Culture Shock: Never mind the Nazis. What about Ireland’s own stolen treasures?
A beautiful Buddha on display at the National Museum has a resonance in Irish literature: Leopold and Molly Bloom mention it in ‘Ulysses’. But it is as much a piece of loot as any of the 1,400 works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Renoir, Munch, Dix and others that have been uncovered in Munich
But there are unquestionably many objects that, like FitzGerald’s Buddha, were acquired by outright violence. Most of the material the museum acquired in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was donated by Irish soldiers or administrators in the colonial service. In some cases objects come literally from the battlefield as trophies of war. The labels that were on display until the 1970s describe, for example, “Cetewayo’s kilt . . . captured by Major McCalmont during the pursuit of the Zulu king”. Cetewayo is as crucial a figure in Zulu history as Michael Collins is in Irish. Many of the New Zealand objects were collected during the brutal so-called Maori Wars in the 1860s. They were donated by two Irish officers, Surgeon William Goode and ColJohn Dwyer.
A substantial component comes from the Solomon Islands. It was “collected” by Arthur Mahaffy, son of the famous provost of Trinity College Dublin. Mahaffy was there not to study culture but to recruit a force to suppress “head-hunting” raids. Offending villages were burned, and Mahaffy “liberated” their goods as trophies. In Exhibit Ireland: Ethnographic Collections in Irish Museums, Rachel Hand has noted that his original labels on the objects donated to Dublin make no bones about their origins. Shell rings and ornamented whales’ teeth are described as “part of the loot from Nusaru in the Rubiana Lagoon”. Another decorated object was “taken from the inside of the house of Zito, chief of Biloa on Vella Lavella, destroyed by me in October 1901”. A fetish from Nigeria is listed as “taken from the house of a superior class at Lagos”.
What should be done with this material? Firstly, it needs to be displayed. Most of it has been in storage since 1979. In 2007 the government announced funding for a new wing at Collins Barracks specifically to house the ethnographic collections. As that’s not now likely to happen for quite some time, there’s a need at least for a temporary exhibition that aims to provoke public debate and awareness.
We also need an independent survey of the collection to determine, even in a preliminary way, what was looted and what was legitimately acquired. And when we know what was stolen we should begin, over time, to give it back.