Failure to secure Yeats Collection a National Embarrassment

27 September 2017

Labour spokesperson on Culture, Joan Burton TD has said that the failure to secure the Yeats Collection in public ownership is a national embarrassment following questions to the Minister for Culture in the Dáil. This follows the failure of the State to purchase the collection before it went on auction today in London.

Deputy Burton said:

“The Yeats family collection has now been broken up and lost to the State. Ireland had the chance to secure the full contents before a sale but failed to do so.

“A late intervention has seen a few items bought by the National Library and National Museum but failed to bring the full collection home for a price of less than €2 million.

“The Minister will now seek credit for purchasing a number of items, but it is on her watch that this unique collection of materials has been scattered around the world.

“Yeats was one of our greatest poets, a globally famous writer who played an instrumental role in the formation of modern Ireland, serving as well in our Parliament. It is a shame that these documents have now been lost forever.”

Notes to Editors: Transcript from Questions to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the action she has taken to secure a collection (details supplied) and prevent some or all of it going abroad; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40764/17]

Deputy Joan Burton: What has the Minister done to preserve this important collection for the Irish people?

Deputy Heather Humphreys: I thank Deputy Burton for raising this. I know that the Deputy has the written reply to her question. I understand that the auction in London is about to conclude, or has just concluded, in respect of the W.B. Yeats collection. The Deputy will appreciate that I have been constrained in what I could say up until now as it is the long-standing policy of the State to not comment one way or another on items that may be coming up for auction.
I am now happy to confirm that I was able to support the National Library of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland in acquiring a number of items in advance of the auction in London today. In July this year I agreed to provide funding of up to €500,000 to the National Library of Ireland to assist in the acquisition of more than 500 letters between W.B. Yeats and his wife, George Yeats. These letters were withdrawn from auction as a result.
I also provided €150,000 to the National Museum of Ireland to assist in the acquisition of such items that the National Museum of Ireland deemed appropriate, including furniture and other artifacts. This support is in addition to the €518,000 I provided in December 2016 to the National Library of Ireland to assist in the purchase of ten signed letters from James Joyce to W.B. Yeats, the Dream Diary of W.B.Yeats’ wife George and the Yeats family library.
Alongside these purchases the National Library of Ireland will also announce the forthcoming donation by the Yeats family of the remaining Yeats family archive and items that are currently on loan to the National Library of Ireland for its W.B. Yeats exhibition. These donations will be made under section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. This refers to the tax relief available for donors of important national heritage items to the Irish national collections. The donation by the family in 2016 of W.B. Yeats’ Nobel prize medal and certificate, along with a further donation of material that is currently being finalised, will have a total value of almost €2.5 million. It will mean that over the last few years the State has acquired material from the Yeats family collection amounting to a total of more than €4 million.

Deputy Joan Burton: Does the Minister not feel regret and embarrassment at the fact that a key part of Ireland’s literary, artistic and cultural history has been sold off to the highest bidder through a London auction room? I recognise the enormous generosity of the Yeats family to Ireland and especially to the National Library of Ireland next door, where Yeats spent a lot of his time in his life.
Yeats spoke of the “fumble in a greasy till”. The Minister has thrown out €500,000 here and so on, and there is the value of donations given to the State by the Yeats family. From listening to the Minister’s earlier replies she has said she is interested in promoting creativity in the arts. There is no one in the pantheon of Irish writers who speaks more to the whole world than W.B.Yeats. Yet the Minister has presided over a situation where the shameful auction in London is just about to complete, and for lack of €2 million – which was the reserve price put on the auction contents – the Minister did little or nothing. We can thank her for the bits and pieces she has managed to save but could she not be moved by people such as Michael Longley, Marie Heaney and others who asked the Minister to think again and not do this. The Minister is responsible, as the Minister.

Deputy Heather Humphreys: Thanks to the €4 million investment by the State – all of which is tax payers’ money be it in tax concessions or direct purchase – Ireland has the single biggest Yeats collection in the world, and rightly so. By any standards €4 million is a very significant investment. The National Library of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland have the expertise to ensure that the most significant items were purchased. These items will now form part of the national collection of our cultural institutions so that future generations are able to enjoy them. It is important to remember that this is taxpayers’ money we are talking about. As much as I would like it I do not have an endless pot of gold in my Department. The Deputy is aware that there are competing pressures and there are a lot of very worthy cases for funding. We must prioritise them to ensure we can support as many of them as possible. This is very good news today because Ireland has acquired some very important items to add to our existing W.B. Yeats collection.

Deputy Joan Burton: Did the Minister discuss this or raise it with the Taoiseach or her colleagues around the Cabinet table? The Minister speaks of not having a pot of gold, but I am sure she is very well versed in W.B. Yeats’ contribution to Ireland. The Minister wants to be so crude as to measure in money the value of W.B. Yeats to practically every man, woman and child in Ireland, along with other distinguished writers, but it is part of what we are as Irish people. The Minister has presided over the collection being scattered to the four winds with respect to our national patrimony and our legacy from W.B. Yeats, who was a Member of the Oireachtas as was his son who was a distinguished Member on behalf of the Fianna Fáil for a long period of time. Did the Minister discuss this with her Cabinet colleagues? Did the Minister have a face to face discussion with the Taoiseach? The Minister spoke earlier, and she will again, of promoting Ireland’s creativity. What country would have allowed this? In 100 years’ time people around the world will still know the name and the work of W.B. Yeats. A very distinguished list of people who have given a vast amount to the arts in Ireland wrote an open letter to the Minister. Was she not moved by any of that or does sit all just come down, as Yeats himself said, to the “fumble in a greasy till”.

Deputy Heather Humphreys: The Deputy is well aware that I have responsibility in this Department and it is my job to make these decisions. Over the past nine months I have been working with the National Library of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland to ensure the purchase of significant items from the Yeats family collection. Those items are of research and exhibition value.
The items acquired were identified by both institutions, which are expert in this field. I worked with them. They identified the items they wanted to purchase and we were able to provide funding directly and via the tax incentive. This is a wonderful day given that we were able to acquire this.

Deputy Joan Burton: The Minister should be ashamed, actually.

Deputy Heather Humphreys: We have the largest Yeats collection in the world. As I know the Deputy is well aware, there is a wonderful exhibition on Yeats in the National Library to which it will be possible to add from today. The National Museum has also acquired pieces and the OPW was looking at others. We have all been working together. An investment of €4 million over the past two years is not insignificant by any measure.

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