Ceremonial saddle, from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to President Eamon de Valera, 1972

The Gaddafi saddle, 1972

The Gaddafi saddle, 1972

The National Museum of Ireland has a gathering of wildly diverse objects within its historical and decorative collections – The Presidential Collection.  These items are a selection of the gifts presented to the Irish President from both visiting foreign dignitaries and national organisations since the foundation of the State, the earliest items relating to Douglas Hyde.

Ethics in Public Office regulations state that gifts over a certain value (currently set at €500) received by a servant of the Irish State remain the property of the Irish State.

While most gifts remain in Áras an Uachtaráin as state property, a selection was transferred to the museum in the early 1990s, including a recent gift – a rug given to President Patrick Hillery (1976-1990) by Saddam Hussein.

However, the gift that took my interest is the ceremonial horse saddle presented by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to President Eamon de Valera in 1972, at the height of The Troubles and arms smuggling from Libya into Northern Ireland.

3198 (17) copy

 

 

The gift is comprised of a saddle, a bridle, riding whip and saddle cloth, all elaborately decorated in the traditional North African style. Sporting a leather seat and harness laced with silver embroidery designs, coloured stitching and silver stirrups attached from red leather straps, the saddle rests on a wool blanket, providing some comfort for the horse, which is also decorated in traditional style with a coloured leather patch and multi-coloured wool pom-poms.

 

 

 

 

Saddle cloth, Saddle saddle, 1972

The saddle cloth is bordered with gold embroidery and fringe, with blue and silver designs on a field of rich red. The set was gifted with a matching bridle and riding whip. Such saddles are handmade by artisans who pass the skill from generation to generation, and were widely used at occasions such as weddings and horse racing competitions as well as official state ceremonies.

 

While the gifting of a traditional emblem of the visiting dignitary’s country to the host country is a very common custom worldwide, it is the circumstances and timing of this gift from Libya to Ireland that makes the saddle intriguing, as is revealed in the official state papers from 1972 held by the National Archives.

de Valera 1973 RTE

President Eamon de Valera, 1973 (RTÉ)

By 1972 Éamon de Valera had already led a long life in Irish politics. He had been a leader in the recruitment of men to the Irish Volunteers in the Irishtown and Donnybrook area from 1914, the commander of the Boland’s Mills Garrison during the 1916 Rising, narrowly escaping execution by the British authorities, a leading figure in the War of Independence, President of Dáil Éireann and the leader of the anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War. He founded a new republican party – Fianna Fáil – in 1926), and was the President of the Executive Council and Taoiseach of Ireland four times from 1932 to 1959. He was later elected as President of Ireland – the non-political figurehead – from 1959 to 1973, retiring at age 90.

 

Muammar_Gaddafi,_1973 (PD Libya. The Telegraph)

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, 1973 (Public Domain Libya. The Telegraph)

Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi, known simply as Colonel Gaddafi, was born in 1942 to a Bedouin family near Sirte, west of Tripoli on the Mediteranean coast. He was a political activist from an early age, and having decided a career in the military would best serve his political ambitions, he attended the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi and later in England.

In 1964 he had established a revoluntionary cell within the Libyan Army – the Free Officers’ Movement – which Gaddafi led to overthrow the monarchical government in a coup in 1969 to establish the Libyan Arab Republic, based on the principles of ‘freedom, socialism and unity’ and led, essentially, by Gaddafi himself. He and his Revolutionary Command Council began a series of reforms to bring Libya in line with the revolution; such reforms included stimulating economic growth such as the agricultural sector production, free health care and a reassertion of women’s equality in Libyan society, though they also included retaining a ban on political parties, banning trade unions and workers’ strikes and suppressing the press. The intellectual classes were imprisoned, and many fled Libya’s new regime, some settling in Ireland as refugees.

Libya’s main export was oil. Gaddafi claimed the trade agreements regarding its sale were unfavourable to Libya and began to control its production, leading to a rise in oil prices worldwide, leading to an inevitable increase in tensions between Libya and the Western nations over the next decades, despite Libya’s efforts to build diplomatic relations.

In March 1972 Galal Daghely, the Libyan ambassador to West Germany, was officially in Ireland to meet with a foreign trade committee, and requested to meet President de Valera.  This request was turned down, as it was felt that the purpose of such a meeting was to start the process of establishing an official diplomatic presence in the Republic of Ireland. However, on St Patrick’s Day, Daghely contacted Áras an Uachtaráin saying he had a gift from Colonel Gaddafi to President de Valera, and there would be great disappointment if it were not accepted. The Áras agreed to a short meeting to receive the gift, on the condition that the meeting not be publicised and the visit not be seen as part of an official programme.

