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

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.

The obvious answer was that this was eminently possible but that it should be done by someone with a deep expertise in archaeology or the curation of significant objects. Perhaps, however, the depth of such expertise works against the feasibility of such a project.

Encompassing 10,000 years in 100 things is a vulgar idea, fraught with all the dangers of sweeping generalisation, of oversimplification, of filling gaps in knowledge with unwarranted speculation. Experts are trained not to do these things.

Yet it seemed to me that there would be a value in this kind of undertaking. Objects give us a sense of time: of the time in which they were made and of the broad chronology of life on the island. This is not something we can take for granted any more. The digital age is all about simultaneity: online, everything exists at the same time. The past is a hazy concept. If nothing else, a history told through physical objects is a way of re-establishing what came first and what came next. Objects insist on their place in the temporal order.

Common culture
Beyond this thought, though, was a memory: of that revelation that all of this stuff belongs to everyone and is owned by no one. It is an important idea because it carries certain values. It suggests that there is such a thing as society, that we are all the bearers of cultures that have been shaped by what John Keats called “silence and slow time”. And it suggests that such a culture is a common and democratic possession: it can’t be owned by individuals or elites, by collectors or corporations.

It has always seemed to me to matter greatly that entry to our national museums is free. The pressures on finances are enormous, and it can be argued with some justification that most of us have become used to paying entrance fees (sometimes substantial) when we travel abroad.

There are circumstances in which those who run the institutions are left with no choice but to charge. But the principle matters. If you charge an entry fee, the things in the museum are no longer “priceless”. They lose a little bit of their sense of belonging to something outside of the day-to-day business of monetary exchange.

The meaning of these values struck me forcibly when I first went to talk to Pat Wallace, then director of the National Museum of Ireland, about the idea of doing A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. Not from him and not from any of the curators whose brains I subsequently picked did I get the slightest feeling of proprietorship. They are enthusiastic believers in the idea that the objects are common property, available to scholars and experts but belonging to us all.

When it came to giving the project a life after the series in The Irish Times , it was important to reflect that basic belief. The book that the series has become had to be beautiful in itself, which means that it costs money.

But the three partners in the project – The Irish Times , the National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy, which has done such a superb job as the publisher – were of one mind in wanting to uphold the idea that the objects are the common property not just of Ireland but of the world. The Government and the EU presidency responded imaginatively to the notion that the series should be, in some form, an extension of the museum’s commitment to free entry.

The obvious way to do this was through a free smartphone app, presented to the world as a St Patrick’s Day gift. Because the software company Adobe came in as a sponsor, much of the design and filming for the app was done in the United States.

I ended up filming with a crew of people who had little previous contact with Irish history. What was striking was how easily they responded to the objects. These things are eloquent: they speak to anyone who approaches them with curiosity and an open mind.

What they say isn’t always pleasant. Many of the objects speak of violence and trauma, of hatred and folly. But together they also tell a story from which we can draw courage: the story of a culture that has managed to adapt to such profound challenges and to absorb such diverse influences while remaining recognisably itself.

You can buy A History of Ireland in 100 Objects , and download the app, at Thursday’s Irish Times will include a folded map of the 100 Objects trail, showing where you can see each one