An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

At long last, next week will see the nationwide roll-out of something that, unlike most of the things so described, really can roll. Mind you, the object in question is rather old, and of great value. It’s also infeasibly large. Fully rolled out, it would be two-and-a-half times the length of Croke Park. So despite its circular properties, I expect the conservationists will be lifting it carefully into place at the various venues, and that any rotation will be kept to a minimum.

The Morpeth Roll, which is what we’re talking about, is by any standards an extraordinary document. It was originally an equally extraordinary present, named for the man to whom it was given, 172 years ago.

George Howard, also known as Lord Morpeth, was the then chief secretary of Ireland. But he had just lost his parliamentary seat in West Yorkshire and with it the job. Thus the roll was a farewell gift from the Irish people. Or from a very large number of them anyway.

The key to understanding it was Catholic Emancipation and the 1832 electoral Reform Act that followed. Both had been championed by Howard, who thereby oversaw a large expansion in the Irish electorate and in political opportunities for the island’s majority population.

So, as he prepared to leave these shores in 1841, it was decided that the most apt tribute would be the collected signatures of friends and admirers, including, it is assumed, many of the newly enfranchised.

It was a prodigious list, amounting finally to some 275,000 names on 652 sheets of paper. Signatories included the Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell; the Young Irelanders Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy; and Charles Bianconi, the Italian immigrant who established the horse-drawn predecessor of Bus Éireann.

Laid end-to-end, the signatures stretched to 412 metres, or six times the length of the Bayeux tapestry. And indeed, they were duly fastened into one continuous sheet, then rolled onto a large, mahogany drum.

Which in time accompanied Lord Morpeth back to Castle Howard in Yorkshire (better known now as the setting for both the TV and film versions of Brideshead Revisited). And where, in more time, it was stored away and forgotten.

It was rediscovered a few years ago by excited historians who brought it (with permission) back to Ireland and NUI Maynooth. It has since been analysed, digitised, and where necessary, restored. Inevitably, some pages – between 40 and 50, it’s thought – had been destroyed by time. Nevertheless, the overall mechanism is still in full, rolling order.

Like his present, Howard himself returned to Ireland eventually, albeit a lot sooner. He was appointed lord lieutenant in the late 1850s and remained a well-liked figure. But the optimism of the earlier period had dissipated. O’Connell and Davis were dead, Gavan Duffy was beginning a new career in Australia, and another troubled era in Anglo-Irish political relations was dawning.

The once-friendly relationship between this country and Howard (who was also known as the Earl of Carlisle) probably reached its nadir 100 years later, in 1958. By then, few people here will have remembered who he was, or why there was a statue of him in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. In any case, the IRA decided the monument was superfluous. Like Lord Nelson a few years later, Lord Morpeth was blown off his pedestal, never to return.

His first farewell present remains, however, a fascinating relic of Ireland before the Famine. How it was assembled, and what it can tell us, will be discussed in a forthcoming book of essays edited by Christopher Ridgway, curator of Castle Howard. But in the interim, and for the first time more than 170 years, the object itself is going on tour.

The itinerary begins next week at the New Library in NUI Maynooth, where the roll will be the focus of a four-week exhibition. After that, at monthly intervals, it goes to Westport House in Co Mayo; O’Connell’s home in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry; then Clonmel, Kilkenny, Maynooth again, and Queen’s University Belfast. Finally, next February, it will be on display at Dublin Castle.

That surely qualifies as a nationwide roll-out, if anything does. And the event would probably have begun this year anyway. But inevitably, the tour is now taking place under the banner of The Gathering: a Government initiative to encourage tourism by the diaspora, which could probably be described – in figurative terms anyway – as a nationwide roll-in.

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