 

Bridle, Gaddafi saddle, 1972

De Valera wrote to Colonel Gaddafi shortly after the meeting saying ‘Recently I had the pleasure of receiving his Excellency the Libyan Ambassador in Bonn, Mr Galal Daghely, who had expressed a wish to call on me during his visit to Dublin. On that occasion, he delivered to me the saddle, bridle and riding whip which your Excellency so kindly sent to me. For this gift, which richly reflects Arab skill and handicraft, I wish to convey to your Excellency my sincere thanks. In expressing my appreciation of your kindness, may I add my good wishes for your personal well-being.’

 

 

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‘Irish Republican Army’, the words in the shape of an AK-47 rifle. Mural at Springhill Park, Strabane. Copyright Peter Moloney. https://tinyurl.com/ya83jl3n

Áras an Uachtaráin was likely to have been very relieved that the meeting to receive a simple gift had not been known publically when, the following year, the Irish Naval Service intercepted the cargo ship Claudia off Helvick Head in Co. Waterford and found it to be transporting a 5 ton arsenal of AK-47s and Semtex explosive to Northern Ireland for use by the Provisional I.R.A. This shipment had been arranged by I.R.A. chief Joe Cahill with the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli in late 1972.  Libya became a major supplier of arms into Northern Ireland over the next decades, providing rifles, machine guns, handguns, explosives and even RPG-7 rocket launchers into the late 1980s.

 

Gaddafi waves to a crowd as he rides a horse during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the eviction of Italians from Libya. 1976(AP)

Gaddafi waves to a crowd as he rides a horse during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the eviction of Italians from Libya, 1976 (AP)

Gaddafi never made any secret of his country’s role in supplying the arms to the I.R.A., seeing it as a fight against the colonialism he himself hated (Libya having been occupied by Italy from 1911 to 1947, when Italy lost its colonial territories under the Treaty of Peace with Italy after World War II).

 

After a bombing campaign in Britain in 1976, Gaddafi publically stated that the bombs used were Libyan bombs in retaliation for past deeds, and refused to state that he would stop sending arms to Northern Ireland.

 

For some years there were few political consequences for Gaddafi’ regime; the Irish Government decided in 1973 that taking official action over the arms risked provoking the regime into increasing their activities and providing more arms to the north.

There were also trade concerns regarding oil supply to the West. Great Britain did not break off relations with Libya until the 1984 shooting of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, who was on duty when she was killed by a bullet fired from the Libyan Embassy in London during an anti-Gaddafi protest.  Soon afterwards the US retaliated against the bombing of a Berlin disco in which an American soldier was killed with an air raid on Tripoli, killing over a hundred people. In 1988 the Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the death of 270 people caused the UN to impose sanctions on the Gaddafi Regime until 1999, when the Lockerbie bombing suspects were returned to Britain for trial. Gaddafi remained in power until the revolution of 2011, with his forces turning on the citizens who stood against them, eventually leading NATO to intervene on the side of the rebels.  Gaddafi went into hiding but was killed outside Sirte, his birthplace, ending his 42 year rule.

 

Colonel Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff (Times of Malta)

Colonel Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff (Times of Malta)

 

Mintoff saddle Matthew Mirabelli

Saddle presented to Dom Mintoff, Prime Minister of Malta, 1970s. (Photo Matthew Mirabelli)

The saddle gifted to de Valera and the Irish State was not unique. A similar saddle had been presented to Malta’s Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in the 1970s before relations with the West soured. Mintoff was later asked by Gaddafi to aid him in a purchase of a nuclear submarine, which he refused. On close inspection of the photograph of Mintoff’s saddle, one can see that the decorative saddle cloth is the same design as the one presented to Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi at his luxurious Bedouin tent near Tripoli after sanctions were lifted, 2007 (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire URN:9889966 (Press Association via AP Images)

Gaddafi also presented a saddle to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March 2007, after their meeting in a Bedouin tent in the desert outside Tripoli. This meeting was part of the re-building of relations, with Libya having disarmed itself of weapons of mass destruction. BP Oil Chairman Peter Sutherland, who was also at the meeting in the desert, announced the signing of a new deal to the value of st£13 billion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both the Malta and UK saddles were sold at auction in the last few years.

The Gaddafi saddle in the National Museum of Ireland will remain in our collections as an artefact of a complex and multi-layered history.

3198 (16) copy

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De Valera’s ‘Last Letter’, Kilmainham, May 1916

 

Last letter of Eamon de Valera, May 1916 (copy) (NMI Collection)

 

The National Museum holds many of the last letters written by the men executed in Kilmainham Gaol in May 1916 for their part in the Rising. The collection includes Patrick Pearse’s letter to his mother, and letters from Con Colbert, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt and others, written to family and friends. All these letters have common themes; a final goodbye to loved ones, a sense of acceptance of their fate and a pride in having fought for their ideals and a free Ireland. They make for emotional reading, especially with the knowledge that within hours of writing their author was dead.

Among these is also a contemporary manuscript copy of a last letter written in May 1916 by Eamon de Valera, who had his death sentence commuted to penal servitude for life and was not executed along with the other leaders of the Rising. It was donated to the museum in 1975.

