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'Take them to hell': The curious tale of the hidden Russian jewels and Dev's deal with the Bolsheviks

The jewels were given as security by Russian envoy in America in 1920 for a $20,000 loan advanced by the Irish Republic.

Capture Marino Crescent, Dublin Source: GoogleMaps

FOR ALMOST TWO decades four Russian jewels were hidden behind the fireplace at 15 Marino Crescent in Dublin after being given as collateral by the Soviet Republic in 1920 in exchange for a loan from the Irish Republic. 

Their journey from New York to Dublin and eventually back to Russia is a curious one involving secret deals, diplomatic spats and furious revolutionaries. Why did Catholic Ireland’s Éamon de Valera strike a deal with the Communists? Why wasn’t the existence of the jewels public knowledge until 1949? And where are they now?

The jewels – given as security by Russian envoy L.K. Martens in America in 1920 for a $20,000 loan advanced by the Irish Republic – were brought to Ireland from New York by Harry Boland, a close associate of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera. 

By 1920, De Valera – charged alongside James O’Mara with raising funds for the Irish Republic – had amassed over $5.5 million in donations, according to Barry Whelan writing in Scolaire Staire in 2013. 

Martens, a long-standing associate of Vladimir Lenin, was meanwhile travelling the United States seeking American recognition for the Soviet Republic. 

According to Whelan, Martens first approached de Valera on 20 April 1920 and asked for a $20,000 loan on behalf of the Bolshevik Government, presenting four items of jewellery as collateral for the loan. 

Granting the loan without contacting Dublin first, de Valera accorded recognition to the Bolshevik Republic, Whelan notes, a move that would have been “completely abhorrent in the eyes of the influential Catholic hierarchy and to the majority of Irish public opinion”.

On St Stephen’s Day 1921, Harry Boland returned from New York to Ireland with the jewels. 

According to an internal Government report dated May 1950 – made public today after its release to the National Archives - Michael Collins was due to deposit a “package” containing the items with George McGrath, who was later appointed Comptroller and Auditor General of the Free State.

Collins at the time was likely under intense pressure considering the period in question immediately preceded the crucial Dáil vote on whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which Collins had helped broker between the Irish State and Britain. 

Boland Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera in 1920. Source: WikiCommons

At some point before the Treaty vote or shortly after, there was a confrontation between Collins and Boland. 

According to the report, after Boland handed over the jewels and several documents, Collins “threw the jewels back to [Boland] across the table” and said “Take them to Hell out of that, they’re blood-stained anyway!”

It appears, therefore, that Collins tossed the jewels and his own receipt for them back to Boland before getting an opportunity to deposit them with McGrath. 

This incident was related to then-Department of the Taoiseach Secretary Maurice Moynihan - who was in office at the time in 1950 – by de Valera’s Secretary Kathleen O’Connell who was, in turn, told the story by Boland’s brother Gerald. 

Gerald recounted that after his row with Collins, Harry Boland arrived home, told his family about the argument and left the jewels in their custody at 15 Marino Crescent, birthplace of Bram Stoker. 

On 7 January, Boland voted against the Treaty, pitting himself and Collins against each other during the ensuing Civil War. Boland was assassinated on 2 August, Collins three weeks later at Béal na Bláth, Co Cork. 

Repayment

The jewels, meanwhile, remained at Marino Crescent – at Boland’s request – until de Valera returned to power in 1938. 

In 1948 Clann na Poblachta co-founder Dr Patrick McCartan – responding to accusations from Fianna Fáil that his party leader Sean MacBride held Communist sympathies – made public de Valera’s deal with Martens thus bringing the Russian jewels to public attention. 

The Russian Government, meanwhile, in order to reclaim the jewels, needed to repay the loan. 

By 1949, no request for reclamation had come from the Soviets, an internal Government report reveals, thus raising the question of their disposal by the Irish State, State Papers show. 

The jewels at the time were valued at between £1,600 and £2,000 by two London jewellry firms – €65,000 to €80,000 in today’s currency. 

The Finance Minister Patrick McGilligan TD considered either auctioning the pieces without notifying the Soviet Government – at the time lead by Joseph Stalin – or giving the Russians an opportunity to repay the loan and reclaim its jewels. 

The Government opted for the latter, allowing the Russian Government five months to settle its debt. 

jewels Sunday Press article 2 February 1949 Source: Cónal Thomas

Five days before the deadline, the Russian Embassy replied: “Although the transaction has not been done in the proper way, the Soviet Government recognises this sum as its loan and is ready to deposit [it] in the account of the Irish Government.”

The jewels were received by the London Embassy in mid-September 1949 and repayment was made by the Russians. 

‘Too old to travel’

In 1988, a relative of Boland contacted Ireland’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union expressing her regret that her parents never showed her the Russian jewels when she lived in Marino Crescent and said she’d like to trace their whereabouts in Russia before her sister and her were “too old to travel”.

Six months later, Tadhg O’Sullivan – Ambassador to Russia between 1985 and 1987 – replied.

“I feel it is time I gave you an account of my stewardship,” he wrote to Boland’s relative. 

“I raised the question twice with the Soviet authorities on an informal basis – I had no authority to express it as an official statement – and was not surprised when they said they had never heard of the matter.

“They suggested I visit the jewels in the Kremlin armoury, which include[s] certain imperial regalia, and I did so, but there was nothing to see that even remotely resembled the jewels illustrated in the papers you gave me. 

“Before I could decide what other line of enquiry to pursue I was transferred [to Paris]. The papers disappeared during my transfer, but that could simply be part of the confusion that occurs whenever we move house,” O’Sullivan wrote. 

I have no reason to think there was anything more sinister to it, though stranger things have happened. 

Ms Barrington, who’d visited the Soviet Embassy in Dublin seeking information about the jewels, was “on the right track” in doing so,” said O’Sullivan, who said she’d need to “keep reminding them if you want to get anything done.

“Soviet officials rarely do things to oblige individuals, unless they can see what is in it for them. 

“If they thought you were somebody who would be likely to visit Moscow and return to Ireland spreading the gospel about Mr Gorbachev’s policies, you would get great attention,” said O’Sullivan. 

“If I might suggest a line on enquiry, you could ask the Soviet Embassy in Dublin whether they could pursue the matter through their Embassy in London. 

“When the jewels were redeemed in the early 1950s it was with their Embassy in London that we dealt, as there was no Embassy in Dublin at the time. 

“Maybe that could help them to trace their file and find what happened to the jewels after they were sent back to the Soviet Union.”

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