Saturday, January 19, 2019

‘Seek, Find, Bid: Discovering Irish History in an Auction House’

As an historian of Irish history, my hobby of seeking, finding and bidding on ephemera and collectibles of historical import complements my life’s work. This hobby came to life in 2008, while I was in search of the Cumann na mBan and War of Independence service medals that had been awarded to my paternal grandmother Annie and her brother Michael. I had been told that the family member, who inexplicably ended up with them, simply gave them away. Among my favourite auctions is the History, Literature and Collectibles auction that is usually held at least once a year at Whyte’s Auction House in Dublin (

Dating to 1880, this panel was produced by a woman with a likely connection to my family.
It was at a Whyte’s auction in 2010 that I found the embroidered panel pictured above. It dates to 1880, was created by a north county Dublin woman likely connected to my Swords, Lispopple and St. Margaret ancestors in Fingal (north county Dublin). The detail is extraordinary. It is replete with all of the traditional symbols of Ireland, including the shamrock, harp, Irish wolfhound, Celtic Cross, and the round tower. At its centre are the flags of the four provinces: clockwise: the red hand of Ulster, the three crowns of Munster, the harp of Leinster, and the eagle's wing and sword of Connacht.

At a Whyte's auction held in 2012, I came across two items that quickly made it to the top of my wish list. The first is a 1916 copy of Thom's Dublin City and County Directory, a directory with numerous entries connected to members of my family. The second is a letter that dates to 1930 and was composed by the Veterans of the Dublin Active Service Unit. It lists all members of the D.S.U., including my grand-uncle Michael Magee who served with the unit during the War of Independence.

The 1916 Thom's Directory offers a wealth of information.  
For the 2012 auction my wish list included two other lots, a group of 1916 postcards, and a collection of revolutionary period photographs. Very quickly it became clear I would have no chance of winning these lots, because a representative for a museum was bidding against me. Once I realized those lots were out of reach, I reallocated the funds I had planned to spend on them to another lot in which I was interested, namely a collection of books focussed on the revolutionary movement in Ireland from 1798 through to 1921. With the reallocation of funds, I won the bid for the for the collection of books. Additionally, my bids for the 1916 Directory and the 1930 letter were accepted.

A fascinating look at politics and corruption in the late 18th & early 19th century.
The collection of books included a very battered and fragile 1833 copy of Sir Jonah Barrington's ‘The Rise and Fall of The Irish Nation’, pictured above. The book includes what is likely one of the first 'Black Lists' ever to appear in print. In the so-called 'Extraordinary Black List’ Jonah Barrington revealed the names of those who sold out Ireland by voting in favour of the 1801 Act of Union 1.

The location of the medals awarded to my grandmother Anne and her brother Michael still eludes me; however, I will continue to seek them out. Further auctions of historical items have piqued my interest and I have made some fascinating finds. I will be forever grateful that my search for my grandmother's and granduncle's medals brought me to this hobby.

Have you ever participated in an auction of historic materials? If not, consider doing so. You might come across something extraordinary that connects to your family, or at the very least to their country of origin. Although participating in a live auction of historical memorabilia may not be for the faint of heart, I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in owning a 'piece' of history, or even if you are just interested in the process and seeing what kinds of items are auctioned.

Here are six tips for participating in an auction:

1. Seek out reputable auction houses and/or sites with excellent reviews. Attend live auctions if you are able, or attend online 'live', if that option is available. If you cannot attend, find out if absentee bids or pre-bids are accepted.

2. Take a chance. Most reputable auction houses have items priced for museum budgets, or for the wallets of the rich and famous, but many also have available some very reasonably priced pieces.

3. Well before the auction begins be sure to register for bidding. Registration for bidding at an auction is quite straight forward, and may include a credit check before you are allowed to participate. A credit check ensures that those persons who might madly bid hundreds, even thousands, of Euros for items can actually afford to pay for them.

4. Set your budget limit and do not exceed it! A live auction is very exciting and you can easily get caught up in that excitement, so know your limit, and stay within it. Also be aware that there may be a buyer’s premium added to your winning bid. Be sure you know all of the possible costs involved (including shipping) before you make a bid.

5. If you lose out on any bids, move the money you had budgeted for those bids to other lots in which you are interested. 

6. Investing in history means that you are conserving history for future generations. Find out as much as possible about the items you covet. Reputable dealers usually will have information about the provenance, i.e. the history of the items being offered for auction.


1. Tabled in 1800, passed into law in August of that year, and effected on 1 January 1801, the Act of Union joined the island of Ireland to Great Britain as the single kingdom called The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Buoyed by the ideals of the French Revolution, including religious emancipation, many Irish, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, saw breaking free from Britain as the way forward to liberty and democracy for all in Ireland. In order to prevent Ireland from supporting France in a war against Britain — remember the French landed in County Mayo to aid the United Irishmen in the 1798 Rising — and to quell the fervour for liberty and fraternity, Britain sought to rein in Ireland with the Act of Union.

The dissolution of Éire's union with the United Kingdom began with the proclamation of Irish independence, the opening volley of the 1916 Easter Rising. That declaration was ratified in 1919 by the newly created and secret Dáil Eireann, and the War of Independence ensued. The Irish Free State was established in 1922. Ireland enshrined its independence in its constitution of 1937, and any remaining ties with the union were entirely severed in 1949. Independent Ireland, called Éire, and described as The Republic of Ireland, is no longer subject to the Act of Union, and is not part of the United Kingdom (the State of Northern Ireland remains part of the UK).

