Something old, something new – and now a book and app too
The Irish Times series A History of Ireland in 100 Objects began life as a reimagined version of a British Museum project. Now it’s a St Patrick’s Day offering to everyone who is interested in our past
Crooked history: the Clonmacnoise crozier, from the 11th century. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland
On the very rare days when it wasn’t raining and my father wasn’t working, he took us on long walks around Dublin Bay. On the somewhat more frequent days when it was raining and my father wasn’t working, he took us to one of the city’s museums or galleries. We got to know them quite well: the surreal decrepitude of the Dead Zoo; the contented Parisians listening to a concert in Manet’s painting at the Hugh Lane; Fra Angelico’s saints, dressed in weirdly pretty colours, being burned at the stake in the National Gallery.
And the dazzling gold objects, mysterious in their evocations of the sun and the moon and all the more luminous when set against what was then the dinginess of the National Museum on Kildare Street. I remember standing in front of one of the great gold collars and my father explaining that “priceless” was not at all the same as “worthless”.
I remember, too, asking my father an obvious question about these gold objects: who owns them? “We do,” he said. “All of us. They belong to everybody.”
It was a startling thought. If everybody owned them, that meant that nobody really owned them. This was why they were priceless: because nobody could sell them. They existed in some other world, beyond the familiar one in which anyone with enough money could buy anything they wanted. I imagined millionaires (the concept of a billionaire did not yet exist) raging at the big iron gates of the museum, almost weeping in frustration at not being able to get their hands on these precious and wonderful things.
The idea of doing A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, the series that ran on the Heritage & Habitat page of Weekend Review between February 2011 and January this year, came to me unheroically: I stole it from the British Museum.
I was at a loose end in London for an hour or two between a meeting in Bloomsbury and a flight home, so I dropped in through the imposing colonnades to the vast collection on Great Russell Street. I was aware of Neil MacGregor’s BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects , from 2010, but I hadn’t heard it.
I was curious enough, though, to start following the trail that led through a kind of physical narrative of the development of global civilisation. Somewhere along that trail I wondered if it would be possible to do the same for the story of people on the island of Ireland.