The National Museum of Ireland is, as you might have guessed, the primary place to see all things related to Ireland and Irish history, culture, and heritage. Founded in 1877, it was set up to collect, preserve, promote and exhibit any and every important element of Irish history. It was initially housed in one beautiful building from the 1890s, which sits right next door to Dail Eireann (the Irish Houses of Parliament) on Kildare Street in the heart of Dublin city. There are now four separate branches however; Archaeology, which is housed in the original museum building; the Natural History Museum around the corner on Merrion Street; Decorative Arts and History in Collins Barracks, located a short distance away on the other side of the river Liffey; and the Museum of Country Life, naturally located in a more rural location outside the town of Castlebar in county Mayo.
Whether you’re a resident in Ireland or just a visitor, you should make it your business to get down to at least one of the four branches of the museum to take in the many breathtaking treasures within its walls. Trust us - you won’t be disappointed. While all four are definitely worth a visit, the Archaeology section has provided the most inspiration for us at Claddagh Design. This is where you’ll find endless display cabinets of glittering gold and silver objects, many of them still in perfect condition despite being thousands of years old. It gives a fascinating insight into the life of Ireland’s inhabitants from the megalithic period right through to the Bronze Age, Iron Age and beyond. It even has some ancient artefacts from Egypt (real mummies included!), mainland Europe and even further afield. If you find yourself in the museum, here are ten items you can’t leave without seeing:
1. The Ardagh Chalice
Dating from the 8th century AD, the Ardagh Chalice is definitely the most exquisite example of Irish metalwork in existence, and gets pride of place in the Museum. Crafted from over 250 different pieces of metal and jewels, it’s basically a small silver bowl with elaborately decorated side handles and a stand. It would have been used to dispense Eucharistic wine to a congregation during mass, and was likely crafted by a team of highly skilled monks. Just some of the decoration techniques used in its making include gold filigree, granulation, stamping and open metalwork, featuring interlacing patterns, animals and serpents (some with human heads), and typical La Tene style decoration. It was discovered in 1868 along with four silver brooches - the hoard was likely concealed in the ground at some point in the 10th century for safekeeping.
2. The Tara Brooch
The Tara Brooch is another historical object often claimed to be the best example of early Irish craftsmanship in existence, and for good reason too. The decoration on this relatively small object (although we would consider it very large for a brooch!) is extremely intricate, and every element has been made individually. It consists of a series of gold filigree separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber. The decoration includes various motifs typical of the 8th century such as scrolls, triple spirals, knots and interlacing patterns with zoomorphic imagery. The pin head attachment also features incredibly beautiful sculpted animal heads framing two tiny cast glass human heads. The brooch was found on the beach in Bettystown, co. Meath in 1850 - quite a distance away from Tara, but the enterprising dealing who ended up with the brooch thought that the latter had a nicer ring to it!
Speaking of the Tara Brooch, check out this Diamond & Emerald brooch that we made for a customer.
3. The Broighter Hoard
The Broighter Hoard consists of the well known Broighter collar, a decorative boat complete with oars and rudders, and a number of small jewellery items (mostly worn around the neck). It is by far the most magnificent hoard of Celtic period gold objects found on European shores. The collar features raised decoration of classical foliage designs and sea shell motifs, with incised lines throughout the background to emphasise the raised elements. The overall seaside theme of the hoard has lead many to believe that it was deliberately crafted and buried as a votive offering to the Celtic Gods, most likely during the 1st century AD. Wearing gold collars to symbolise wealth and power was commonplace in Celtic Ireland, and they would have been reserved only for the noblest members of the tribe - so crafting such an elaborate collar that was never to be worn by a living person was a substantial offering. 4. The Derrynaflan Hoard In many ways the Derrynaflan Hoard is comparable to the Ardagh Hoard, and some historians argue that they may have even come from the same workshop. The two most significant items in the hoard are the Chalice and Paten, both of which are less ornate than the Ardagh Chalice but still show exemplary craftsmanship. Both chalices have the same basic shape and decorative features, and would have been used for the same purpose; serving the Eucharistic wine (the chalice) and bread (the paten) during mass. Decorative elements include coloured glass and inlaid amber studs, while the main vessel itself was crafted from silver. The Derrynaflan Hoard was dates from the 8th-9th century and, like so many other objects now housed in the Museum, was probably concealed during the Viking Age. 5. The Cross of Cong The Cross of Cong is one of the few items on this list with an almost completely trackable history. Crafted in 1132 to encase a fragment of the supposed ‘true cross’ used for in the crucifixion of Jesus, it was commissioned by the High King of Ireland at the time, Turlough O’Connor. Unfortunately the shrine has since been lost, but the stunning cross still remains. It consists of an oak core encased in sheet brass and covered with cast decorative brass plates. It is highly decorated with gold filigree, gilding, silver sheeting, niello and silver inlay as well as glass and enamel settings. The relic would once have been visible through the large rock crystal that sits in the centre.
