Presidential gifts are a valuable archive

Clare Champion, Friday, May 30, 2003

Dr Hillery has donated much of the memorabilia he collected during his career to the Clare Museum. Curator John Rattigan pays tribute to the Clareman.

Since the summer of 2000, Clare Museum has received in instalments, a large collection of presentations and gifts made to Dr Patrick Hillery while carrying out his public duties during a political career which spanned from 1951-1990.

Some of these presentations were made to Dr Hillery while on state visits abroad, a few are from visiting Heads of State, but the majority are from Irish community groups and voluntary organisations presented during his two seven year terms as President of Ireland (1976-1990).

Objects such as these are often presented at functions to all Presidents and high-profile government ministers. In recent times their historic value has been realised, and as a result the current President of Ireland, Mary Mc Aleese, has an archivist at her disposal to catalogue these artefacts, a facility unavailable to Dr Hillery during his time as president.

Although most of the collection donated to the museum is in storage, two of the artefacts were received in time to be included in the Riches of Clare exhibition.

The first of these, on display in the Power section of the exhibition, is a polished stone axe, presented by the indigenous people of New Zealand during a State visit to that country in 1985. By presenting an axe, the Maori were re-enacting a traditional custom practiced since ancient times to mark the visit of a chieftain from a great tribe.

The second object on display is a crystal Nantucket cookie jar, given to Dr Hillery by the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the late Tip O’Neill.

The remainder of the objects, and there are several hundred of them, were received too late for consideration for inclusion in the permanent exhibition. They are being identified, catalogued, and cleaned. Research is also being carried out on these artefacts at present, and the incredible memory and anecdotes of Maeve Hillery has been an invaluable aid to our efforts.

One of the oldest objects in the collection is a commemorative plaque from the New York Worlds Fair\ New York 300th Anniversary celebrations presented to Dr Hillery while he was Minister for Industry and Commerce in the sixties.

Another ministerial gift dates from his period as Minister for External Affairs. On the eve of decimalisation, the Central Bank presented Dr Hillery with a box containing some the first decimal coins to be minted during the currency changeover in 1971.

During Dr Hillery’s two terms as President of Ireland, he received many honours from universities and institutions both here and abroad. Many of these presentations took the form of documents and certificates, now housed in the archive at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

However, in 1979, when he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, he was presented with a plaque, now donated to the museum, to mark his inclusion amongst this elite that counts amongst its number, Noble laureates Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur.

One of the most important duties of the President of Ireland, is to acknowledge the role played by voluntary and community groups in our society. Commemorative gifts from such groups are well represented in the collection, and come from all over the country.

Included is a plaque presented on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, while another marks the opening of a community hall in Clonakilty, County Cork in 1983.

In addition to these public duties, as President of Ireland, Dr Hillery undertook two state visits each year, promoting Ireland, its industry, culture, and diplomatic relations.

While on an official visit to Australia in 1985, Dr Hillery received a small, but beautifully cut, blue sapphire gemstone, presented while on a visit to a mining town in Queensland. Also on the trip, he was presented with a simple replica of the Telecom Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, when he visited the Australian capital, Canberra.

Equally, many foreign dignitaries made official visits to Ireland during Dr Hillery’s tenure as President, including US President Ronald Reagan who made a controversial pre-election visit in 1984. A paperweight, containing the American seal, and a small ornamental basket of strawberries presented by the couple are also in the collection.

My own personal favourite is an amazing collection of 2,000-year-old medical instruments from the Holy Land, presented to Dr Hillery by the President of Israel, the late Chaim Hertzog, during a state visit to Ireland in 1985. Mounted in a special presentation box, this archaeological find comes with a certificate proving its authenticity.

Throughout his public life and since his retirement, Dr Patrick Hillery has been held in high esteem throughout his home county. It will come as no surprise therefore, that there are many objects in the collection reflecting the great fondness Clare people have for this man.

These presentations are often simple, but convey a deep affection. Examples include a framed and glazed farewell address from the Killaloe Comhairle Ceantair. The text is written by hand, and was presented to Dr Hillery prior to his departure to Brussels to take up his position as our first European Commissioner in 1972, in the months before our admission to the EEC.

There is also a presentation marking his Honorary Life Membership of Kilrush Golf and Sports Club made upon his retirement from public life in October 1990.

At a glance, this collection of memorabilia may seem quirky and relatively unimportant. However, when one considers Dr Hillery’s achievements as Minister for Education, his role in negotiating Ireland’s membership to the EEC and later as Irelands first European Commissioner, not to mention his two terms as President of Ireland, it is then that this collection can be seen in its true context.

The Hillery collection is also significant as it will provide future historians and the people of Clare with tangible links to events and personalities important at local, national and even international levels, an importance that will grow over time.

On behalf of all the staff at Clare Museum, I would like to wish Dr Hillery a happy 80th birthday. May there be many more.

(Published as part of the Dr Patrick Hillery: Eightieth birthday special supplement)

See Dr. Patrick Hillery Collection

Press Cuttings