Diarmaid Ferriter: Best little country? Not for Clerys workers and art treasures
Two controversies bring into sharp and depressing focus the issues of vulture capitalism and the debasement of our national heritage
‘In recent years vulture speculators have been easily able to wipe out what a rebellion against British imperialism could not.’ Above, John Crowe from Artane at a protest outside Clerys on O’Connell Street, Dublin in support of workers who lost their jobs. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
The fate of Clerys and of some of the paintings in the Russborough House collection have generated controversies that bring into sharp and depressing focus the issues of vulture capitalism and the debasement of our national heritage, which in recent times, in this gloriously grubby Republic, are deemed to be a matter for the trustees or the liquidators. Our politicians frequently row in too late after the drowning has already occurred; they convey sympathy, empathy, but also powerlessness.
When noted donors or champions of heritage die, they are eulogised. For example, obituaries and ministers, after she died in 2005, heralded Lady Beit for her and her husband’s “extraordinarily munificent donation” of their art collection. In relation to the Clerys workers, politicians beat their chests about their “appalling” and “disgraceful” treatment. It was, according to Minister for Jobs and Enterprise Richard Bruton, “poor communication” that resulted in the employees being flung out with half an hour’s notice.
The gulf between the rhetoric and lack of aggressive intervention would be laughable if it did not have such serious consequences.
Writing last month in Apollo magazine, Robert O’Byrne – journalist, former member of the Alfred Beit Foundation, and champion of Irish Georgian heritage – suggested that the outcry over the sale of paintings from a collection that the Beits expressly asked to be kept intact for the Irish public was “understandable and laudatory”. But he also identified the reasons why situations reach crisis point in relation to heritage: the inability to gain political traction and the smallness of the Irish cultural heritage lobby, which is “more fragmented than elsewhere. Despite several attempts to establish one, there is, for example, no equivalent of Britain’s National Trust”.
The British National Trust, of course, puffs itself up in its promotional literature and on its website, but it is incontrovertible that it is a national movement and carries the considerable weight of a long history. Formed in 1895, it has four million members, six times the membership of the British political parties put together, and can count on 60,000 volunteers. It owns pubs, museums, churches, and hundreds of miles of coastline. Millions of pounds are gifted in trust to it each year.
For a brief 19 weeks following the War of Independence, we had what was described as a “minister for fine arts”, the position filled by the historian of art and architecture George Plunkett, father of an executed signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, Joseph Plunkett.
Plunkett senior was appointed to his position in August 1921, but it was a ministry not deemed worthy of cabinet status. In effect, in making this arts appointment, Éamon de Valera sidelined Plunkett, who had previously been minister for foreign affairs, because he opposed compromising with Britain in upcoming negotiations. Plunkett served at arts until January 1922, before the unity of Sinn Féin was fractured. The sidelining continued until the idea was revived in 1993, when arts and culture were added to the Gaeltacht portfolio and the position filled by Michael D Higgins.
In recent years, however, vulture speculators have been easily able to wipe out what a rebellion against British imperialism could not. Apparently, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is concerned about the fate of Clerys, so much so that he has labelled what happened to the workers “grossly insensitive and appalling”, but he was careful not to give a commitment to prevent such a thing happening again.
Company law, according to Kenny, is “a very complex issue”. So, apparently, is preserving irreplaceable Irish heritage. It is so complex that it could not possibly come under the gaze of those who govern. According to Heather Humphreys, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the sale of the Beit paintings “is a matter for the trustees, and my department has no role in the matter”. Neither sentiment nor politics, we are told, can save iconic Irish department stores, or art collections bestowed to the Irish people by collectors.
This is the best little country in the world, it appears, to be a governor on your knees, powerless to stop the force of the markets, impotent when it comes to promotion of an Irish republicanism rooted in appreciation of art and the need to treat workers decently.