A chance discovery in a Dublin skip and a curious coincidence 40 years later have resulted in a significant historical find including grants of land bearing the royal seals of Elizabeth I, kings George I, James I and Charles I .
The collection of maps, grants, seals and royal letters of patent and containing the will of William “Speaker” Conolly is to be donated to the State on Thursday.
It was discovered in a skip on Fitzwilliam Square, almost 40 years ago, by three friends out walking.
Robert Maharry, Richard Gorman and Ruary O Síocháin investigated the skip after Mr Maharry noticed a “pristine copy of The Irish Times” which had blown on to the ground; on inspection they discovered it dated November 12th, 1921.
Among the boxes of documents they came across a metal chest bearing the name of Capt Edward Michael Conolly of the Royal Artillery, and the address “Castletown”.
Papers in the box appeared to relate to land deals associated with Castletown, in Celbridge, and Leixlip Castle, also in Co Kildare, and other estates, but the men did not immediately investigate the contents fully.
Appreciating there may be some historical interest in the content of the boxes, they removed the boxes for safe-keeping to Mr Maharry’s home.
“It was some time between 1977 and 1983 that we found the skip,” said Mr Gorman.
In the ensuing decades, the documents moved to three new homes with Mr Maharry, then finally to a garage in Dalkey, Co Dublin.
Last year Mr Gorman, now an established artist, was scouting locations for international fashion house Hermes because his paintings would form a backdrop to the shoot.
He happened upon Castletown and made contact with Mary Heffernan of the Office of Public Works (OPW).
The shoot went well and Mr Gorman got permission for a further exhibition of his works there.
Noticing the unusual spelling of the family name Conolly, he recounted the tale of the chest to Ms Heffernan. “I knew it had to be our Conollys,” she said.
The boxes were taken to the OPW this year, where Dr Myles Campbell was astonished by the find.
“My Latin is not great but I had a growing sense of amazement at what I was seeing,” he said.
He catalogued more then 160 documents including maps, an illuminated script from the deed of settlement of William Conolly of Castletown dated 1705 and royal letters of patent issued by King George I featuring the king’s portrait.
The royal seal of Queen Elizabeth I was in the box and had a royal document affixed and dated 1578; this was a grant of land in Co Kildare from the British monarch.
The seal of King Charles I was also affixed to a document, ostensibly a grant of land in Leixlip, dating from the 1630/40s.
A further royal seal, a grant of land at Castletown – possibly to a member of the Fitzgerald family – and bearing the seal of King James I of England/VI of Scotland, was dated 1625.
Speaking of the papers ahead of Thursday’s official handover to the Minister of State for the OPW, Sean Canney, Mr Gorman said it was an extraordinary series of chances that they had come to light. “They clearly wanted to be found.”
The OPW is aware of one letter from Queen Elizabeth I that bore the royal seal which was sold in London in recent years for £340,000.
But, according to Ms Heffernan, it would not be possible to put a price on heritage value of the original manuscripts and detail it provides.
The detail is particularly voluminous in relation to the business dealings of William Conolly who was speaker of the Irish House of Parliament and a commissioner of the revenue from 1715 to his death in 1729.
Conolly was a serial buyer and seller of lands and made the most of the “Williamite transfers” the confiscations by the crown of lands belonging to supporters of King James II, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William and Mary in 1688-89, and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Conolly was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Ireland when he death.
He paid £32,000 and an annuity of £500 a year for his 30,586-acre estate at his birthplace in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, in 1718; £62,000 for his 10,360-acre estate in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, in 1723; and £12,000 for 809 acres including Leixlip in 1728, together with other properties in Dublin.
His 2,300-acre property at Castletown was bought in 1709 from Thomas Dongan, 2nd Earl of Limerick.