Honorary citizen and philanthropist – An Irishman’s Diary on Sir Alfred Chester Beatty

Fifty years ago, on January 29th, 1968, the then-president Eamon de Valera and the then-taoiseach Jack Lynch entered a Protestant church for the first time in their official capacities.

The occasion was the State funeral service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, in Dublin, for Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, the first honorary Irish citizen, and they were welcomed by the dean, John Ward Armstrong, who conducted the service.

Beatty, whom the archbishop, George Otto Simms, eulogised for a life full of ability and friendly humanity, was born in Manhattan in 1875. After graduation from the Columbia University School of Mines and Princeton University he moved to Colorado and, starting as a labourer, rapidly rose to become a consulting engineer at the age of 28 with the Guggenheim Exploration Company.

In the following years he opened gold and silver mines in the western States and Mexico, but in 1911 he contracted silicosis and could no longer work in production. However, he could now afford to change focus.


Realising that there were opportunities for developing mines in parts of Africa controlled by European powers, he moved to London and established a company, Select Trust, with backing from the American Metal Company of New York.

Over the next four decades he funded mines, particularly in the Belgian Congo and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where he was chiefly responsible for opening up what became known as the Copper Belt. He became a British subject in 1933.

He was a charitable man, whether in England, where he endowed a cancer research institute, or later in Ireland, when he became a vice-president of the Council for the Blind, but he detested the Labour government that came to power in the UK in 1945 because of its “socialist bureaucracy”, and in 1949, aged 74, he moved to Ireland, which he considered “the last free country”.

By then, he was using some of his extensive resources to assemble a collection of more than 13,000 artefacts, including 250 complete or partial copies of the Koran in Arabic, Turkish and Persian dating from the ninth to the 18th centuries, Biblical papyri from the second to the fourth centuries, Chinese scrolls, Renaissance prints, oriental weapons, paintings and rare books.

In November 1949, he bought a house in Dublin, in Ailesbury Road, and in June 1950 he acquired a site in nearby Shrewsbury Road for another building to house his collection which was still in England.

He also became friendly with Frederick Boland, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, who made successful representations to politicians and officials for measures to assist his move, including access to foreign currency and the importation of his collection free of duty, as personal effects.

In gratitude, he presented 93 paintings of the Barbizon School, valued at £1 million, including six by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, to the National Gallery.

In 1953, he also presented a collection of oriental weapons to the museum of the Military College in Kildare.

The Irish establishment responded with doctorates from the National University and Dublin University and membership of the Arts Council in 1951, a portrait painted by Sean O’Sullivan RHA commissioned by the Arts Council in 1954 and the freedom of Dublin in 1956.

In 1953, he built a house on the site in Shrewsbury Road for his library and it opened to the public in 1954. He added an extension in August 1957.

It is probable that by now the UK and Ireland were in silent competition for the library and he was given a knighthood by the Tory government in June 1954, when his old friend Winston Churchill was prime minister.

The coalition government in Dublin had no equivalent honour but in 1957 it used a provision of the 1956 Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act to confer honorary citizenship on Beatty.

Ironically, he could also have become a citizen because his grandfathers were born in Armagh and Mountrath.

In 1957, he appointed Richard Hayes the director of the National Library as curator of the library and Hayes was influential in convincing him to bequeath it to trustees who would administer it for “the use of the public”.

Successive governments continued to provide practical help.

Section 23 of the 1961 Finance Act had the effect of allowing the trustees to receive the library without paying estate duties and Section 117 (2) of the 1965 Succession Act ensured the legality of his bequest.

Beatty survived silicosis but he was susceptible to pneumonia, and in his later years he spent his winters in Monte Carlo where he died.

After his death, his Irish assets were valued at £7 million, including the library which was valued at £6 million. He made other wills to dispose of his assets in France, Portugal, Jersey, Egypt, and Kenya.

Since 2000, the Chester Beatty Library, described by Lonely Planet as one of the best small museums in Europe, has been located in a purpose-built extension to the Clock Tower in Dublin Castle and is open to the public free of charge.