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Column: Objects can tell us startling stories about our history – we should cherish them

Ireland is lucky to have so many national treasures that reveal our shared past; we should be proud and share them with the world, says Ruth Hegarty.

The Gleninsheen gorget
The Gleninsheen gorget
Image: RIA

SOME PEOPLE MIGHT wonder why Ireland’s historical artefacts are important, but it has always been my opinion that anything that can tell us about our Irish history should be valued.

Objects can tell us startling stories, like the stone for an ancient ceremonial axe found in the west of Ireland came from the Alps, or that the man who brought a beautiful gold ornament to these islands grew up thousands of kilometres to the east.

Each object, each real thing, was handled by people who walked before us. Looking at the object opens the door a crack for us to see back, to know a bit more what it was like to live then – to know, even, that the Neolithics made handbags.

Looking back to our past

Objects can put us in touch with the past in a direct and immediate way, but they also help us to a more complex understanding of the past.

When journalist Fintan O’Toole started a series in The Irish Times in collaboration with the National Museum of Ireland, with the idea to promote Irish objects, we at the Royal Irish Academy thought it was a wonderful idea so we offered to publish the book. Every week he chose the objects starting with the earliest, the Mesolithic Fish Trap, and then it ran chronologically through 8,000 years of Irish history. People were really interested and it was a huge success – and now the book is ready, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects.

What many people might not know is that The Royal Irish Academy held the treasure trove of historical objects before the National Museum was set up, so we had bought things like the Tara Brooch, Ardagh Chalice and a lot of the gold in the 1800s to preserve it for the nation.

Ireland’s favourite objects

So how would we determine what are Ireland’s favourite objects? We thought the best way would be through a public vote and exhibition, so that the people of Ireland could choose the final objects in the book. The Object for Our Times exhibition opened in November and we ended up including two of the objects chosen by popular vote: the Anglo-Irish bank sign and a decommissioned IRA gun to mark the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

When the project started, the designer of the Anglo-Irish logo got in touch with us. I was struck by how you can create something beautiful, as he did, based on a flint arrowhead in the Museum, which then becomes associated with the crash, with reckless lending. Talking with him gave me the chance to look at the design again, without all the Anglo baggage.

I do have a favourite. I love the Corleck Head, the three-faced two-thousand year old sculpture. It has a golden glow about it and the simplicity makes it feel modern, I’d love to have it in my house. Its three faces see everywhere simultaneously – a useful asset in a house of tiny children.

A gift from Ireland

Ireland has so many beautiful artefacts so, to mark the EU Presidency, it’s been decided that A History of Ireland in 100 Objects should be given as a gift from the people of Ireland to the people of the world for St Patrick’s Day. We want the world to be able to see what we have to show, so now they can, across all platforms.

The RIA’s remit is to disseminate knowledge, so I am only too pleased that some of Ireland’s finest objects can be easily viewed on laptops, tablets and smartphones.

I hope people will take an interest in the objects that are local to them, but also that many more people from abroad will get a little taste of what Ireland’s history and culture has to offer.

Column: Objects can tell us startling stories about our history – we should cherish them
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  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Circular handled bag (Image via The Royal Irish Academy) Neolithic, 3800BC
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    The 'Tara' Brooch (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    The Domhnach Airgid Shrine 1350. (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Corleck Head, early Iron Age, first to second century ad AD (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    The Ardagh Chalice (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Decomissioned IRA Weapon (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Gleninsheen Gorget (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Flint Macehead (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Decorated lead weights (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Emigrants teapot (Image via The Royal Irish Academy)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    Anglo Irish Bank sign voted one of Ireland's important objects. (Photo Brian O' Leary/Photocall)
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

    On January 30th 1972, Edward Daly waved the hankie as a plea for a ceasefire, while a group of men tried to carry a 17 year-old boy to safety. (Image via The Royal Irish Academy

Ruth Hegarty is the Managing Editor of The Royal Irish Academy. The book, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, cost €30 and is available in all bookshops. The downloadable e-version, app or e-book is free until the end of March and can be downloaded here.


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