'If I told you, I'd have to shoot you'
Michael Ryan, the director of the Chester Beatty Library, which houses the country’s most valuable collection, tells ROSITA BOLANDabout its impressive contents – just don’t ask him how much it’s worth
‘I WOULDN’T TELL you that. I’d have to shoot you if I did. It’s a security matter.” Michael Ryan, the director of the Chester Beatty Library, smiles avuncularly as he makes this forthright statement.
The question he’s answering is what the contents of the library, left to the nation in 1968 by millionaire philanthropist Beatty, are worth. The collection of Islamic, East Asian and western manuscripts, books, paintings and objects includes some 3,000 rare books, 33,000 old master prints and drawings, and pieces ranging from 900 Chinese snuff bottles to 200 rhinoceros horn cups, almost all of exceptionally high quality. They are not, for reasons of space, all on display, but are rotated from time to time. The items not on display are under heavy security at a secret location.
“It is the greatest gift, both in cultural terms and in pure monetary terms, that was ever given to Ireland by an individual,” Ryan says. “There’s nothing comparable to it, including the Treasury in Kildare Street. It is, by a very significant margin, the most valuable public collection in Ireland.”
Ryan has spent his entire working life, bar one year, working in our national museums, but it’s the Chester Beatty he is most associated with. He oversaw its move from the old Shrewsbury Road location to converted premises at Dublin Castle; a move that marks it’s 10th anniversary next year.
He is as consistent to his roots as he is to his job. Born in Skerries, Co Dublin, in 1947, the youngest of seven children, he has remained a resident there ever since. For an archaeologist, a profession that focuses on making a detailed examination of a finite area, there is something apt about a lifetime lived getting to know one small town intimately.
“I’ve managed to move all of three-quarters of a mile my entire life. I consider myself a Skerries man before I consider myself anything else,” he says now, only half-jokingly, his arm hooked over the chair in his office overlooking Dublin Castle.
As a child on visits into the city, Ryan often went with his brothers to visit the National Museum in Kildare Street. His favourite exhibits were the ethnographic collections that were then displayed there, but he also returned periodically to look at the Irish archaeological exhibitions, “which didn’t change for a very long time”. He found himself fascinated by the Ogham stones, and also by the seventh-century Tara Brooch: “Because you could press a button and make it rotate on a turntable,” he recalls, slightly horrified. “You couldn’t do that now!”
As a teenager, archaeology was something Ryan knew he wanted to study, without fully understanding why, other than the fact that tangible evidence of the past fascinated him. After UCD, where his thesis was on souterrain ware, he lectured in University College Galway for a year, and in 1970, started working at the National Museum. His doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, on the Derrynaflan Chalice, came later, in 1985, and was supervised by Frank Mitchell. Meantime, he was keeper of antiquities at the National Museum. “The museum scene was pretty inward-looking for a very long time, both in Ireland and in the National Museum in particular,” he observes, implying that there are battle stories to tell. “It had a very, very strong culture of its own and it was very slow to change. It was very satisfied with its own traditions and culture. It was a problem of outlook, a problem of a certain narrowness of mind, but it was also, I think, a strategy that was imposed on the museum through a lack of resources. And it might also have had something to do with a rush of national pride following independence, giving priority to Irish material, at the expense of not doing anything with non-Irish material.”
RYAN DID NOT apply for the job of director at the Chester Beatty, which came up in 1991. He visited Shrewsbury Road while he considered applying, and decided against.
“I remember thinking it was not just secluded, it was also quiet and a bit run-down,” he says. “Very below par.”
As it happened, he was approached by the Department of the Taoiseach, and asked if he would “volunteer” for the Chester Beatty job on a short-term basis.
“When you’re asked by the secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach to volunteer, as a civil servant you think, well, just exactly how high does he want me to jump and when do I start my run-up?” Ryan says, straight out. He “agreed reluctantly” to take on the job. “I have to confess that my first 10 minutes or so in the place, it came to me that it couldn’t stay where it was, it couldn’t go on as it was, it had to change. And this was a view happily shared with other people.”
Very early in Ryan’s tenure, he had to deal with the worst kind of publicity any museum can face: serial theft by an employee. David James, a former high-profile curator of the Islamic collection, was charged with stealing manuscript pages, paintings, rugs and other objects over a period of time. The surprise perhaps was not that theft occurred – given that Irish art treasures, including, infamously, those at Russborough House, were a repeated target – but that the source of it was internal.
Given how active the IRA was in those years, it does seem remarkable that the modestly protected Chester Beatty Library in Shrewsbury Road was never robbed. Perhaps, like most of Ireland at that time, the extent of the museum’s treasures was not known. Anyway, Ryan clearly loathes talking about the theft.
“I don’t like to dwell on it it any more, because we got back most of the stuff,” he points out. “People are constantly mentioning it to me, despite everything the library has done in the last 10, 15 years, and yet it’s something that has happened in almost every museum and library in the world.”
The fact is, people willalways remember it, precisely for the reason that Ryan cites. “I always consider that the theft from a museum or a library is a terrible breach of public trust, and [it is] very hard to forgive anyone for doing that.”
A decade ago, the Chester Beatty finally got the city-centre location it deserved. The converted Clock Tower building at Dublin Castle now showcases a world-class museum, which won European Museum of the Year in 2002. At Shrewsbury Road, the museum got no more than a faithful trickle of visitors. Last year, there were 230,000 people through the doors, and attendance figures have reached 250,000.
RYAN WON’T REVEAL HOW many items the museum holds, nor how much is in storage, although it’s evident that the vast majority of the collection is in storage.
“I’ve never calculated it,” he says. “I’ve deliberately never calculated it because, in a way, it’s a meaningless statistic. If you take any manuscript and you put it on display, all you can ever show is two pages.”
Entrance to the Chester Beatty is free, as it is to all the State’s national museums. “There’s a mention in the McCarthy Report,” Ryan notes, when he talks about the charging debate, “that you get, say, a million visitors to the National Gallery and you charge €3 admission, and then you’d get €3 million in revenue. It doesn’t work like that. When you put up an admission charge, you do turn some people away. Also, you have the cost of collection. You might end up in the net position no better than having donation boxes. But in the process, you lose some of your audience.
“I also think, in a time of high unemployment, introducing any barrier between the people signing on – and there are thousands every week – and their culture, which they paid for as taxpayers, is a step we can’t afford to take.”