Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Cultural Institutions

9:30 am

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. There was a very good article in The Guardianbefore Christmas about an Irish woman, Isabella Walsh from Limerick. A previous article in The Guardianinspired her to return her late father's collection of 19th century African and Aboriginal objects to their countries of origin. She is from Limerick and 39 years of age. She contacted embassies and consulates in Dublin and London to repatriate ten objects her father had in his possession, including spears, harpoon heads and a shield, after she read about other cases of people returning cultural heritage goods to their countries of origin. Her father, Larry Walsh, was an archaeologist and a creator of the Limerick Museum. He had always cherished these items due to his passionate interest in African and Aboriginal cultures but, as he believed the objects belong to the peoples from whom they originated, his daughter, Isabella, went about the job of contacting embassies and consulates and realising her father's final wish of returning and repatriating the artefacts after he passed away.

Since 2017, I have been calling for a Government policy on the repatriation of cultural heritage or identifiably stolen goods from our time in the British empire. As we know, museums throughout Europe, including those in the former imperial capitals of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, are packed with collections, objects and artefacts that have imperialist and colonial origins. These ethnographic collections consist of human activity objects, such as sculpture, weapons, clothing, jewellery, tools and decorations. According to Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, the National Museum of Ireland and the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and possibly the Ulster Museum, hold material that was looted from Benin City, then known as the Kingdom of Benin, in Nigeria by British forces in 1897. The National Museum, located beside Leinster House, is home to approximately 11,000 objects and artefacts that form part of a non-European ethnographic collection acquired since 1760. This collection contains concrete examples of the culture of peoples from the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the Americas and has been described by Dr. William Hart of Ulster University as one of the finest of its kind in the world. I probably do not have time to outline why the museum holds these collections but it comes from the transfer of collections from the RDS, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy to the Museum of Science and Art in 1890.

I am conscious that the Minister has announced the first meeting of an advisory group on the restitution of cultural heritage. I welcome the establishment of the group and wish to give the Department a chance to outline on the record of the House what the plan and hope is for that advisory committee.


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