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
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects
The Irish Times/National Museum of Ireland/Royal irish Academy
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