found the revolutionary period an essential component of the story. In the spirit of National Treasures, the items which came forward provided new perspectives on a well-known national story.

By 1918, the very form of the Irish revolution was shifting. The 1916 Rising had been a minority affair, largely confined to Dublin with some action in Galway and Wexford. Viewed largely either through the lens of outright hostility or curious bemusement by the civilian masses, first hand oral testimonies from participants point towards the difficult week endured. One bewildered Volunteer at Jacob’s biscuit factory recalled that “the residents of Fumbally Lane even followed retreating Volunteers to Jacob’s, knocking off their hands and kicking them – and then tried to attack the Jacob’s garrison by attempting to smash down the gate and attempting to burn it down with a sack doused in paraffin.” This behaviour wasn’t unique to Dublin; Volunteer Thomas Courtney in Galway was so horrified by the lack of support for the populace there towards the rebellion that he recalled Galway to be “the most shoneen town in Ireland.”

British mishandling of the Rising, and increasing hostility towards the seemingly never-ending war on the continent, played no small role in creating a newly radicalised populace. At Easter 1917, the first anniversary of the Rising was marked by large scale and illegal commemorations across the country, with a tricolour raised over the ruins of the General Post Office. The fear of conscription in 1918 brought hundreds of thousands of people into political radicalism, and swelled the ranks of the IRA. The Catholic Church, the trade union movement, Sinn Féin and others actively resisted the threat of conscription together, pledging to do all in their might to keep Irishmen from already infamous battlefields.

Among the more curious social history items relating to this period in the National Treasures online archive are currency produced during the Limerick Soviet of 1919, the centenary of which will take place next year. Essentially a protest against the British declaration of a “Special Military Area” under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, this protest, from 15 to 27 April 1919, saw a Workers’ Soviet essentially running the city of Limerick, distributing food and printing its own currency. It was a powerful demonstration of the impact of events in Russia on popular political terminology and discourse, and one of around one hundred so-called Soviets in Ireland during the revolutionary years. In Westminster, this was pointed to as “an example of the effect of Communist Propaganda from Moscow.” The currency was submitted by Gerry Casey, whose great grandfather was a leader of the Soviet. The idea of workers taking the Irish revolution into their own hands didn’t always sit well with republican revolutionaries; legendary republican leader and later Fianna Fáil Minister Dan Breen lamented the “supporters of the Red Flag regime” who tried to create Moscow and Leningrad in Mallow and Longford.

A three year guerrilla war, like that fought in the hills and valleys of rural Ireland, could only be maintained with the support of a civilian populace. Items in the National Treasures collection that reflect that include a striking grenade that was produced locally in Cork, brought forward to the collection by Barry Curtin. The mould in which the grenade was made was constructed subversively by workers at the Ford factory, utilising their skills for very seditious purposes. While IRA HQ in Dublin included dedicated logistics and munitions experts, the war could only be sustained thanks to the network of covert munitions factories that sprang up in rural Ireland.

Amidst the collection are deeply personal stories, not least in the context of the tragic Civil War. Take the chess set submitted by Dara Gannon, a relation of Irish republican Bill Gannon who took up arms not only in Ireland but in Republican Spain when Franco’s coup commenced in 1936. This chess set had a long chequered history, being played in Mountjoy Prison on the eve of execution by republican Rory O’Connor in 1922, and later played by Jack Nalty, who left Dublin for the Spanish Civil War and who wrote home to Dublin that “It’s marvellous what men can endure in support of an ideal.” Nalty was killed in action in September 1938, with no body recovered. He died a veteran of two very different civil wars. The chess set brought moments of comfort into the lives of those who risked everything for their ideals, sometimes paying with their lives.

For some, this period represented not the revolutionary movements of home, which filled the air with electricity, but the trenches of France and Belgium. They too are remembered in the collection. A lavishly illustrated memorial book from Guinness commemorates the hundreds of brewery employees who enlisted in the war effort, while Alice Hickey’s sewing machine demonstrates the challenges faced by those left behind. When her husband Gunner Tom Hickey was struck down in the war, Alice had to find a way to fend for herself economically. In the words of Alice Carol Clancy, who submitted the machine, it “kept the wolf from the door.” For many people in the days of the hungry Irish revolution, that was undoubtedly the leading priority.


Donal Fallon is a historian and author based in Dublin. He is editor of Dublin social history blog ‘Come Here To Me’ ( and teaches with the Adult Education Department of University College Dublin. His publications include a forthcoming guide to revolutionary Dublin 1913-23 (Collins Press) and a history of the Nelson Pillar (New Island, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Newstalk radio.