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Thomas Matthew Ray's Collection and Archive

T.M. Ray (1801–1881) was active in the 19th century Irish nationalist movement and also left his mark on the collections of the National Museum.

By Claire Anderson

Who was Thomas Matthew Ray?

T. M. Ray (1801 – 1881) was active in the 19th century Irish nationalist movement and also left his mark on the collections of the National Museum. An ardent supporter of Daniel O’Connell, he played a key role in many important political organisations of the day. He was secretary of the ‘Loyal National Repeal Association’ and would have attended the great public rallies held at important archaeological sites such as the Hill of Tara and the Rath of Mullaghmast (Crooke, 2000). This nationalist activity led to Ray spending a period in prison in the late 1840s, when he was arrested along with O’Connell and others. Although he was released a short time later, Ray drifted away from active political life and was appointed Assistant Registrar of Deeds in Ireland.

Why is T.M. Ray important to the National Museum?

Having retired from active political life, Ray developed a keen interest in antiquities and began to collect objects being excavated by workmen laying new sewers in Dublin city centre. Between 1856 and 1862, Ray followed the workmen as they dug deep under the streets of the city and collected antiquities which they discovered. He collected over 700 objects, many of which were acquired by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and came into the NMI as part of that collection. The collection includes; copper alloy stick pins, antler combs and bone pins, medieval ceramics, whetstones and iron knives, keys and padlocks.

Figure 1: Image from Ray’s diary on 31 July 1862.

What makes this collection so unique?

Ray kept a very meticulous account of the find circumstances of each object he collected. The NMI archives hold the original copies of the diary written by Ray almost daily, describing each day’s finds and often illustrating the stratigraphy of the drains from which they came. The diary also contains details of objects that were not procured by Ray but had instead been passed on to dealers or local residents. On one occasion in 1857 he refers to a clay urn which was dug up before he arrived at the site as “unfortunately falling into ignorant hands….broken up and thrown away” (NMI:IA/225/96). On another day in Cook Street in 1861 he describes with disappointment how a bronze ring brooch was found by a local boy on the spoil heap, broken up and sold to a pawn broker!

What can this archive tell us about antiquarian collecting?

Ray labelled each item that he collected, detailing the find circumstances and giving the date of discovery. Many original labels remain adhering to the object surfaces, or tied securely to them, representing quite a unique and extensive collection of original 19th century antiquarian labels. The small squares of paper with their handwritten details are a very tangible connection to the man who stood beside the sewer trenches in mid-19th century Dublin recording details of antiquities he collected there.

Figure 2: Ray Collection handwritten labels.

Ray also mounted many of the objects on card, with descriptions of the objects and their find details. He often used membership cards from the Loyal National Repeal Association for this purpose. The handwritten labels and card mounts from the Ray Collection thus provide a link to early Irish nationalism.

Figure 3: Loyal National Repeal Association membership card used as mount.

Although this is essentially a collection of stray finds, it is nevertheless one of the best labelled, catalogued and documented early collections in the Museum. It also provides relics of the era, such as membership cards of the Loyal National Repeal Association, which at the time were obviously regarded as disposable by Ray himself but are now important historical documents. Indeed, the origins of the current National Museum itself are very clearly reflected in this collection.

Learn more…

A money pot from the Ray collection is on display in the Medieval Ireland 1150 – 1550 exhibition at the National Museum - Archaeology, Kildare Street. The majority of the Ray collection forms part of the NMI’s reserve collections and is not on display to the public.

Figure 4: Money pot (bottom right) from the Ray Collection on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

Further reading. 

Breen, T. (1980). Stray finds of Early Christian and medieval date from the greater Dublin area in the National Museum of Ireland, Vols I & II. MA Thesis submitted to UCD (unpublished).

Crooke, E. (2000). Politics, Archaeology and the Creation of a National Museum of Ireland (Irish Academic Press, Dublin).

NMI: IA /225/96 ‘The Ray Collection’

NMI: IA/478/47 ‘The Ray Collection’