Irish history in 100 objects: lessons we have learned
The choice of the final item for our series divided opinion. Here's the solution
It would be good to announce that the decommissioned AK-47 that appears on this page is the 100th object in the History of Ireland in 100 Objects series. In fact it is the 101st.
Readers and visitors to the accompanying exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland’s decorative-arts-and-history branch, at Collins Barracks in Dublin, were asked to vote for the final object from a shortlist of 10. In the event, readers voted online for the Anglo Irish Bank sign that appeared last week. But those who saw the objects in the museum voted for the gun that epitomises the achievement of a settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the end it seemed right to pick both objects.
They tell different stories, after all. And while one of those stories is of high hopes turned sour, the other is of dark despair turned into sober, qualified but concrete optimism. That seemed a better note to finish on, and not just because we need some light at the end. More importantly, a restrained, tentative hopefulness is more in keeping with the experience of thinking about Irish history through the medium of the objects it has left us with.
There’s probably a certain bias towards optimism in the very idea of telling the story of Irish people though physical, man-made things. By definition, existing objects are survivors. They’ve made it through to the here and now, enduring all the ravages of time and nature and decay. Some of them, like the fabulous gold regalia that come to us from thousands of years before the birth of Christ, are completely undaunted, their sun-like lustre as dazzling to us as they must have been to those who first saw them.
Others, like the fish trap woven from sticks with which the series began, are so battered by age they are not immediately recognisable, but their fragility makes their survival seem all the more miraculous.
Others again – think of the beautiful gold salamander pendant recovered from a Spanish Armada wreck – have the special poignancy that comes from being shards of drowned lives, mute defiers of the oblivion that overtook their owners.
This innate optimism of survival can be distorting. I thought it important, in deciding on the final list, to include at least one object that makes this point because it has not in fact survived. The one I chose is the inauguration stone of the O’Neill clan, very deliberately destroyed by Lord Mountjoy in the aftermath of the final English victory over the Gaelic aristocracy. Some things really do disappear, for ill and good. Even the most solid and sacred of objects can be obliterated – along with the people to whom they matter.
I also became aware, in the course of the series, that there are aspects of, and immense episodes within, Irish history of which almost nothing survives. Most of the ordinary, daily lives of the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants, for the vast majority of the period in which it has been inhabited, have left few traces. Materials are snobs and sexists: they favour the rich and male. Things like clothes made of organic materials and working implements of wood simply decay. Metals, controlled by priests, kings and warriors, persist.