The National Museum on Kildare Street is the finest of a portfolio of jointly run museums – including Collins Barracks, which focuses on the decorative arts, and the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar – and a must-see for visitors to Dublin. Undoubted stars of the show here are a stunning hoard of prehistoric gold and a thousand years’ worth of ornate ecclesiastical treasures, but the whole collection builds up a fascinating and accessible story of Irish archeology and history. The shop in the beautiful entrance rotunda sells a range of high-quality crafts inspired by works in the museum, and there’s a small café.
Prehistoric gold, much of it discovered during peat-cutting, takes pride of place on the ground floor of the main hall. From the Earlier Bronze Age (c. 2500–1500 BC) come lunulae, thin sheets of gold formed into crescent-moon collars. After around 1200 BC, when new sources of the metal were apparently found, goldsmiths could be more extravagant, fashioning chunky torcs, such as the spectacular Gleninsheen Collar and the Tumna Hoard of nine large gold balls, which are perforated, suggesting that when joined together they formed a huge necklace. Further prehistoric material is arrayed around the walls of the main hall, including the fifteen-metre-long Lurgan Logboat, dating from around 2500 BC, which was unearthed in a Galway bog in 1902.
The adjacent Treasury holds most of the museum’s better-known ecclesiastical exhibits, notably the ornate, eighth-century Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch, decorated with beautiful knot designs, and the Cross of Cong, created to enshrine a fragment of the True Cross given to the King of Connacht by the Pope in 1123. Also on the ground floor is Kingship and Sacrifice, showcasing the leathery bodies of four Iron Age noblemen that were preserved and discovered in various bogs around Ireland.
Upstairs, Viking-age Ireland (c.800–1150) features models of a house and the layout of Dublin’s Fishamble Street, while Medieval Ireland (1150–1550) moves on to cover the first English colonists, their withdrawal to the fortified area around Dublin known as “the Pale” after 1300, and the hybrid culture that developed all the while – you can listen to recordings of poetry written in Ireland in Middle Irish, Middle English and Norman French. Unmissable here is a host of strange, ornate portable shrines, made to hold holy relics or texts, including examples for all three of Ireland’s patron saints: the Shrine of St Patrick’s Tooth, the Shrine of St Brigid’s Shoe and the Shrine of the Cathach, containing a manuscript written by St Colmcille (St Columba), legendary bard, scholar, ruler and evangelizer of Scotland.