16 May 2015

Church History (2014-2015, part-time)
8.1: visit to the National Museum

The National Museum, beside Dáil Eireann in Kildare Street, Dublin, is in a wing designed by Thomas Newenham Deane

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Saturday 16 May 2015, 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

8.1: visit to the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin

8.2: The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle.

A reproduction of an early Romanesque church door in the National Museum of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

8.1: Visit to the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin


The National Museum of Ireland was founded as the Museum of Science and Art, Dublin, on 14 August 1877 by Act of Parliament.

The decision to establish a state-run museum was prompted by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). The 1877 Act transferred the buildings and collections of the RDS to state ownership, and the collections were enhanced with the transfer of other collections from places such as the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

The new museum building on Kildare Street opened to the public in 1890. The new museum housed coins, medals and significant Irish antiquities from the RIA, including the Tara brooch and Ardagh chalice, ethnographic collections with material from Captain Cooke’s voyages from TCD, and the collections of the Geological Survey of Ireland. These were joined by material from the decorative arts and ethnographical collections of the RDS along with their Irish collections of antiquities, minerals and plants.

The old RDS museum on the Merrion Street side of Leinster House – erected with government assistance and opened in 1856 – was devoted to natural history. It was dominated by zoology throughout much of its subsequent history and had an annexe devoted to geology. It is known popularly to generations of children in Dublin as the “Dead Zoo.”

The building on Kildare Street was designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and was used to show contemporary Irish, British and Continental craftsmanship. State involvement in running the Museum allowed for steady funding and a connection with other state museums in London and Edinburgh.

In 1900, control passed to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction and in 1908 its name was changed from ‘the Dublin Museum of Science and Art’ to the ‘National Museum of Science and Art.’ The name of the institution was changed again in 1921 to the ‘National Museum of Ireland.’

After the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the old RDS buildings at Leinster House were chosen to house the new parliament (Dáil).

Responsibility for the Museum passed to the Department of Education in 1924. In 1984, it was transferred to the Department of the Taoiseach, and in 1993 to the new Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (later Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands). In 2002, care of the Museum passed to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism before, finally, being established as a semi-state autonomous agency under its own board in 2005.

Additional museum premises include Collins Barracks, Dublin (previously the Royal Barracks) and the Museum of Country Life at Turlough Park, Co Mayo, beside a Venetian Gothic country house also designed by Thomas Newenham Deane.

The Irish Archaeological Collection in the National Museum is the primary repository of ancient Irish artefacts and an indispensable source for researchers into the development of Irish civilisation from prehistoric times until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond.

The period covered by the exhibitions extends from the Mesolithic through to the end of the mediaeval period, and includes internationally known treasures that we should find of particular interest this morning such as the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch and the Derrynaflan Hoard.

We should try especially to see the collections of mediaeval ecclesiastical metalwork and the Viking Dublin assemblage.

Early Christian finds

Christianity was introduced into Ireland mainly from Roman Britain during the fifth Century AD, around the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The resulting exposure to new influences meant that new styles and technical skills were acquired and added to the repertoire of Irish craftsmen.

It was a time of economic and social change in which the Church played a major role. Liturgical practice required special liturgical objects such as Eucharistic chalices, patens and containers for the enshrinement of books and relics. These were fashioned and adorned by Irish craftsmen. The collections are rich in high quality metalwork, much of it of an ecclesiastical nature. The quality of what was produced, especially during the eighth to ninth centuries, has led to these centuries being referred to as the “Golden Age.”

Some objects that were produced during this time have become important national treasures. They include the Ardagh Chalice, the Derrynaflan Chalice and Paten, the Moylough Belt Shrine and the Tara Brooch.

But there other, less well known treasures, to watch out for too, including the Tully Lough Cross, found offshore of a small crannóg in Co Roscommon; a small, decorated metal bucket from a crannóg in Clooneenbaun, Co Roscommon; and two wooden buckets with ornate metal mounts from Clonard, Co Meath and Derrymullen, Co Laois.

Small tomb-shaped shrines used to venerate the bones of saints have survived, with relatively complete examples found in the rivers Shannon and Erne. A collection of mounts decorated in the Ultimate La Tène style from Donore, Co Meath, are likely to be from a larger tomb-shaped reliquary that would have been carried in procession with the aid of carrying poles. From the monastery of Dromiskin, Co Louth, there is a small stone reliquary inside of which there was a little wooden box containing metal objects, including a key.

Early mediaeval craftsmen were skilled stone carvers who produced a series of splendid high crosses bearing biblical scenes. The collection contains casts of eight of the finest examples made in 1898-1908 by an Italian craftsman, Orlandi, as well as fragments of original crosses from a number of monastic sites.

There are some carved stone slabs bearing cross designs from monastic sites, including fine examples from Inishkea North, Co Mayo, and Carrowntemple, Co Sligo.

