‘Right here in the banks there’s literally hoards of stuff unclaimed’
Ceremonial sword with jewel-encrusted butt just one of thousands of items left unclaimed
Jim Connolly outside the Bank of Ireland on College Green. The former bank official says a chest left in the vault by a “spinster” in 1905 played a previously unknown role in the visit in 1995 of the then US president, Bill Clinton. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Former Bank of Ireland official Jim Connolly recalls visiting the vaults of the bank’s College Green branch, which has operated since the Act of Union in 1801, and seeing “huge paintings... housed in pallets, travel chests, suitcases and trunks”.
His guide during that 2003 visit, a bank official, told him that the majority of items stashed away remained unopened.
“However, I was shown two items where she could reveal the contents. One was a cabinet whose locked door had broken open in a move.
“Inside was a silver ornament, not pretty, of an elephant and a palm tree, with an inscription along the lines of ‘presented to Charles Cameron by John Gerard on his retirement as Grandmaster of the Freemasons’.”
However, it was a chest left in the College Green vault by a “spinster” in 1905 that played a previously unknown role in the visit in 1995 of the then US president, Bill Clinton, when tens of thousands gathered to hear him speak on College Green.
Describing it as a travel trunk such as “you’d expect to see on the Titanic – huge, with the capacity of a wheelie bin”, Connolly says US secret service agents looked askance at it when they carried out security checks before Clinton arrived.
The president’s podium was directly over the vaults: “In addition to welding shut all the manholes and removing the litter bins in the vicinity, the American secret service also vetted the vaults, and it was at this point that a sniffer dog took issue with the spinster’s chest.
“As a result, it was opened. It was opened again for my visit and I’m one of a privileged few ever to see the contents. I would quite happily have spent hours going through this one item,” he remembers.
Inside, the chest contained a ceremonial sword with “a jewel-encrusted butt and lots of army regalia, including a hat that looked like it dated from the time of Napoleon, magnificently preserved in an oversized royal blue tin”.
A loaded hand-pistol “that caused the sniffer dog so much angst” was removed: “I have no idea where that is now. But, unless the spinster has come back to claim it in the interim, the chest is still in the vault.”
If you think of pirates’ treasure you’re on the right track
Even more intriguingly, the College Green vault contains a wooden chest deposited in the 1870s, which is bound in chains: “Rope is weaved through the links and is knotted at points and each of these knots has candle wax poured on them.”
Describing it as “real Mutiny on the Bounty stuff – if you think of pirates’ treasure you’re on the right track”, Connolly goes on: “Whoever they are, they went to an awful lot of trouble to ensure that their item would not be opened.”
It has been 20 years since Connolly’s interest in the treasure troves that lie hidden and forgotten was sparked, when he first stood in the vault of the Bank of Ireland’s branch in Rathmines in Dublin, surrounded by dozens of parcels; locked boxes; chests; cases and envelopes.
“[They] were deposited for safekeeping and the simple practice was, literally, to hold them in the safe,” he says.
Some of the Rathmines vault’s contents were items placed there by customers in the early 1900s. “If they never came back the item is still sitting on a shelf in the safe. I pointed out to the manager that the client was likely to be dead. He pointed out that his job was to keep the item safe.”
The Rathmines and College Green branches are not unique. Thousands of items lie dust-covered in vaults around the country. Now, an Oireachtas committee is to investigate what can and should be done about them.
Under Irish law, deposit and current accounts, savings certificates and savings bonds held in institutions such as banks, building societies and An Post are considered “dormant” and handed over to the State if they have lain idle for 15 years.
Financial institutions are required under the 2001 law to make “reasonable effort” to find the account-holder before dormancy is declared. If they do manage to get in touch, then the clock on the account’s life is once again set at zero.
Today, Connolly will give evidence to an Oireachtas Committee for Rural and Community Development, which has overseen dormant account laws, alongside officials from the Central Bank and the departments of Rural and Community Development, Finance and Justice.
The treasure trove does not cover the kind of safety deposit boxes better known to the public from films, which began to be introduced in Irish bank vaults from the 1970s, where records ensure that descendants can be traced.
Committee member Éamon Ó Cuív of Fianna Fáil says: “I’d love to see these items on display, out of the cobwebs. This is really exciting. Right here in the banks there’s literally hoards of stuff. I’m sure some of the items are documents. The key is getting in to see what is there.”*
AIB urges customers with “goods in safekeeping boxes to collect their belongings”, while the Bank of Ireland cautions: “We are unable to open items in order to assess contents and ownership due to the contractual terms under which the property is held.”
*Correction: an earlier verson of this story referred to hordes rather than hoards