Irish history is fascinating, mystical, and at times tragic. I suppose you could say this about any country with deep historical roots, but there’s something about Ireland that renders its past particularly epic and mythological. We’ve learned all about more modern Irish history during our time in Dublin – the 1916 Easter riots and Irish independence – but a few days ago, we delved deeper in to the past. Our visits to the National Museum of Archaeology and the Book of Kells at Trinity College Library brought us back through the middle ages and all the way into the 4th millennium BCE.
A collection of Irish treasures
The National Museum of Archaeology sits just south of Trinity college in a rather regal-looking structure built in the Victorian style. It houses an extensive collection of Irish artifacts, including intricately etched pottery from the Hill of Tara dating to the mid-4th millennium BCE, dozens – or hundreds – of shiny gold collars and bracelets from the 11th-8th centuries BCE, a 4,500 year old, 15-meter long wooden boat, and several eerily well-preserved bodies found in bogs throughout the country – some dating to the 3rd century BCE.
The building itself is just ornate enough to deserve attention, and extensive wrought iron decoration frames the central, two-story atrium. Large ceiling windows have been blacked out, presumably because of preservation requirements, and small mosaic tiles line many of the floors. The exhibits are arranged chronologically around the central atrium area, and various side-rooms hold treasures such as the bog bodies and precious church relics. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity, beginning around the 5th century CE, had a massive impact throughout the country over time.
On the upper floor, we discovered a compact but interesting little exhibit on the Vikings’ campaigns in Ireland. As I learned from a book I happen to be reading (about the Danish conquest of Britain in the 9th-10th centuries CE), these raiders (and, ultimately, occupiers) were usually referred to as Northmen (Norsemen) or Danes, not Vikings – “viking” just means “raiding.” That aside, we learned about one of the most famous battles between the Northman and the Irish that occurred in 1014 CE.
The Battle of Clontarf was fought by the famous High King of Ireland Brian Boru and a Norse-Irish alliance of various rulers. Brian’s forces were victorious, but he was killed in the battle (along with his son and grandson). The battle was important, however, in that it kickstarted the country’s unshackling from foreign rule and became a symbol of Irish freedom.
All this and more at this fabulous museum.
A bunch of very old books
Trinity College, founded in 1592, houses one of the most famous relics of 9th century CE Irish Christendom. The Book of Kells, consisting of the four gospels of the New Testament and composed in Latin, was likely written around 800 CE on an island off the coast of Scotland. But the book’s origin is hotly debated. Scholars originally thought it was produced around the end of the 6th century CE by the famous monk Columba (or his school), but that theory has since been discredited based on stylistic and paleographic evidence. We couldn’t take photos of the book itself (or the exhibit), so here are some photos of Trinity 🙂
Regardless of its provenance, the Book of Kells is a masterpiece of the Insular illumination style of art that dominated Ireland and Britian in the post-Roman period. The text is highly decorated, and the lavish and intricate images ensure that the volumes are widely celebrated as Ireland’s most precious national treasure. Only two of the four volumes are currently on display, but the library’s extensive exhibit reproduces many gorgeous pages and provides a lot of interesting info.
For example: at least four scribes wrote and illustrated the text and images – and scholars can tell which is which based on style, handwriting, and other factors. They don’t really know the names of the scribes, so they simply refer to them as Scribe A, B, C, and D. The photo below shows a much more simply decorated manuscript – but it’s still lovely, in my opinion.
Beyond the Book of Kells exhibit, the actual library itself is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. Tall stacks of old volumes tower over visitors on either side of the central hallway, and spindly wooden ladders give access to the highest tomes. Various other historical manuscripts and works are on display in the library, and the busts of everyone from Homer and Cicero to John Locke and Isaac Newton silently watch over visitors. The Brian Boru harp, dating to the 14th or 15th century, sits on display in the middle of the room and represents the symbol of Ireland.
I always love being in a place where I can acutely feel the weight of history bearing down on me.