A pillar stone from Aglish, Co Kerry, bears a cross design but it also carries an inscription written in the ogham alphabet, the earliest alphabet used to write in the Irish language. The Aglish Stone is one of around two dozen pillar stones in the collection that carry ogham inscriptions.

The arrival of the Vikings at the end of the eighth century marked the beginning of a period in which monasteries were attacked and many church treasures were looted or destroyed. However, the Vikings were traders as well as raiders and their commercial activities brought large amounts of silver into Ireland, some of which has been discovered in ingot hoards.

The Vikings also introduced new types of objects and novel art styles, which led to developments in native metalwork and decorative arts. The easy availability of silver during the ninth and 10th centuries led to new fashions in brooch design with bossed-penannular, thistle and kite-shaped brooches being the popular forms.

The Shrine of Saint Lachtin’s Arm ... dating from a Renaissance in Irish metalwork in the 11th and 12th centuries inspired by Viking art styles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

During the 11th and 12th centuries, a Renaissance in Irish metalwork drew heavily on the Viking Ringerika and Urnes art styles. Notable treasures from that period include the croziers from Kells and Lismore, the Shrine of Saint Lachtin’s Arm, and the shrine made around 1100 AD to house a bell associated by tradition with Saint Patrick.

The Cross of Cong

The Cross of Cong ... one of the best-known treasures in the National Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Perhaps the best-known treasure of the later period is the Cross of Cong whose principle patron was Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland.

The Cross of Cong is an early 12th-century ornamented cusped processional cross, which was, as an inscription says, made for Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair (died 1156), King of Connacht and High King of Ireland to donate to the Cathedral in Tuam, Co Galway. The cross was later moved to Cong Abbey at Cong, Co Mayo, which explains its name.

It was designed to be placed on top of a staff and is also a reliquary, designed to hold a supposed portion of the True Cross. This gave it additional importance as an object of reverence and was undoubtedly the reason for its elaborate beauty. It is considered one of finest examples of metalwork and decorative art of its period in Western Europe.

The cross has inscriptions in Irish, apart from one in Latin. The Latin inscription occurs twice – once on each side of the shaft – in one case the letters of the sixth word are pahus, and in the other pasus, although it should read passus. The Latin inscription reads:

Hāc cruce crux tegitur quā pas[s]us conditor orbis.

This translates as:

With this cross is covered the cross on which suffered the Maker of the World.

The Irish language inscriptions translate:

A prayer for Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, for the King of Ireland, for whom this shrine was made.

Pray for Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, the Senior of Erin.

Pray for Domnall mac Flannacáin Ua Dubthaig, Bishop of Connacht and Comarb [Successor] of [Saints] Comman and Ciaran, under whose superintendence the shrine was made.

Pray for Mael Isu mac Bratdan O Echan, who made this shrine

The Ardagh Chalice

The Ardagh Chalice ... one of the finest known works of Celtic art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Ardagh Hoard, which includes the Ardagh Chalice, is a collection of metalwork from the eighth and ninth centuries. The collection was found in 1868, and includes the chalice, a much plainer stemmed cup in copper-alloy, and four brooches, three elaborate pseudo-penannular ones, and one a true pennanular brooch of the thistle type.

The chalice ranks with the Book of Kells (in Trinity College Dublin) as one of the finest known works of Insular art, indeed of Celtic art in general, and is thought to have been made in the 8th century. Elaborate brooches, essentially the same as those worn by important lay people, appear to have been worn by monastic clergy to fasten vestments of the period.

The hoard was found in 1868 by two boys, Jim Quinn and Paddy Flanagan, digging in a potato field on the south-western side of a rath (ring fort) called Reerasta, near the village of Ardagh, Co Limerick. The chalice held the other items, covered by a slab of stone; the pieces must have been buried in a hurry, probably temporarily, as though the owner probably intended to return for them at a later time. The brooches found with the chalice show that it was not buried until the Viking period.

The chalice is a large, two-handled silver cup, decorated with gold, gilt bronze, brass, lead pewter and enamel, which has been assembled from 354 separate pieces. This complex construction is typical of early Christian Irish metalwork.

The main body of the chalice is formed from two hemispheres of sheet silver joined with a rivet hidden by a gilt-bronze band. The names of the apostles are incised in a frieze around the bowl, below a girdle bearing inset gold wirework panels of animals, birds, and geometric interlace. Techniques used include hammering, engraving, lost-wax casting, filigree applique, cloisonné and enamel. Even the underside of the chalice is decorated.

The Tara Brooch

The Tara Brooch ... one of the most important works of early Christian Irish Insular art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Tara Brooch is a Celtic brooch dating from ca 700 AD. It is probably the most impressive of over 50 elaborate Irish brooches that have been discovered. It was found in 1850 and rapidly recognised as one of the most important works of early Christian Irish Insular art.

