Late in the spring semester last year, I was asked along with another Villanova student if I would be interested in acting as a guinea pig for a brand new two-month internship funded by the generosity of Emily C. Riley of the Connelly Foundation, the department, and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. The internship was a brand new collaboration between Villanova and the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co. Mayo. I jumped at the chance being that I have a passion for Irish history, and it was the perfect professional opportunity for someone just coming out of a Master’s program. It would turn out that this two-month internship would become so much more than a professional opportunity, largely in thanks to the nature of the collection itself.
The Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co. Mayo was born out of one local Mayo man’s love for all things old, and a passion for Irish culture and history. Jackie Clarke was a well-known and loved Ballina local and the son of newsagents and grew to love scrapbooking at an early age, making his first book of news clippings at the age of twelve. From there Jackie’s love grew as he did, culminating in a collection of over one hundred thousand artifacts relating to Irish history, covering a period of four hundred years by the end of his lifetime. Jackie was a fishmonger by trade, and lived above his shop with his wife Anne, and their five sons.
(A young Jackie Clarke)
By the time he had died, Jackie had made his wishes known in his will, asking that his wife donate the collection to the Mayo County Council with the hope that the Council would be able to facilitate the creation of a museum for Ballina. Jackie’s wishes came with several stipulations; the items could not leave Mayo, could not be sold, and any resulting museum had to be free of charge. He had hoped that it could be his gift to Ballina and Mayo.
The building that was eventually chosen to house the museum itself is a revitalized bank in the heart of Ballina, known as the Provincial bank. It is a stately and dignified three story brick and mortar building. It was originally built in 1881, and used as a bank until 1977. After the bank shut down, the building went through a series of different uses before falling into disrepair until the Mayo County Council rescued it in 2008 in order to give Jackie’s legacy a home.
Prior to being housed in the museum Jackie’s collection lived with the Clarke family in their apartment and was tucked into every nook and cranny, wrapped in paper bags and newspapers. After Jackie’s death, and Anne’s decision to adhere to his wishes and donate the collection to Mayo, the collection was placed in the repository above the local library a block away from the bank, where the archives remain today. And, despite the Jackie Clarke being a small house museum, it is flourishing today thanks to a wealth of exhibits, and a beautiful garden that is open to the public, and often used for community programing.
(Part of the back garden set up for a civil ceremony)
The character of Jackie’s collection is part of what made the collection and the museum such a pleasure to work with. Each box, each artifact, held the potential for delightful surprise. Because of the inherent variety within the Collection itself, the work I was lucky enough to do was equally as varied. For example, one of our first assignments after starting at the Jackie Clarke was to help photograph and catalog a collection of pipes and other items that came from a pub that had closed in town, but the proprietor had not wanted the items to be separated, so he gave them to the museum for safekeeping.
We also worked reception twice a week where we greeted and helped visitors. It was the perfect balance of archival work and public history that culminated in a joint exhibit between myself and my fellow intern. Our exhibit was a visual exploration of Jackie’s own collection of issues of the Illustrated London News, one of the first illustrated newspapers of its kind:
If the internship is to become a long-standing relationship between Villanova and the Jackie Clarke, as is hoped, its success will not hinge on what the museum has to offer alone. My time in Ballina was made complete not only by my own work but by the co-workers, neighbors, and friends I met while I was there. Ballina, Co. Mayo and its people have as much to offer future interns as the museum itself does, and I can only hope that it continues.