A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, by Fintan O’Toole

The Literary Editor of ‘The Irish Times’ has selected 100 objects that together tell the story of our country

Sat, Mar 23, 2013, 06:01


Book Title:
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects


Fintan O'Toole

The Irish Times/National Museum of Ireland/Royal irish Academy

Guideline Price:

T he oldest “modern” Europeans are thought to date from about 42000 BC. The oldest spoken European languages are those of the Celts, the Albanians, the Basques – Euskara is a much purer form of an early language, probably because Basques, finally located in the Pyrenees, were isolated – and the Uralic languages, in northern Europe. These are the tongues of the oldest continuous European peoples alive today. Blood connects the Celts (possibly including the Basques) with a high prevalence of the type-O group. And by about AD 500 all these oldest Europeans had been pushed to the coastal edge of the known world by Roman and Germanic invaders.

Fintan O’Toole, the Literary Editor of this newspaper, has selected a gallery of objects to illustrate our history, and in so doing is telling a much wider history, with geographic, genetic, cultural and linguistic implications for the origins of the modern world. Accordingly, and rightly, we are not restricted to our island’s story, and learn about the first- or second-century AD Corleck Head, at the National Museum of Ireland, linking Co Cavan to Roman Yorkshire (O’Toole also links it to the Holy Trinity), and the fabulous Oseberg Viking funeral ship in Oslo, with, as an aside, the fact that the Vikings steered their vessels with a single rudder on the right-hand side, thus giving us “starboard” from the “steer board side”. We have the armlet on the wounded arm of Croghan Man, probably instinctively raised against whatever pierced his chest, reminding us that human sacrifice was a fact of death in the Celtic world.

St Patrick’s Confessio, in the Book of Armagh at Trinity College Dublin, is singled out as marking the start of modern Irish history: “It is the oldest surviving piece of prose writing done in Ireland . . . Patrick is the first person in Ireland who can, through these texts, be positively identified as an individual with a known life story.” How many Patricks there may have been is not addressed. Bannavem Taberniae, said the Confessio, was where Patrick was enslaved from in England. Its situation is another unresolved debate that O’Toole does not enter into, but Sean Dowling has made an interesting case for the town of Avonmouth, on the River Severn, near Bristol. “To anyone familiar with Irish,” Dowling said, “the word ‘Bannavem’ should instantly suggest ‘Bun-abhann’ or ‘Rivermo. . . ‘Avonmouth’ is the Saxon or Old English translation of the original Celtic name . . . The Roman name for the Severn was Sabrina, corresponding to a Celtic word ‘Sabarn’ or ‘Sabh(v)arn’. In modern Irish the whole name would be ‘Bunabhann an tSabhrainne’.”

The necessary and well-known objects and hoards from millennia before Patrick to the present are here, and a roster of little-known ones too: Daniel O’Connell’s fantastical chariot; an Intel microprocessor (a fang of the Celtic tiger); a marble statue of the dying Buddha, demonstrating Ireland’s worldwide presence in the British Empire; and the Springmount wax tablets, bearing psalms 30 and 31 in a beautiful hand, Ireland’s earliest known actual manuscript, dating from the late sixth century. James Connolly’s undershirt, worn at at the GPO in 1916; a decommissioned assault rifle (how are explosives decommissioned?); and the white handkerchief held by Fr (later Bishop) Edward Daly as he led a group of men carrying the dying 17-year-old Jackie Duddy through Derry on the Bloody Sunday of 1972, are proper reminders of the bloodshed and terror that have plagued us.

There are also chains from the time of Viking Dublin, once one of the largest slave-trading centres in Europe; Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the first book printed in Ireland, in 1551; and a ticket to witness the launch of Titanic .

Religion is notably present: 23 objects are directly associated with Christianity, several more with other faiths. This is to be expected. Archaeology has much to do with burials. And for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, Irish monks were the western harbingers of knowledge, and Irish missionaries and scholars were famed across Europe. Scotus was the Latin for Irish or Gaelic, providing Scotland with its name, and also for scholars in European courts. Scotus Eriugena spent 30 years in France, a leader of the Carolingian renaissance that probably saved western civilisation. Ireland’s connection to Christianity was stronger than practically anywhere else.

There will always be disputes about any selection, be it of 100 or 1,000 objects. O’Toole’s choices must rank at the very top. After reading and viewing his collection, I would not replace a single one. So what would my object 101 be? A bata scoir, that tally stick on a string that children had to wear around their necks at schools in the 19th century, a notch being cut into it every time they spoke Irish, with punishment following. It was introduced by teachers and parents, not by law or British government, something like it present in many other repressed cultures (Wales, for example, had a similar stick), another connection with people elsewhere, a mark of subjugation, of modernity, of a will to a wider world, but spirit-reducing all the same.

Throughout, O’Toole has infused his pages with illuminating commentary and fascinating observations, delivered with enviable intelligence, making this history a delightful and valuable part of the Royal Irish Academy, National Museum and Irish Times collaboration marking Ireland’s EU presidency. O’Toole draws attention to the cartographer Richard Bartlett’s drawing of the O’Neill chieftain’s stone inauguration chair/throne, the Leac na Ríogh, shattered by Mountjoy in 1602, generating this comment: “There was an ironic coda. O’Neill’s daughter Sorcha married a Magennis, one of whose descendants was Lady Glamis. In 1900, she had a daughter, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Her daughter, in turn, is the current occupant of the British throne.”

The maps are invaluable. The photographs, especially those taken by Valerie Dowling, Bryan Rutledge and Peter Moloney at the National Museum, all in full colour, provide a feast in themselves. We may infer that they are original digital images abetted by the expertise of Anne Keenan and Olivier Kazmierczak. However achieved, the illustrations form 50 per cent of the book, and are wonderful. The production team at the Royal Irish Academy, co-ordinated by Pauline MacNamara, have presented a beautiful and accessible work. But perhaps the most noteworthy element of publication is that this history is freely available as a gift “from the people of Ireland” on the web – though this shouldn’t stop anyone buying this luminous, excellent book, itself an object of historical interest.

John Ranelagh is an author, historian and TV producer. His book A Short History of Ireland has been in continuous print for 30 years. He is also author of Ireland: An Illustrated History and was associate producer on Ireland: A Television History , a BBC/RTÉ co-production