Made ca 700 AD, the seven-inch pseudo-penannular brooch is made primarily of silver-gilt and is embellished with intricate abstract decoration, including interlace on both front and back. It was made in many pieces, with much of the decoration on small trays or panels that were then fixed into place.

When it was found only one panel of decoration was missing, but several more have now disappeared, apparently before 1872, when it entered the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. The RIA later transferred its collection of antiquities to the National Museum.

This is probably the most spectacular, and one of the best preserved, of several dozen high-status brooches found in Britain or Ireland, but mostly in Ireland. Although similar in style, each has a completely individual design in detail. Precious metals are used, but only semiprecious stones.

The design, the techniques of workmanship (including filigree and inlaying) and the gold, silver, copper, amber and glass are all of high quality, and exemplify the advanced state of goldsmith skills in Ireland in the seventh century. Like most brooches of the period, it contains neither Christian nor pagan religious motifs, and was made for a wealthy patron, almost certainly male, who wanted a personal expression of status.

Although the brooch is named after the Hill of Tara, traditionally seen as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, the Tara Brooch has no connection with either the Hill of Tara or the High Kings of Ireland. The brooch was supposedly found in August 1850 on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath, 50 km north of Dublin. The finder, a peasant woman (or her two sons), claimed to have found it in a box buried in the sand, though many think it was in fact found inland and she claimed it was found at the beach to avoid a legal claim by the landowner.

It was sold to a dealer and then to a Dublin jeweller, George Waterhouse, who was already producing Celtic Revival jewellery. He renamed it the Tara Brooch to make it more appealing.

The Derrynaflan Chalice

The Derrynaflan Chalice ... “represents the most complex and sumptuous expression of the ecclesiastical art-style of early-mediaeval Ireland” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Derrynaflan Chalice is an 8th or 9th-century chalice, and was found as part of the Derrynaflan Hoard of five liturgical vessels discovered on 17 February 1980 at Derrynaflan, the site of an early Irish abbey near Killenaule, Co Tipperary.

The Derrynaflan Hoard dates from the same period as the Ardagh Chalice According to the art historian Michael Ryan, the hoard “represents the most complex and sumptuous expression of the ecclesiastical art-style of early-mediaeval Ireland as we know it in its eighth- and ninth-century maturity.”

The chalice was found with a composite silver paten, a hoop that may have been a stand for the paten, a liturgical strainer and a bronze basin inverted over the other objects. This group is among the most important surviving examples of Insular metalwork.

The hoard was probably hidden in the 10th to 12th centuries, at the time of Viking raids and dynastic turmoil. Derrynaflan was an important monastic foundation pre-dating the Viking raids, and later became a Cistercian abbey.

The Derrynaflan Hoard was discovered in 1980 by Michael Webb from Clonmel and his son, also Michael, using a metal detector, and their discovery was kept secret for many weeks.

The behaviour of the Webbs, and nearly seven years of litigation, culminating in the Supreme Court action where they unsuccessfully sought over £5,000,000 for the find, led to new legislation.

The Viking and Mediaeval exhibits

Before an extensive programme of urban archaeological excavation in Dublin, from 1961 to 1981, the main archaeological evidence for the Viking presence in Ireland came from a small number of burial sites and stray finds, many of them from rivers.

Some ninth and 10th century Viking graves were discovered in coastal locations such as Arklow, Co Wicklow, Ballyholm, Co Down, Eyrephort, Co Galway, and in more extensive cemeteries at Kilmainham and Islandbridge on the banks of the River Liffey, in Dublin.

These Viking graves were furnished with grave-goods, including weapons such as swords and spears, together with jewellery and personal items. The presence of well-furnished female graves, and of craftsmen’s tools and weights and scales for engaging in commercial transactions, show that the early Viking presence in Ireland was not simply characterised by the activities of marauding raiders. Finds of Viking hoards with silver ingots, hack silver and coins emphasise the commercial aspect of the Viking presence in Ireland.

The exhibition on Mediaeval Ireland (1150-1550) contains three galleries entitled Power, Work and Prayer, reflecting the three-fold division of mediaeval society – nobles, common people and clergy.

The lifestyle of nobles is explored, while surviving arms and armour reflect the distinctive characteristics of warfare in mediaeval Ireland.

The exhibition looks at the different forms of agriculture (pastoral and arable) practices. Finds from urban excavations illustrate Ireland’s import trade and the various crafts and industries operating in towns.

The Church in Ireland changed fundamentally in the 12th century, although many older church traditions survived. This exhibition also looks at religious practice and devotion as well as church furnishings, including a fine selection of late mediaeval reliquaries: book shrines, bell shrines and croziers.

A selection from the collection of mediaeval croziers in the National Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Next (Field Trip continued):

8.2: The Chester Beatty Museum, Dublin Castle.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological. These briefing notes were prepared for a field trip on 16 March 2015 as part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course (part-time).

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