By Christina Morin
I’ve been trawling the net recently in the hopes of finding a local, Belfast supplier of authentic graham crackers so that I can celebrate the 4th with that quintessential Independence Day dessert – s’mores (pictured left). I haven’t had much luck, but I have turned up some interesting tidbits, including the fact that July plays host to a bevy of independence days. Canada Day, for instance, is on the 1st of July. Argentina celebrates the anniversary of its Declaration of Independence on 9 July, and, famously, France marks the fall of the Bastille on the 14th. Bahamians commemorate the anniversary of full self-rule on 10 July, and Liberia remembers the day on which freed American slaves declared the country’s independence in 1847 on 26 July. The list goes on and on. As I discovered all this, it struck me that other ex-pats from all over the world could be searching for imported delicacies to celebrate their respective independence days in the appropriate gastronomic fashion – what a unifying thought! A host of different nationalities brought together by the internet, the fact that our national independence days share the same month, and our determination to have a little bit of home abroad on such an important occasion no matter what the price.
This (naturally) reminded me of a recent post (28 June 2010) on the Facebook page of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies. Asking the page’s fans if they’d ever ‘wonder[ed] what bit of Irish history you could’ve bought with €50 or €250’, the post directed readers to the catalogues of Adam’s auction house. A Dublin-based auctioneer, Adam’s, along with Kilkenny auctioneers, Meany’s, hosted its annual Independence Auction on 20 April 2010, offering a huge variety of newspapers, pamphlets, souvenir albums, and posters to all and sundry willing to buy. A browse through the auction catalogue provides detailed information about each of the 600-odd items or lots, as well as, occasionally, a photograph, and the final selling price. A rare, single-sheet copy of Alice Furlong’s poem, The Torches of the Gael. A Poem of Easter 1916 (probably published in 1916 by the Gael Press), went for €520, while a 1928 copy of the Drillbook Compiled for the Use of the Garda Siochana went for only €50. One of the more expensive items was what was billed as Michael Collins’ ‘Cap Badge’, ‘reputed to have been removed from General Michael Collins’ vehicle at Cork Union Hospital on 23 August 1922’. The badge, and many other items, came from the private archive of Collins’ personal assistant, Kathleen Napoli McKenna, and sold for a respectable €21,000.
Surprisingly, neither this sale, nor the auction in general, received much coverage in the news, possibly because of the furore inspired by the intended Famine auction in May (of which more shortly). The Irish Times published two articles in advance of the Independence Auction on 13 April and 27 March. The former focused on the auction’s inclusion of Kevin Barry’s last letter, written to his ‘pals’, as he awaited his execution in Mountjoy Prison. The letter eventually sold for a whopping €87,000. The second, earlier article, by Shane Hegarty, suggested that the frenzied urge to purchase a piece of national history characteristic of the heady days of the Celtic Tiger had died away in the face of increasing economic woes. Without the surplus cash of the boom, Hegarty remarked, people simply aren’t able to or that interested in ‘own[ing] a piece of their national heritage’. If this means that history will no longer be commodified ‘to a grubby degree’, Hegarty argued, it also means that it can no longer be personalized through its purchase. Moreover, as Hegarty suggested, it drives the final nail into the coffin of ‘national confidence … expressed in the twin languages of patriotism and cash’ evident at earlier Independence Auctions. As made clear with the earlier controversy, and the applause that greeted the news that the Famine archive had been removed from sale and purchased instead by an unnamed Irish archive, however, it seems that the question of possession of the past – who ‘owns’ it, who disseminates it, who has access to it – is as fraught as ever.