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Speech at the opening of ‘Gift of a Lifetime - Treasures from Chester Beatty’s Collection’

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Thursday, 18th October, 2018

A dhaoine Uisle,

Cuireann sé áthas orm bheith anse í Leabharlann Chester Beatty inniu. Is iontach a bheith anseo chun bailiúchán álainn den sórt sin a fheiceáil, agus ómós a thabhairt do shaol Sir Alfred Chester Beatty.

It is a great honour to be here today as we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest acts of altruism in the cultural history of the State. I would like to thank the Director, Fionnuala Croke, as well as the Library’s Board of Trustees, chaired by Dr Catherine Day, for their invitation this evening to share with you in this tribute to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty.

There can be no doubt that, as a nation, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, one of the most prolific and discerning collectors of his generation. This exhibition presents an inspiring selection of masterpieces from Beatty’s unique collection.

From objects of the greatest beauty crafted for powerful rulers to treasures tracing the history of world religions, the artworks drawn together in this exhibition and accompanying catalogue capture the breadth and wonder of this exceptional legacy: a gift to the nation that Ireland is proud to share with the world.

Indeed, Beatty's greatest legacy is not only that he amassed one of the greatest private collections in the world, but that his great spirit of generosity ensured that it would be made available to the general public to be enjoyed and studied and used as a source of inspiration and a shared cultural experience.

Tógáil croí atá ann don uile duine a thagann go dtí an áit seo, áit a dhéanann muid ceiliúradh ar thiomnacht Alfred Chester Beatty a thug an oiread saothar le healaíontóirí sár-chumasacha dúinn - saothair a chuireann dúshlán fúinn an domhan agus ár n-áit ann a cheistiú, saothair is ea iad a chuireann go mór le saol cruthaitheach ár náisiúin.

[For it must surely be an uplifting occasion for all who come here to this place where we celebrate the great bequest of Alfred Chester Beatty who has gifted us so many works by exceptional artists – works that challenge us to constantly question that world and our place within it, and works which contribute greatly to the creative life of our nation.]

The title of the exhibition “Gift of a Lifetime” captures the great diversity of the collection amassed by Chester Beatty throughout his life. It also reminds us of how very fortunate we are that Beatty chose to come to Ireland in 1950 and, in making his choice, was welcomed and facilitated by some very enlightened diplomats and politicians who understood the cultural importance of his collection.

From his early years in New York, through his career in London and travels overseas, Beatty acquired rare books, manuscripts and decorative arts of the highest quality and rarity from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Following his retirement, Beatty brought these collections to Ireland, later placing them in trust for the benefit of the Irish people on his death in 1968. In so doing, he left the people of Ireland a world class collection of manuscripts and artefacts.

Indeed, viewing this exhibition, I think of what a privilege it is to know that Ireland is home to the oldest surviving four gospels Codex (200-250AD), which showed that the Gospels and Acts were being read together as one volume from much earlier on than we had previously thought. When the acquisition was made public in 1931, it moved the accepted view of when the Four Gospels were brought together as canon back in time by at least one hundred years.

It is quite extraordinary to stand here, in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and to feel that profound connection across so many centuries to the early years of Christianity; and to feel the power of words to navigate us through time and place, bringing us so deeply into the lives of others and allowing us to weave a more enlightened journey back to the contemporary moment.

The great beauty of works created as acts of faith is evident in so many of the treasures on display here today – the 900 year old Buddhist scroll where words and colour come together in such beautiful harmony, the vividly striking Beatty Rosarium reminding us of the genius of Simon Bening, the last of the great Flemish manuscript illuminators, and the Qur'ans which speak of a golden age for libraries, books translation, calligraphy and scholarship and gift us such a precious example.

May I also mention the magnificent jade book engraved with the poetry and calligraphy of China's Qianlong Emperor. It is, of course, an ode to the pleasures of collecting and the importance of cherishing works handed down from the past. That is a very important message and one that aptly underlines the significance and value of this great collection which is the legacy of Alfred Chester Beatty.

Saibhríonn scríbhneoirí agus ealaíontóirí ár saol. Ní hamháin go gcruthóidh siad saothair atá álainn, ach cuidíonn siad linn chun tuiscint a fháil ar ár saol agus ar ár n-áit sa domhan - cé muid féin, cén áit as a dtagaimid agus cá bhfuil muid ag dul.

[Writers and artists enrich our lives. Not only do they create something that is aesthetically beautiful and uplifting, but they also assist us in understanding our world and our place in that world - who we are, where we have come from and also where we are going.]

Great literature and great art can give empathetic access to a reality that otherwise defies comprehension, allows us to put our past into context, and to make deliberations based on that context. That is why great works of art should be treasured and why they are beyond price. They are not just beautiful in their own right but they also offer a portal into the past, capturing singular moments of revelation and charting the changing landscape and new patterns of a constantly changing world.

They also enable the embracing of other cultures, the understanding of other beliefs and the respecting of cultural differences aligned to a realisation of a common and shared humanity.

That is why collections like this one, and shared spaces of culture such as libraries, galleries, museums and theatres make a necessary and immeasurable contribution to our society, and are the basis for democratic flourishing and participation.

May I therefore express my thanks to Chair Dr Catherine Day and the Board of Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library for all of the valuable work that you do on behalf of the museum. Indeed, since the museum moved to its current location in 2000 it has gone from strength to strength and now attracts around 350,000 visitors each year from Ireland and around the world. That is a very impressive figure demonstrating how the Chester Beatty Library has broadened both the range and quality of its services to the public. Today the museum acts as a research library to scholars from all over the world as well as engaging with both Irish audiences and international visitors through its public programmes. Indeed may I acknowledge, at this point, the generous contribution from EU Structural Funds which so greatly assisted with this important move.

I am aware that you have very ambitious plans for the further development of the museum which will allow you to make a larger part of your wonderful collection available to the public on a more regular basis. I have great faith that under your guidance, the museum will continue to thrive, contributing profoundly to Ireland’s cultural life, enriching us as a society and thus helping to support the extension of a viable democracy.

Is mian liom a deis seo a thapú le buíochas ar leith a ghabháil le Tom Hardiman as na blianta fada seirbhíse a thug sé mar Chathaoirleach an Bhoird. Chomh maith leis sin is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Fionnuala Croke, agus lena foireann sa nDánlann, a bhfuil a paisean agus a ndúthracht leanúnach le feiceáil go soiléir anseo inniu.

[May I also take this opportunity to thank in particular Tom Hardiman for the many years' service he gave as Chair of the Board. I also extend my gratitude to Fionnuala Croke, and her staff at the museum, whose ongoing passion and dedication has been so evident here today.]

It has been an enormous pleasure to visit the Chester Beatty Library today, and I thank you all for the generous welcome you have extended to me.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.