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The Irish Museum of Time Tells the Country’s History

WATERFORD, Ireland — Ireland’s long history of horology now has a home: the Irish Museum of Time.

Deconstructed clocks that once adorned church steeples and a line of 10 grandfather clocks illustrating the evolution of Irish clock making from the 17th to early 20th centuries are among the more than 600 timepieces and related ephemera on display in the museum, which opened in June.

Most of the exhibits were donated by two Dublin collectors: David Boles, 78, a retired pharmacist, and Colman Curran, 65, a former lawyer. “One antique Irish clock on its own is interesting, but a group tells a story,” Mr. Curran said.

As he recalled in a recent interview, Mr. Curran had looked around his house after retiring from the law in 2013 and decided it was time to open a museum. There were antique Irish clocks on every wall and table, and grandfather clocks in the hall and sitting rooms — even in the kitchen. Hundreds more timepieces were stored in the garage.

At noon, 15 to 20 clocks would chime, which could be a bit of a “ding-dong,” he said, but “there was method in my madness. I was studying all of these clocks.” He had accumulated them from auctions and dealers around the world over 30 years.

Mr. Curran said he believed that clocks, in addition to their own attractions, told the social history of Ireland. “There were almost no Irish clocks before 1690 because the country was completely at war before then,” he said, with things settling into a kind of peace that year after the forces of King William III of England and Scotland, a Protestant, defeated those of the deposed English king, James II, a Catholic, at the Battle of the Boyne.

With a Protestant ruling the British Isles, thousands of French Protestants called Huguenots, many of them clockmakers, sought refuge in Ireland from religious persecution. “By the early 1700s there was a growing presence of clock and watchmakers in most provinces in Ireland,” Mr. Curran said, and by the mid-1800s, almost every Irish town had its own watchmaker.

As the century progressed, affordable mass-produced watches and clocks from the United States flooded the market, overwhelming the local industry. But a distinct Irish style had emerged, Mr. Curran said: Clock dials were larger, the cases taller, the carvings more ornate than their English or European counterparts.

Mr. Curran’s collection reflects those distinctions, and he began to wonder what would become of it when he died. “My next-of-kin won’t have the space or interest for my clocks, a 30-year collection will be dispersed and an entire history lost,” he said.

Hence the decision by Mr. Curran and his wife, Elizabeth Clooney, to donate the collection to the state. He estimated it was “worth north of 600,000 euros,” or $679,500, although he has never had a comprehensive evaluation and said it would be “impossible” to put a definite value on it, especially as the sum of its parts was far more important than any individual piece.

In 2015, Mr. Curran met with Eamonn McEneaney, director of Waterford Treasures, then a group of four city museums — and the men spent the following two years searching for a site.

Mr. McEneaney, 67, said he always considered Waterford a fitting location for an Irish watch museum. In 1784, about a thousand Huguenot clockmakers had planned to create the community of New Geneva there, a refuge from Switzerland’s religious persecution and high taxes. “But it never happened,” he said. “At the last minute, the Swiss authorities realized they were going to lose a fortune in taxes, so they cut them some slack, and the clockmakers stayed.” The original plans and the silver trowel used to lay the foundation stone of what was to be a large public building in the town center are on display in the horology museum.

Eventually the men secured a former Methodist church, owned by the Waterford City & County Council, which is in the Viking Triangle, a heritage area in this city of about 55,000 (which markets itself as the oldest city in Ireland, founded in 914 A.D. by Vikings). The other Waterford Treasures museums were in the same neighborhood: Reginald’s Tower, the Medieval Museum, the Bishop’s Palace and the Museum of Silver. And now the horology museum has become the city’s fifth Treasure.

Restoration began in 2017. “It was dank, dowdy and needed a complete makeover,” Mr. Curran recalled. The work, which was delayed about 18 months by pandemic restrictions, cost more than €1 million and was financed by private donors.

In 2018, while the work was progressing, Mr. Boles visited the site and decided to donate his own collection, which included 120 grandfather clocks (called longcase clocks in Ireland and Britain), 50 pocket watches, 20 wristwatches and a dozen sundials.

