Irish history in 100 objects: lessons we have learned
But even in relatively recent periods of history, there are extraordinary lacunae. One of the reasons objects are optimistic is that not many of them survive from the very worst times. The awful 14th century, with its plagues and invasions and civil wars, had to be represented by an absence: the long gap in the production of Irish coinage is the most eloquent testimony to the decline of towns and commerce.
The terrible 1640s and 1650s, when a series of violent conflicts devastated ordinary life, are a crucial period of Irish history, but there is almost nothing that represents, for example, Oliver Cromwell’s infamous campaign of conquest. And then, of course, there is the Great Famine of the 1840s, a catastrophe defined by what was not there: the potato that had been the staple diet of the poor. The best way to represent it seemed to be an empty 19th-century cooking pot, the emptiness being the point.
Yet these gaps are exceptional. It is possible, in spite of them, to trace the development of Irish culture over 10,000 years – which is, after all, a very short time in the overall scheme of things. Possible, too, to hazard one or two sweeping generalisations about the way that culture has worked.
Chief among them is a paradox: Irish culture is very good at adapting to change because it is very good at preserving what it already knows. Irish culture is conservative but not in a passive way. There are times when its conservatism seems demented, such as the refusal of Irish horse warriors to adopt stirrups even when it was obvious that they helped to make the Normans such a formidable fighting force.
But often the conservatism is pursued with enormous ingenuity. New things are expressed in terms of the old, or the old is smuggled into the new. A ninth-century crucifix, when you look at it carefully, has spirals on Christ’s breast that go back to Newgrange. A 12th-century bishop’s crozier fuses old “Celtic” designs with new-fangled Norse symbols. Nineteenth-century Irish miners in Australia made a gold cup decorated with images of ancient torcs – and with a kiwi and kangaroo.
The wondrous complexities of the Book of Kells inspire James Joyce’s modernism. Eileen Gray’s ultramodern furniture has an organic fluidity that seems somehow continuous with the work of the great goldsmiths of the early Christian era.
Perhaps because times are so often traumatic, the desire to hang on to something familiar runs very deep. But it has to be expressed not in a pig-headed hanging on to the past but in reinventions, revivals and fusions. In an ever-changing world the desire to keep something you know becomes a ferocious energy because, in order to keep it, you have to make it new.
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects will be published as a book by the Royal Irish Academy in March; you can get 20 per cent off by ordering now at 100objects.ie