New Museum Puts County's Rich Tapestry on Display

Irish Examiner, Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Gordon Deegan views Clare Museum's themed exhibits, including Earth, Power, Faith and Water.

Entering through the doors of Clare's new county museum, visitors to the centre will take a walk back in time through the long chequered history of the county.

The Museum, opened last night by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Ms. Síle de Valera, is abounding with stories of the county's events and more colouful personalities. Visitors will hear examples of the ruthless determination of Maura Rua O'Brien; of the execution of sailors from the Spanish Armada in west Clare; of immigration tales from Clare people; of the ingenuity of the Liscannor inventor of the submarine, John Philip Holland and of the 1990's triumphs of Clare hurlers. These are just a few of the people that underline the rich tapestry of Clare's past and present.

A number of years in gestation, the £3.6 million project is expected to have a dramatic effect on tourist revenues, but also gives Clare people a narrative of the history of their county. Located in the former sisters of Mercy building, the museum forms part of a growing tourist infrastructure in Ennis where the International Folk Music Centre is expected to open next year.

However, the promoters of the museum, Ennis Urban Council and Clare County Council are anxious that people from the county will come to visit the museum. To that end, in the first few months of opening, the museum is charging £3 for adults, with a reduced rate for children.

Speaking at the opening, Assistant County Manager of Clare County Council and Ennis Town Manager, Tom Coughlan said "the museum represents another major project in the area and will add significantly to the economic and cultural development of the town and county". He said "the International Folk Music Centre, which opens in 2001, is only a short walk from the museum and tourist office. These developments will allow for extensive marketing of the county's facilities". He added, "I am confident that the unique and progressive approach we have taken with the Clare Museum will ensure that it is rated among the best in the country".

According to Curator of the museum, Wexford man John Rattigan, the museum, based on two floors, has a thematic approach based around Earth, Power, Faith and Water. Introducing the Earth aspect of the museum, Mr. Rattigan points out that man first came to settle in Clare over 6,000 years ago.

Stating that it is a reflection of the rich heritage of the county, Mr. Rattigan points out the excavations from Roughan Hill in the Burren which have been excavated in the past couple of years by Dr. Carlton Jones. Clare citizens will also be reassured that their treasures are in safe hands with the museum having 24 security cameras and 200 alarm contacts.

Many of the exhibits have been provided by the National Museum. According to Mr. Rattigan, "they have an obligation to fulfil as keepers of our history and once we fulfilled their requirements they were very willing to give back materials because they are very conscious of the fact that they can't display everything and it is taking up space".

The museum is a mix of old style exhibits placed in glass cases together with a host of multi-media exhibits that allow visitors to interact with the exhibits. One such example is a history of the Liscannor inventor John Philip Holland in the museum's impressive Water section where visitors are told how the various sections of the submarine work through a touch screen display. Another highlight is the electronic history of the O'Brien clan, which tells of their 'ruthless determination'. The audio and visual show tells that "there are many folk tales of Maura Rua. Reputedly, on the night of her husband, Conor's death, she went to the Cromwellian garrison and offered to marry a soldier, and by taking John Cooper as her husband, she secured the estate for her son Donagh".

John Rattigan says, "There is a lot of potted history such as the story of the O'Briens. Without being too dense, it serves a whole range of people, whether you are a tourist or an academic, you can get something out of it".

The promoters have also created a replica of a hearth and when one approaches, it triggers a seanachai which tells a recording of the man with the three stories.

The museum has also thrown up an exhibit of its own. During construction work, an old well was discovered. Turning the find to their own advantage, the museum has left the well in place allowing visitors to view it. According to Mr. Rattigan, it is eight foot down and eight foot deep. There is no idea of how old the well is, but the convent was first build in 1861.

The museum has also benefited from a large amount of material provided by the de Valera museum.

These include the banner from the East Clare by-election in 1918 which Dev won; signalling equipment that was sent to east Clare IRA from Michael Collins and a Royal Irish Constabulary man's helmet. A distinctly Clare item is a 1798 pike made by ancestors of broadcaster P.J. Curtis from Kilnaboy.

The former occupants of the museum, the Sisters of Mercy have provided alot of material with an arrangement in place that they will provide additional to keep the exhibit fresh.

It contains Roman brievary from 1675 given to Bishop Fogarty from W.T. Cosgrove in the 1920s and vestments made by a religious order in China sent back to the Sisters of Mercy.

The themes of Power, Faith and Earth complete with commissioned paintings to reflect the themes are all contained on the ground floor with the Water theme contained on the first floor. According to John Rattigan, the museum has explored the concept of the county surrounded by water, where themes such as immigration and water giving energy. The exhibit, which is accompanied by the sound of water in the background, also includes large exhibits such as a replica of a stone-age boat and a currach. Some of the highlights from the first floor include bog butter and well preserved textiles from the early modern period.

Coming right up to the modern and embracing the theme of water giving energy, there is Ger Loughnane's All-Star award from 1974; Colin Lynch's jersey from the 1997 All-Ireland; Kevin Sheedy's jersey from Italia '90 and a hurley from Michael Cusack. There is also a section devoted to Clare people that have emigrated. It includes the soon to be published "Shoot the Scattering" which tells the story of Clare immigrants around the world.

The exhibit also includes All-Ireland Junior Football medals won by Claremen, while there is also a fascinating exhibit telling the story of Clarewoman Joanna Hegarty writing letters back home from the United States.

No museum on Clare would be complete without a section on Clare's musicians, and exhibits include Willie Clancy's and Noel Hill's concertinas.

Possibly one of the largest exhibits, that it not a replica, is a door from one of the four ships of the Spanish Armada off Spanish Point and Quilty. The unfortunate sailors who made it onto land were hung by the authorities.

The museum also contains material in relation to a fascinating story from Quilty where, at the turn of the century, locals rescued the crew from a French boat when the coast guard refused to mount an operation in rough seas. In recognition of the bravery of locals, the French government paid for the construction of their church.

Highlighting the exciting plans for the museum, Mr. Rattigan said that an outreach policy is being considered to bring visitors on a tour of many of the places mentioned in the exhibits.

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