Oddly enough, the Irish government did not officially remove the Act of Union from the law books in Ireland until 1983, and although it no longer applies, the Act of Union remains on the law books of the UK.

For more information about the Act of Union, please see my blog post 'The Act of Union Black List'


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

'The year of no Christmas': Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, a mother lost

On 18 December 1936, seven days before Christmas, seven children lost their mother when Maria 'Mary' Angela Fitzpatrick Ball died. On Christmas Day, there was no celebration, instead Patrick Ball took his children to Christmas mass, where together they prayed for the soul of his beloved wife and their precious mother. The deep quiet of that Christmas Day was broken in the evening by the sound of carollers on the footpath, and for one brief moment a little girl imagined that perhaps the sudden loss of her mother had only been a terrible dream.

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the death of Maria 'Mary' Fitzpatrick Ball, my maternal grandmother. Maria (pronounced Mariah) was born 22 June 1894 in Swords, County Dublin, Ireland. She was the second born child, and the first born daughter, of Thomas Fitzpatrick and Maria Hynes Fitzpatrick. In 1921, Mary married Patrick Ball, for whom she bore eight children, one of whom died in 1928.

Mary Ball died seven months after her daughter — my own mother Mary — celebrated her 5th birthday, yet even into the 81st and last year of her life, my mam still had very clear memories of her mother, and of life in their home around the time of my grandmother's death. They were recollections of sight and sound, scent and feeling, instead of what we might consider actual memories, but they were with her until the day my mother died.

They say that women learn how to be mothers from their own mothers, but for my mother most of the lessons never took place, because she was only five and a half years old when her mother died. Mary Ball died of blood poisoning, the result of an infection of a cut on her face, a cut possibly made by her young baby John's tiny fingernails. Penicillin, which could have saved her, was invented in 1928, but was not widely available, so she never received it.

The image of the mark on her mother's face was emblazoned on my mother's brain. There was a look in Mam's eyes each time she talked about it, at exactly that moment, she was seeing the mark and remembering what followed from it. This loss had an impact so profound for my mam that I will never truly understand it. My mother described the mark in exactly the same way each time she mentioned it, and she gestured to show on her own face precisely where it was, followed always by the exhortation, ‘God Bless the mark’. Mam would say, “A thin purple line, with blue and yellow behind it, going from here to just there”, and I would imagine the colours soft and smudged, like those in a Renoir pastel.

My mother's memories were the memories of a five year old child. She recalled the firmness of her mother’s embrace and the softness of her cheek, her gentle gaze, the wiry curl of her hair, the fragrance of her apron after she'd been peeling potatoes, and the laces of her black shoes. She recalled the way her mother’s fingers would roll through the dough as she was kneading bread. She remembered helping her mam in the days just before Mary Ball died, petting her hand when she seemed so very tired, and saying 'I'll do that for you Mammy', as she wiped down the kitchen table.

That thin purple mark was still there on Mary Ball’s face when Mrs Doyle and the other ladies of Gordon Street came to the house to prepare her body, dress her in her white burial clothes, and lay her out on the bed Mary Ball had shared with her husband of sixteen years. A set of grand-aunt Alice's rosary beads was knitted around her fingers. The children were not allowed to touch her, but my mother did. Mam said her mother’s skin was still very soft but as cold as glass. Her father was beside himself with grief, heavily sighing and very quiet.

My mother did not recollect precisely when Aunt Alice hung black crepe over every mirror in the house. The children were forbidden to gaze at themselves in the looking glass because the devil might look back. Nor did she recollect when the death announcement appeared, rimmed in black paper, or when the black arm bands appeared on the sleeve of each man in the house. Intellectually, my mother knew each one of these rituals were a part of that day, but she did not remember them because her memories were the emotional memories of a child.

Mam recalled wearing a very pretty dress, but the colour of it was lost to her. Instead, what remained was the feeling of a stiff lace collar which felt slightly itchy against her skin. She and her sisters wore pristine white knee socks and their black hornpipe dress shoes. Mam recollected the stilled faces of the adults, and their hushed conversation. She recalled standing on tip-toes looking out the front window with her sisters, Bernadette and Kathleen, each time the funeral cortege passed their house, as it ritually circled the block once, twice, three times. She recollected the muscular black horses, the steam emitting from their noses, the tall black plumes which crowned each one of their heads, the sound their hooves made as they struck the cobbled pavement. For my mother these moments were locked in time. On each and every occasion she recounted the story, she was once again that five year old little girl.

When Mary Ball died she was only 42 years old. At the time of her death, her youngest son John was less than a year old, and her youngest daughter Kathleen was only three and a half. Neither has any memory of her. Her eldest son Anthony was not yet fourteen.

On Christmas morning, perhaps there was a small parcel awaiting each child — a pencil box, or handkerchiefs, or a tiny baby doll — but these things were of no consequence to a little child. All that mattered on that morning was the absence of a beloved mother, a loss no sort of Christmas magic could restore.

There were no sprigs of holly hanging on the door at 69 Gordon Street in Ringsend, Dublin. Instead, wrapped round the iron door knocker was a length of black ribbon — its long tails blowing in the winter wind — telling all that death had visited the Ball family. For them, that year there was no Christmas.

(Some of this post first appeared in 2011).

You may also enjoy reading 'Letters my mother never wrote to me...'

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