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Diarmaid Ferriter: Pearse sale blurs line between patriotism and profit

Questions over ownership of historic note that was up for auction will come up again

It is understandable that when a significant historical document finds its way into an auctioneer’s catalogue, there are calls for the State to buy it in order to ensure it remains in the State and transfers to public ownership. But that focus can leave many other questions unanswered. In the case of the Pearse note that was up for auction on Wednesday, but failed to reach its reserve price, the most obvious question is this: how and why was it removed from its original and natural home in the first place?

That home is the Capuchin Archives in Church Street, Dublin. The note – hurriedly scribbled by Patrick Pearse to reinforce the surrender order he had issued the previous day regarding the last outpost in the Four Courts area – was given to the Capuchin Fr Columbus Murphy by Pearse and remained in his papers in the Capuchin archive.

When questions were raised about its provenance during the week, the auctioneers, Adam's, and Brother Adrian Curran, Provincial Master of the Capuchin Order in Ireland, met and the matter was declared closed. But it should not be closed and, as this centenary year ends, it would be wise to think about the implications of what happened this week, given the potential for similar situations to arise.


During the week, a statement issued on behalf of Adam’s accused this newspaper of choosing to “mischief make” by misleading readers into thinking “something untoward had occurred in the acquisition of the letter”. It further maintained: “The provenance of this letter is clearly stated in the Adam’s auction catalogue.” What is stated in the catalogue is hardly illuminating: “Fr Columbus O.F.M Cap; Fr Conrad O.F.M Cap. As Provincial (Superior) of the Capuchin Order. Thence by descent.”


The statement issued during the week adds the detail that Fr Conrad “gifted it to the father of the vendor in the 1960s. It was then inherited in the 1980s and thereafter it was sold by auction in 2005, only after efforts to sell it to the state failed.”

This, in my view, is vague and unsatisfactory and raises more questions. Given that material generated by Capuchins in the course of their work for the order is supposed to remain the property of the order, what right did Fr Conrad have to gift it? To use a parallel, what right would a head of Government have to gift a State document to anyone, and what ethical issues would arise in the case of that happening?

Adam’s makes much of the idea that the note “is surely one of the few manuscripts which can justly claim to possess the very DNA of a nation at the moment of its genesis”. Even allowing for exaggeration – and let us not forget, as noted in the catalogue, “auctioneers commission on purchases is charged at the rate of 20 per cent” – surely that claim implies that it belongs to the Republic? Adam’s wanted this document to remain in the State, but when they asked me, six months ago, to provide a historical context for the note, I declined, as I did not approve of the auction.

They then asked me to provide context solely for circulation among Government departments so that the State could be persuaded to buy it to prevent it going to auction, as it was likely an auction would result in it leaving the State.


I agreed to that as, on balance, I felt it was the right thing to do, but the recent questions raised about provenance are disturbing, including the claim in a letter to this newspaper by Brother Adrian, that the document was “alienated by persons unknown from the archives without the authorisation of its superiors and put up for sale”. That claim has not been withdrawn; instead the statement from Adam’s said Brother Adrian “is satisfied that he is in full possession of the facts surrounding the provenance of this letter and considers the matter closed”. Privately, others have communicated concerns to me about provenance but do not want to go public, probably due to legal concerns.

What also concerns me is the contention, articulated by Adam’s, that in 2005, for €700,000, “the surrender was purchased to secure it until such time as its historical and cultural significance would be more widely appreciated”. In my view, what is omitted from that assertion is “and until such time as it would greatly increase in price and make the investor a huge profit”.

This blurring of the lines between patriotism and profit provides a sorry end to the centenary year. It is a pity that a document like the Pearse note would be “gifted” to any individual; it is also a pity that a person who would inherit something like this would not see fit to “gift” it back to the archive it came from.