West of Smithfield on Benburb Street is the National Museum’s Decorative Arts Collection, housed in the eighteenth-century Collins Barracks, which surrounds Europe’s largest regimental drilling square. The buildings set around this quadrangle contain a wonderful series of galleries devoted to the fine arts of Ireland and selections from abroad. Unquestionably, the best of these is Curator’s Choice, on the first floor of the west block, which is selected by museum curators from all over Ireland. Among its draws are a medieval oak carving of St Molaise; the extravagant cabinet presented by Oliver Cromwell to his daughter Bridget in 1652; and the remarkable fourteenth-century Chinese porcelain Fonthill Vase. The Out of Storage section is another highlight, bringing together everything from decorative glassware to a seventeenth-century suit of Samurai armour, while others focus on Celtic art, coinage, silverware, period furniture, costumes and scientific instruments, and there are usually plenty of temporary exhibits.
On the ground floor is a chain of thematically interconnected galleries, Soldiers and Chiefs, devoted to almost five hundred years of Irish military history. Apart from an array of helmets and weaponry, there’s the remarkable Stokes tapestry, created by one Stephen of that ilk, a British soldier who devoted his spare time to the depiction of contemporary garrison life and was honoured to have his work shown to Queen Victoria on a royal visit to Ireland in 1849. Other exhibits trace the Irish involvement in the US Civil War and World War I with later examples of tanks and a de Havilland Vampire fighter plane while, contrastingly, there’s the 200-year-old Bantry Boat, captured from the French frigate La Résolue during the abortive invasion of 1796.