Sir Alfred Chester Beatty was a very generous man on every level who in his will bequeathed his library and its contents, in trust, “for the use and enjoyment of the public”. As a token of recognition for his distinguished service to the Irish nation, he became the first honorary citizen of Ireland, writes Paddy Ryan.
At his funeral in 1968, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty was described by the late President Éamon de Valera as ‘our Prince of Benefactors’. Beatty also has the distinction of being the first person ever to be made an honorary citizen of Ireland. Needless to say, these honours were not given lightly. But if ever a person merited them, it was Sir Alfred Chester Beatty who, like the golden goose, gave and gave to this country.
His gifts included a collection of swords and arms to the Military Museum in the Curragh and paintings to the National Gallery. But his greatest gift was the collection of priceless treasures that are on public display in the Chester Beatty Gallery in the lovely Clock Tower building of Dublin Castle.
Full marks to those involved in the restoration of this elegant building that proudly opened its doors to the public in early 2000, seamlessly blending the old and the new. The 19th century clock was fitted with an electronic winding device and given a face lift for its views out over a Japanese style garden.
The Chester Beatty collection, formerly housed in the benefactor’s Dublin residence on Shrewsbury Road, is an Aladdin’s cave of items representing the greatest cultures and religions of the world. They became State property over sixty years ago.
Chester Beatty had come the scenic route from his birthplace in New York city before making his home in Dublin. Born in 1875 into a wealthy middle-class family, he went west to the mines of Colorado after graduating as a mining engineer. He quickly gained an international reputation as a mining expert which, in that era, was akin to computer wizardry today.
However, his earlier years deep in the bowels of Colorado had scarred him with the miners’ curse of silicosis. In 1911, after the death of his first wife, he moved to London with his two young children where he founded a mining consultancy business. Three years later, he remarried and with his bride, Edith, visited Egypt for the first time. This visit would change the course of their lives as he found the dry climate greatly benefitted his lungs.
He purchased a house near the Valley of the Kings where he would spend many winters. From childhood, Chester Beatty had collected Chinese snuff bottles. Now, with time and money, his collections mushroomed with the rare treasures he found in the bazaars of Cairo. He was particularly attracted to the hand-decorated copies of the Koran (Qur’an) that would become the cornerstone of the Chester Beatty collection.
Representing the finest expressions of Islam in calligraphy and decorative work, these amazing works are a joy to behold, irrespective of belief. It is interesting, considering the beautiful religious works done in Irish monasteries, how gold leaf and embossing were so important to all beliefs.