De Valera leads the surrender of the Boland's Mills Garrison, 30th May 1916 (NMI Collection)

After a week of fighting and widespread destruction in the centre of Dublin, Patrick Pearse ordered the surrender of the Irish rebels on Saturday 29 April.  De Valera was in command of the garrison stationed at Boland’s Mills in the Ringsend area of the city and the outlying posts around Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge, which saw heavy action and many casualties. On Sunday Elizabeth O’Farrell arrived at Boland’s Mills with a surrender order written by Pearse. Though at first there was some confusion over the order, the garrison, led by de Valera, marched out of the mills along Grand Canal Street towards a barricade manned by the Sherwood Foresters and surrendered their arms. They were held overnight on the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society at Ballsbridge, and transferred the next morning to Richmond Barracks. There began the military’s task of deciding what to do with the insurgent prisoners, of which there were about 600 and rising, with some being sent to England and Wales for internment, and others detained to be tried in Ireland.

Irish prisoners being marched under guard down Eden Quay for deportation to England (NMI Collection)

Almost as soon as the Rising had begun martial law was declared, transferring power in Ireland from the civil government to the military forces. By the time of the surrender, General John Maxwell, a veteran British Officer who had served in India, the Boer War and most recently on the Western Front in the ongoing war, had been appointed Military Governor of Ireland. His decision to court martial the leaders of the Rising under martial law was problematic from the first, with even the courts’ presidents raising legal difficulties. These military trials were conducted away from the public view, and the rebel leaders had no legal defence or jury. The leaders were charged with ‘waging war against His Majesty the King with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy’. Pearse, Clarke and MacDonagh were tried on 2nd May, sentenced to death and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, which, though it had been closed as a prison since 1910, was now in use by the British Military as a detention centre for military prisoners. They were executed on the 3rd May in the gaol’s stonebreakers yard.

The speed with which these sentences were carried out caused some concern to the British government, increasing over the next days with further executions. Prime Minister Asquith was especially concerned that a large number of executions would turn public opinion further in favour of the rebellion. Moreover, Maxwell’s final decisions as to who was to have their death sentence carried out seemed irregular, with some relatively unknown figures who had been detained after the Rising, such as Michael O’Hanrahan who had been 2nd in command at the Jacob’s Factory garrison which had seen little combat, having their death sentences enacted. On the 8th May Lord Wimborne, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote to Maxwell of his concerns about this, urging him to cease the executions except in the case of ‘one or two very prominent and deeply implicated suspects’.

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De Valera, as a garrison commander, was court martialled on the 8th May and a death sentence was passed. He was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol to await his execution, and wrote this letter to Michael Ryan of Cashel, Co. Tipperary on the 9th May (it is incorrectly dated as the 4th May in the copy). He writes ‘Tomorrow I am to be shot, so pray for me, an old sport unselfishly played the game’, believing he was to die the next day, the 10th. However, on the 10th May Asquith sent an order that no further executions were to take place, though James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada, court martialled on the 9th May, were executed on the 12th. Countess Constance Markievicz had already escaped death on the order that no woman was to be executed. De Valera also escaped his sentence when it was commuted to penal servitude for life. This raises the question as to how de Valera escaped execution.

It was commonly thought that the fact he was an American citizen saved his life, as Britain executing a U.S. citizen at such a critical time in the war would have caused diplomatic issues. Robert Schmuhl has written that the de Valera personal papers in the UCD archives show that his wife Sinead appealed to the US Consul for help, and his half brother Reverend Thomas Wheelwright wrote letters to Washington on his behalf. However, it is less likely that his citizenship saved him, but the luck of the timing of his court martial. His trial was one of the later to take place, and he was not a well known figure at this time. The executions of Connolly and MacDiarmada, which took place after de Valera’s court martial and the British government’s order to cease the executions, were likely enacted due to these men’s very prominent role in the Rising and the fact that they were signatories of the Proclamation. De Valera had not been a high profile individual in the years before the Rising, and the government had little knowledge of him. It would appear that it was generally considered that he was not important enough to be executed.

De Valera's cell in Kilmainham Gaol, May 1916

Eamon de Valera went on to play a hugely significant role in 20th century Ireland. On the commuting of his death sentence, he was imprisoned in various jails in England until the general amnesty in June 1917. He went on to play key roles in the War of Independence period, becoming the President of the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, led the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, became leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, was Taoiseach of Ireland at various times from the 1930s to 1950s, wrote the Constitution of Ireland, and was elected President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973 before dying at the age of 92 in 1975.

But for a moment in May 1916, as evidenced in this letter, de Valera truly believed he was about to die.

The Victorian Wing's central stairwell, Kilmainham Gaol (NMI Collection)

Kilmainham Gaol is open to the public for guided tours, and I’d highly recommend visiting this site to learn more about the long history of this gaol as well as its role in the early 20th century fight for Irish Independence.