There are more than 40 museums spread across Dublin, offering visitors the chance to satisfy their interest for all things Irish, from archeology to whisky and leprechauns. Two are “must-sees” to explore the historical and cultural heritage of the country.
The National Museum — Archeology
The Prehistoric Ireland exhibit at the National Museum contains artefacts from the earliest period of human habitation in Ireland: stone implements created by the first hunter-gatherers, beginning around 7000 BC. The tools, pottery and burial objects of Neolithic farmers follow, including the unique ceremonial macehead discovered at the tomb of Knowth (County Meath).
The exhibit then covers the introduction of metallurgy into Ireland around 2500 BC, with early copper implements. Then from the later Bronze Age period there is an impressive array of bronze axes, daggers, swords, shields, cauldrons and cast bronze horns. Wooden objects include a large dugout longboat, wooden wheels and reed fishing equipment.
Bronze Age Irish Gold
By far the one of the most remarkable holdings of the museum is the stunning collection of prehistoric Irish goldwork ranging in date between 2200 BC and 500 BC. Most are pieces of jewelry but the precise function of some is unclear.
During the Early Bronze Age the principal gold products were made from sheet gold, and include sundiscs and crescent-shaped gold collars called lunulae. Around 1200 BC, new gold working techniques were developed and a variety of torcs were produced by twisting bars or strips of gold. Styles evolved around 900 BC – the Late Bronze Age – to be be divided into two main types. Solid objects such as bracelets and dress-fasteners now contrast dramatically with large sheet gold collars and delicate ear-spools.
The immense quantity of Bronze Age gold from Ireland suggests the availability of rich local ore sources. However, their location has never been identified.
Another fascinating exhibit focuses on Viking life in Ireland, through objects from Viking graves of the 9th and 10th centuries, and from settlement sites of the 10th to 12th centuries. The first recorded Viking raids on Ireland took place in 795, when islands off the north and west coasts were plundered. Later on, Viking fleets appearing on the major river systems and fortifying bases are mentioned around 840. Fast, manoeuvrable ships made for effecting raiding. A replica of a Viking fishing vessel used for these purposes marks the entrance of the exhibit.
Pagan Viking burial traditions included the personal possessions of the deceased. Warriors were buried with their weapons. Burial sites near Dublin, dated from the early 10th century on, also reveal the presence of weights, scales, purses, tongs and hammers, suggesting that some of the dead were merchants and craftsmen. Typically, Norse oval brooches, worn in pairs in women’s costume, as well as objects of domestic life such as a spindle whorls (for spinning wool) and bronze needle cases, indicate that women were also buried in these cemeteries.
By the end of the 10th century the Vikings in Ireland had adopted Christianity. With this fusion of cultures it is often difficult to distinguish between Norse and Irish artefacts from this time on. The final section of this exhibit displays church metalwork and other ecclesiastical objects of the 10th to 12th centuries, which illustrate Christian art created by those Vikings who settled and converted, and how Norse features became absorbed into Irish culture and art styles.
Power, Work and Prayer
The medieval section of the museum is divided into three galeries: Power, Work and Prayer, reflecting the three-fold division of medieval society — nobles, common people and clergy.
Power deals with the nobility, both Irish and Anglo-Irish, who ruled medieval society. Displays of jewelry and other personal adornments used by noble and affluent men and women highlight courtly life, as do treasures associated with important aristocratic families, such as the 11th century Breac Maodhóg Shrine associated with the O’Reilly lords of East Bréifne. There is also a fine display of late medieval swords and axes that highlights the unique characteristics of medieval Irish warfare.
Work focuses on secular, non-noble society, with particular emphasis on economic and social life. Separate sections deal with the agricultural practices of the countryside and the life of towns, which became a widespread feature of the Irish landscape during this time. A large part of the gallery is devoted to the tools and products of medieval crafts and trades, both urban and rural.
Prayer explores the dominant features of religious life during the Middle Ages. It focuses on the fundamental changes that took place in the organisation of the Church and the introduction of new monastic orders. Many practices of the older Church tradition survived, however, especially in areas outside English control. The exhibition also looks at religious practice and devotion as well as church furnishings, including a fine selection of late medieval reliquaries: book shrines, bell shrines and croziers.
Located on the docklands of Dublin, in the vaults of a fully restored 19th century bonded customs warehouse, EPIC, The Irish Immigration Museum, is the antithesis of the National Museum – Archeology: it covers covers the history of the Irish diaspora. In the word of its Curator Jessica Trainer, “EPIC is not an acronym. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the epic journeys of Irish emigrants.”
While there are recorded mentions of Irish migration throughout the Middle Ages, it can only be quantified starting in the early 18th century. Since then, between 9 and 10 million people born in Ireland have emigrated. That is more than the current population of the entire island, which today stand around 6.9 million (5 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.9 million in Northern Ireland). The poorest of them went to Great Britain. Those who could afford it went further, including almost 5 million to the United States and 1.2 million to Canada.
Also, between the 1790s and 1920s, approximately 400,000 Irish settlers – both voluntary and forced – are thought to have arrived in Australia. They first came over as convicts, with around 50,000 transported between 1791 and 1867. Even larger numbers of free settlers came during the 19th century due to famine, Overall, an estimated 80 million people worldwide now claim some Irish descent, including more than 36 million Americans claiming Irish as their primary ethnicity.
An Immersive Experience
Opened in 2016, the museum is made up of twenty galleries that create an immersive, fully digital, interactive environment for visitors to experience the history and various aspects of Irish emigration. The exhibits’ itinerary is arranged around four individual themes:
Migration — This introduction to the itinerary deals with migration patterns from Ireland over the centuries. Motivation cover missionary work, the Irish famine, religious and social persecutions, criminal transportation, and the effects of Irish involvement in foreign conflicts. Especially powerful are the individual stories of six emigrants, played out on video. They explain their reasons for leaving, their hopes, the challenges they encountered and their outcome.
Influence and Diaspora Today — These two themes seamlessly blend into each other, covering notable Irish immigrants in the world of business, sports, sciences, political leaders and thinkers, music, dance and entertainment, art and fashion, writing and storytelling. A “Rogues Gallery” of infamous trouble makers with Irish heritage is also included. Then the itinerary ends with an uplifting glance at festivals and celebrations of Irish culture worldwide.
Good to Know
- Getting There — Dublin is easily reached by plane, via regularly scheduled flights from around the world into Dublin Airport. It can also be reached via ferries from England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
- Getting Around — Central Dublin is fairly compact and is best explored by a combination of walking and public transportation. The city has a good public transportation network which includes public buses, trams and rail services (for going outside the city center).
- Visiting —The National Museum of Ireland – Archeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, is open year round Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday and Monday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. It is closed on Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day and Good Friday. Admission to all permanent collections is free, EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum, CHQ, Custom House Quay, Dublin 1, is open year round, every day from 10:00 am – 6.:45 pm.