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.