6. The Loughnashade Bronze Horn The Loughnashade Bronze Horn is considered to be another votive offering, since it was found entrenched in a bog in 1794 - a bog which was the former lake of Loughnashade in Emain Macha (also known as Navan Fort), an important complex of the Ulster Kings during the Iron Age. The Horn was one of four (only this one survives) and was placed in the lake alongside human skulls and other bones. It was crafted from riveted sheets of hammered bronze and has a decorated disc attached to the end. This disc is the most beautiful part of the horn, decorated with the classic lotus bud motif that was hammered on using the repousse technique. The horn dates from the 1st century and is an example of the admirable bronzeworking skills of the craftsmen from that time.
7. St. Patrick’s Bell and Shrine
That’s right, the National Museum has in its possession something which once belonged to Saint Patrick himself. Supposedly Ireland’s patron saint had hundreds of iron bells made, and left one with the leader of each Christian community that he set up. In 1100 a shrine was commissioned to house the bell by Domhnall Ua Lochlainn, the King of Ireland at the time. Cathalan Ua Maelchallain was deemed the keeper of the bell, and amazingly it remained in his descendants’ possession until the end of the 19th century. The shrine is made from bronze plates joined together, decorated with multiple gold filigree panels and topped with curved crest to keep the bell’s handle covered. Decoration includes spirals, interlacing patterns and intermittent stone studs.
8. The Lismore Crozier
The Lismore Crozier dates from around the year 1100, and was discovered in the 19th century behind a blocked up doorway in Lismore Castle. Like its more well known counterpart, the Clonmacnoise Crozier, it consists of a wooden staff decorated with sheet bronze followed by a cast copper-alloy crook (the most ornate part). The crook is decorated on both sides with round studs of blue glass and red and white millefiori. Along the top is a ridge made up of three animals with open jaws, which terminates in an ornate animal head with blue glass eyes. Croziers were used by bishops as they presided over various important religious ceremonies, but they were more ornamental than anything else, and not actually used for any specific function (other than looking powerful and reminding the bishop of guiding his congregation on the right path, much like a shepherd).
9. The Faddan More Psalter
One of the most recent additions to the National Museum is the Faddan More Psalter (or book of psalms), which was discovered in 2006 in a bog in county Offaly. A man named Eddie Fogarty had been operating a mechanical digger in the bog when he noticed the book springing open as the peat fell from the machine’s shovel into a trench. Luckily, the bog owners had discovered archaeological finds before and knew exactly what to do to preserve it. Unfortunately, the book was already in poor condition, and the Museum is currently undertaking a huge and complex restoration project to try to find out more about its origins. So far, it is obvious that the book probably dates from the 8th century, came in five gatherings and shows evidence of illumination. It is the first historical Irish manuscript to be discovered for over 200 years.
10. Bog Bodies
If you’ve had your fill of ancient gold and silver artefacts, one somewhat more grisly sight you should check out in the National Museum are the bog bodies. These four Iron Age bodies were discovered in bogs in Offaly, Meath, Galway and Kildare and have been dated back to between 200 and 400 BC. The bodies are remarkably preserved and if you don’t feel too queasy to go in for a close-up look, you can even see their fingernails and hair!