By Eileen Casey
When Chester Alfred Beatty passed away in 1968, his popularity and high standing was evident by his large funeral, the tolling bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral and the words that were spoken by most Reverend Archbishop Simms, who referred to Beatty as one of the great romantics.
And indeed, the man whose legacy resides in a library named for him in Dublin Castle, was certainly that. He especially loved the Orient, travelling extensively in Japan and China in 1917. Throughout his lifetime, the man, whose collecting interests were first attracted by stamps, rocks and minerals as a child, also collected a host of honours and awards. Buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, he was the first man to receive an Honorary Irishman Award.
The man who donated what has been described as the “richest, most breath-taking gift any one individual has presented to a nation that was not even his own,” (Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times, 2000) was born in 1875. The collection that began with stamps soon expanded to include colourful, differently shaped, snuff bottles (a lifelong interest) and by the time, Beatty’s largesse was housed in a library in Dublin Castle, it included Japanese woodblock prints, jade books, Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts.
These manuscripts include more than 250,000 copies of Islam’s sacred Koran, Biblical papyri dating from the early second century, Babylonian clay tablets, Russian icons and Chinese dragon robes. Among the many awards Beatty received is one from the Vatican, conferred because of his encouraging of bible studies.
Chester Beatty first began travelling the world as a young mining engineer, having finished top of his class at Columbia’s School of Mines. His working life saw him excavate mines from Denver to the Klondyke, but in Colorado, his health, which was never robust, was to suffer as a consequence of silicosis, the lung disease which affects miners and which dooms the sufferer to a short life. Miraculously, Beatty eventually lived to the ripe age of 93.
By the age of 29, Chester Beatty was Chief Mining Consultant to 90 per cent of the world’s mines. However, while fortunate in his working life, misfortune soon visited his family life. His first wife, Grace, died of typhoid fever when Beatty was just 35, leaving him with two small children.
However, in 1913, Beatty married Edith Dunne (who was also to predecease him)and they lived in the family home at Kensington (Baroda House). When World War l broke out, Beatty gave the house over to the Red Cross (as he also did in WWll) while he travelled to Japan and Egypt. He even bought a house near the Pyramids and started a small library there.