“Irish writers, poets, playwrights, artists are rightly celebrated, but no one knows about the clockmakers,” Mr. Boles said. “These clocks would have sat in the houses of the richest families and been viewed by only a few. Now everyone can see them.”

He started collecting antique Irish clocks when he was 15, inspired by his father, who also was a pharmacist. “He loved old clocks and had a few interesting longcases,” Mr. Bowles said.

By the 1970s, “you could get them for peanuts,” he said. “No one was interested in Irish clocks then; you could take your pick.” He soon realized that the Irish diaspora had taken timepieces to Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, so he needed to check auctions and dealers, too.

He is most proud of his Joel Hulbert musical astronomical longcase clock, dating from 1720 in Dublin, and one of the museum’s highlights. “I believe this is the very finest early Irish clock in the world,” Mr. Boles said. “It’s a very rare walnut veneered clock, even the finial has survived.” (In Ireland, walnut was routinely veneered onto pine at the time, and many early pieces have been ruined by wood worm.)

Mr. Boles and Mr. Curran said they believed the clock, at 284 centimeters (9.3 feet), was the tallest grandfather clock in the country. It indicates the seconds, minutes, hours, date, month and the number of days in the month, and has three musical tunes: an 18th-century one to accompany Psalm No. 113, “Ould Dad in a Hug” and “Lillibullero,” a march by Henry Purcell.

Forty years ago, Mr. Boles bought it for 2,800 Irish pounds, the currency in use at that time: “It was very expensive, but it was worth it.” But today, he said, he could not estimate its value. “It’s like the Mona Lisa,” he said, “there’s only one Mona Lisa. How much would that be worth?”

“I have never cared about money,” he said. “I always bought the most interesting pieces I could find with a view to writing a comprehensive history of Irish clock making.” He now is finishing two volumes — “The Irish Clock and Watchmaker” and “A Compendium of Irish Clocks and Watches” — and hopes they will be published next year.

Mr. McEneaney said, “David’s donation was a game changer for the museum as it allowed us to trace the advances in time making from the mid-16th century to modern times.”

The museum was busy on a blustery Sunday morning in mid-February, with families wandering through the displays and some visitors using the museum’s magnifying glasses to peer at antique timepieces (the museum said there had been 48,000 visitors since its opening last summer). Children gathered at the interactive “Watches of Ireland” display, which allowed them to point a laser at one of the 70 pocket watches from the country’s four provinces housed in a large glass-topped cabinet. Once the laser dot landed on a watch, a magnified image of it appeared on a screen inside the cabinet, along with descriptions of the timepiece, its maker and the town where it had been made.

The museum also has a fully equipped watchmaker’s studio, used for restoration work on pieces in its collection.

While most of the exhibits are antiques, the museum also has a few contemporary wristwatches — four from Graeme Haughton of Mileata & SAS watches in Wicklow and two from Brian Leech and Martin Marley at Sidereus watches in County Carlow — a category that Mr. Eneaney, acting as the museum’s curator, is eager to expand.

There are just a few independent watchmakers operating in Ireland now, but names such as John and Stephen McGonigle and Stephen McDonnell, who has worked with MB & F and Bremont, are recognized internationally.

“The museum of time is not just focused on the past,” said Mr. Curran, who is not employed by the museum but is a very active volunteer consultant. “We also want to promote contemporary Irish watchmaking.” For example, he and Mr. McEneaney are talking with the Waterford Institute of Technology about introducing a watchmaking module in its engineering program.

And the museum is planning a public program, too. “We are launching the Waterford Festival of Time, from May 19 to 22 this year,” said Mr. McEneaney, who hoped to have 20 Irish and international watchmakers demonstrate their watches and lecture on their techniques.

“It’s very exciting,” Mr. Curran said. “It’s going to be the first time-themed fair, festival and show in Ireland, happening in and around the museum of time. It’s going to complement the museum and be a modern wristwatch event that will give us a chance to talk about Ireland’s horological history.”

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