Mar 19, 2013

Selling the Family Silver

Maurice Casey | Staff Writer

In 1948 the news broke that Russian jewels, once the possessions of the deposed Romanov royal family, had been kept hidden in an elderly woman’s Clontarf pantry for over a decade. From 1922 until 1938 the family of the republican Harry Boland had stored the jewels in their Marino Crescent home.

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Eamonn De Valera revealed in a speech at Youghal in January 1948 that a deal brokered in the United States between Irish emissaries and Soviet representatives had led to the jewels making their way to Ireland. In 1920, with a civil war in Russia and cases of famine and disease caused by a radical change of power the newly founded Soviet state was in need of financial support. Representatives of the Soviet government had managed to smuggle Russian jewels, looted from the palaces of the overthrown monarchy, into the United States.

As figures such as Trotsky and De Valera progressed through the same US speaking circuits representatives of both newly founded governments began to mingle. De Valera stated, after being questioned by a rival election candidate about the events, that ‘we were in the USA, seeking recognition for the Republic set up here after the elections of 1918. At the same time there was also a representative of the Russian government of that day… He found it difficult to get American money and a loan was given to him by the Irish mission. In security for the loan certain articles of jewellery were given up by him.’ The ‘certain articles of jewellery’ referenced by De Valera were a 16-carat diamond and three sapphire and ruby broaches. Ludovic Martens, the Soviet representative, certified that they had once belonged to the Tsar and his family.

De Valera was further questioned in 1948 about whether the loan had been repaid, to which he replied ‘No’ and implied that the jewels had been in the safe keeping of a private individual until 1938, when they were handed over to the newly elected Fianna Fail government. When the jewels made their way from the United States to Ireland they were brought by the man who brokered the deal, Harry Boland. Boland transferred the jewels to the Minister for Finance, Michael Collins. At first it was unclear how the jewels had been once more placed into the possession of Boland but Dublin Castle papers disclosed in the early 1980s grant a greater insight into the incident. On January 6th 1922, the day before the treaty debates, Collins and Boland met in private and got into an impassioned argument regarding the treaty. Collins is said to have thrown the Jewels back across the table to Boland saying ‘Take them to hell out of that, they’re blood-stained anyway.’

Harry Boland opposed the treaty and was later fatally wounded by government forces in a bungled hotel raid in 1922. Before he succumbed to his wounds he left instructions to his sister Kathleen. He asked that she and his mother keep the jewels until a party was in power that intended to establish a united Ireland. Thus, in 1922, the jewels made their way to No. 15 Marino crescent, formerly the home of Bram Stoker.

 In 1938 Eamonn De Valera took the oath he had fought a civil war to resist and took power with his party Fianna Fail. His secretary at this point was Gerry Boland, brother of Harry. With a party in power that the Boland family could trust to realise their late brother’s dream of an Irish republic, the jewels were offered back to the Daíl, who accepted them. The loan had never been repaid and it was decided that the jewels should be transferred to the Bank of Ireland strong room where they remained until September 1949.

After the Youghal speech in 1948 at which De Valera revealed the tale of the Jewels’ time in Ireland the public became interested in seeing a final outcome to the story and sought knowledge of where the jewels were. The government considered putting the jewels up for public auction. However, valuations made inIreland and at Christy’s auction house in London advised the government that they would be fortunate to receive more than the equivalent of £2000 for the jewels. For four months the Irish government pursued the Russian government via the Soviet ambassador regarding the jewels receiving no answer.

On July 30th of 1948 the Soviet ambassador was advised that should the loan not be repaid in full then the Irish government would attempt ‘to recover the amount of the advance – or as much as it may be possible – by disposing of the security.’ On August 9th the soviet state replied to the threat via their ambassador in London, noting that ‘although this transaction has not been done in the proper way’ the USSR would repay the full amount of the loan, without interest, in exchange for the jewels’ return. In 1950 the Russian Jewels made their way back to Russia and Fianna Fail put an end to a minor political embarrassment and a curious piece of Irish history.

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