By Shaun Ivory
While the 1916 Rising undoubtedly changed the course of Irish history, it also produced an unexpected side effect, i.e., one of the country’s largest mass-compensation claims. Details have just emerged from the dusty filing cabinets of over a century ago, albeit redolent with humour and pathos in unequal measure.
The National Archives of Ireland has launched a website detailing more than 6,500 claims involving art, jewellery, antiques and clothing purportedly lost or destroyed in the subsequent shelling and looting around the capital.
While most of the claims obviously relate to homes and businesses in Dublin, the archives reveal the amount of personal effects that were affected too. Archivist Niamh McDonnell was given the enormous task of digitising the claims, a great deal of which involved Academy House on Lower Abbey Street. This was home to the Royal Hibernian Academy. Unfortunately, the art organisation had been holding its annual exhibition at the time of the rebellion and the building was one of its first casualties.
More than 500 works of art were on display, nearly all destroyed by fire, along with the academy’s own fine art books, prints and other artefacts. Some people may have expected the owners and artists of such works on loan to have accepted such sacrifice as part of the price expected for Ireland’s freedom.
Not so, according to the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee. Among those claimants the names of some well-known artists could be found: J. Humber Craig of Bangor, Co. Down, claimed £27-7s for two paintings; the committee recommended £15-4s. William John Leech of Kensington, London, valued three paintings @ £68-5s but only received £44-4s. Sarah Purser of Mespil House, Dublin was awarded only £201-9s for seven paintings she maintained were worth £270. Leo Whelan of Eccles Street, Dublin expected the full £66 for two paintings but had to accept £29-15s.
Jack B. Yeats felt ‘hard done by’ also. He put in a claim for £47-5s in lieu of three oil paintings he had lost in the exhibition; namely, ‘The Donkey Show’, ‘The Turning Post in the Tide’ and ‘The Runaway’. He was awarded only £26-7s, a sum he protested was inadequate in correspondence which is on record. The committee rejected his complaint.
Most of the artists were not, of course, of such international repute. Archibald McGoogan of Ardenza Terrace, Monkstown also claimed for three paintings, including ‘Haymaking near Glendalough’, valuing them at £43-18s but only receiving a miserly £12-15s. Indeed, this appears to be the pattern of response by the committee, who seemed collectively unimpressed by the arts. George Sydney Waterlow of Killiney, being singularly unlucky enough to have loaned his whole collection of 19 paintings, received just over half the claimed £2,100-12s.
Rosalinda Laetitia Bowen-Colthurst, of Englefield Green, Surrey, England, on the other hand, was awarded over 75% of her claim of £8/0/0 (£6-16s) for the loss of her watercolour, ‘The Conversation’, by E. L. Lawrenson, apologising for the delay in her claim as being caused by her “having to leave” Dublin. Her excuse was – er, excusable; she was the wife of Capt John Bowen-Colthurst, who had commanded the Third Royal Irish Rifles, ordering the execution at Portobello Barracks of pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington… among others. (Capt Bowen-Colthurst was subsequently arrested, court-martialled and found guilty but insane. He was detained in Broadmoor Asylum, later released and emigrated to Canada.)
Of course, not all claims were of such an esoteric nature: one was for a “30 foot ladder” commandeered by… one Capt Bowen-Colthurst. One hesitates to speculate on its intended use but the claim was rejected. Miss Emily Sherlock of Ballsbridge put in a claim for £100-13s, this to cover household effects and jewellery that ‘vanished’ after the military took possession of her house and evicted her. She got back £50.
Thomas Gillie, Leinster Road, Rathmines wanted £14-16s-2d for “looting of personal effects and jewellery” including a pigskin cigar case, linen handkerchiefs, a razor and 17 boxes of Wills Gold Flake by soldiers he claimed were ‘very particular’. He was lucky, too, receiving just over half his claim.
Mary and Eleanor Bruen, who shared a ‘top flat’ in St Stephens’s Green had been cruelly ‘deprived’ to the amount of £40-1s-2d. Items included “4 ‘prs knickers”, “2 silver Indian bangles”, and “1 brooch (malachite)”. Who knows what it was here that inspired the committee to award them almost the entire amount – £40!
Winifred Noone’s claim for personal effects worth £389-11s-4d included two evening dresses, pink satin shoes and… a feather boa! Also awarded the near maximum claimed, i.e., £330. Likewise, Thomas Neary, restaurateur’s claim for £135 for the loss of 30 cases of vintage champagne was met fully bar a fiver.
Perhaps one could be forgiven for believing the committee placed personal privations above paintings… which is part of what revolutions are all about, really.