Mayo man Jackie Clarke was an obsessive collector who collected thousands of items throughout his life. The artefacts he accumulated form the basis of a fascinating museum in Ballina, writes Michael Gill.

Long before the advent of game consoles, tablets and smartphones, children collected various items. Their obsession was usually at its highest as they became teenagers. Cigarette cards, football programmes, stamps and matchboxes were the most popular items to collect in my day.

Often, as these children grew into adulthood and other cares and responsibilities took over, they would abandon or at least scale down their hobbies.

As he grew older, Jackie Clarke only pursued his hobby with even greater intensity. This is evidenced by the fact that his pastime has grown into the most important collection of historical artefacts in Ireland.
Jackie was born in Ballina in 1927 and joined a family of successful merchants. His father owned a newsagents in the town.

After commencing his studies in Ballina, Jackie was sent to boarding school at Blackrock College, Dublin. It was here at the age of twelve, perhaps to alleviate the feelings of separation and loneliness that Jackie began his hobby. He would scour the old bookshops on the quays, while his schoolfellows performed valiant deeds on the rugby pitch.
Old books, letters, political pamphlets and posters were the early mainstays of his collection. Although he would consider anything of interest, the overriding theme of his collection was Ireland’s struggle for independence throughout the centuries. When he returned to Ballina at the age of eighteen, he followed in his father’s footsteps and set up a shop.

The shop was not a newsagents however. Jackie capitalised on the growing taste for smoked salmon and set up ‘Clarke’s Salmon Smokery’, which is situated on O’Rahilly Street. The smokery celebrated its 75th anniversary last year and is as popular and successful as ever. Needless to say, the business remains within the Clarke Family.

Nowadays it also has an online and mail order service, with gift boxes and hampers being shipped all over Europe.
The many anglers who come from across the world to fish the nearby River Moy can bring their catches to Clarke’s to have it expertly smoked. The shop now sells all types of fish and shellfish and is famous all over Mayo and beyond.

The business thrived and allowed Jackie to spend every spare minute of his leisure time travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. He would visit antiquarian book fairs and auctions, returning with more treasures. The items would be carefully wrapped into brown paper and newspaper parcels, as well as fish boxes, and were kept in various rooms of the family home above the smokery.

He married Anne Smyth from Carlow, who bore him five boys. He never smoked or drank and became involved in local politics. A committed republican and lifelong supporter of Sinn Féin, he became a town councillor and eventually Mayor of Ballina.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own