National Museum of Archaeology
Lonely Planet review for National Museum of Archaeology
The mother of Irish museums and the country’s most important cultural institution was established in 1977 as the primary repository of the nation’s archaeological treasures. The collection is so big, however, that it has expanded beyond the walls of this superb purpose-built building next to the Irish parliament into three other separate museums – the stuffed beasts of the Natural History Museum, the decorative arts section at Collins Barracks and a country life museum in County Mayo, on Ireland’s west coast.
They’re all fascinating, but the star attractions are all here, mixed up in Europe’s finest collection of Bronze- and Iron-Age gold artefacts, the most complete collection of medieval Celtic metalwork in the world, fascinating prehistoric and Viking artefacts, and a few interesting items relating to Ireland’s fight for independence. If you don’t mind groups, the themed guided tours (€1.50; 11am, 12.30pm, 2pm & 3pm Tue-Sat, 2pm & 3pm Sun) will help you wade through the myriad exhibits. The Treasury is perhaps the most famous part of the collection, and its centrepieces are Ireland’s two most famous crafted artefacts, the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch. The 12th-century Ardagh Chalice is made of gold, silver, bronze, brass, copper and lead; it measures 17.8cm high and 24.2cm in diameter and, put simply, is the finest example of Celtic art ever found. The equally renowned Tara Brooch was crafted around AD 700, primarily in white bronze, but with traces of gold, silver, glass, copper, enamel and wire beading, and was used as a clasp for a cloak. It was discovered on a beach in Bettystown, County Meath, in 1850, but later came into the hands of an art dealer who named it after the hill of Tara, the historic seat of the ancient high kings. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it was the Bettystown Brooch that sparked a revival of interest in Celtic jewellery that hasn’t let up to this day. There are many other pieces that testify to Ireland’s history as the land of saints and scholars. Virtually all of the treasures are named after the location in which they were found. It’s interesting to note that most of them were discovered not by archaeologists’ trowels but by bemused farmers out ploughing their fields, cutting peat or, in the case of the Ardagh Chalice, digging for spuds. Elsewhere in the Treasury is the exhibition Ór-Ireland’s Gold, featuring stunning jewellery and decorative objects created by Celtic artisans in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Among them are the Broighter Hoard, which includes a 1st-century-BC large gold collar, unsurpassed anywhere in Europe, and an extraordinarily delicate gold boat. There’s also the wonderful Loughnasade bronze war trumpet, which dates from the 1st century BC. It is 1.86m long and made of sheets of bronze, riveted together, with an intricately designed disc at the mouth. It produces a sound similar to the Australian didgeridoo, though you’ll have to take our word for it. Running alongside the wall is a 15m log boat, which was dropped into the water to soften, abandoned and then pulled out 4000 years later, almost perfectly preserved in the peat bog. On the same level is the Road to Independence exhibition, which features the army coat worn by Michael Collins on the day he was assassinated (there’s still mud on the sleeve). In the same case is the cap purportedly also worn by Collins on that fateful day, complete with a bullet hole in its side – somehow, however, we think if the authorities had any confidence in this claim, the exhibit wouldn’t be on the floor of the cabinet without even a note. If you can cope with any more history, upstairs are Medieval Ireland 1150 – 1550, Viking Age Ireland – which features exhibits from the excavations at Wood Quay, the area between Christ Church Cathedral and the river – and our own favourite, the aptly named Clothes from Bogs in Ireland, a collection of 16th- and 17th-century woollen garments recovered from the bog. Enthralling stuff!