National Museums in the Republic of Ireland

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


As the current director of the National Museum of Ireland has noted; ‘to understand the National Museum of Ireland both as an institution and in terms of tradition from which its collection evolved; is in some ways to understand the complexity of modern Ireland itself’ (Wallace 2002: 1). Wallace’s references to evolution and tradition highlight the significance of the past in the life of the Republic of Ireland; a past closely linked to Britain. In her comprehensive analysis of Irish museums; Bourke concluded that their development followed a route similar to British; and latterly American museums. They did not devolve from princely possessions; but were built on objects from antiquarianism and private collections; with funding from government or scholarly societies. The difference in Ireland is that this development coincided with the emergence of the nation-state (Bourke 2011: 427).

The emergence of the Irish state was marked by conflict. It is remembered in popular culture; for example in the films Michael Collins (Jordan; 1996); about the nationalist leader; and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Loach; 2006); about the tragedies of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War. Each film; successively; broke all box office records in Ireland. They address the 1916 Uprising; the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923); which were pivotal in Irish history. In brief; until the 1920s; the entire island was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and museums in Ireland were part of that wider context. An Anglo-Irish elite; though largely Protestant (Anglican) and British in outlook; nonetheless contributed to the development of distinctly Irish learned societies and institutions; including early museums. In the north-east; industrialisation in Belfast; and earlier immigration; led to museums more influenced by Dissenters (Protestants who rejected Anglicanism) and commercialism. As British governments began to contribute to funding; they also began to shape and eventually to take control of key Irish museums. The Gaelic Revival of the 1880s; however; celebrating Ireland’s Gaelic past (a ’golden age’); was reflected in museum collections with a growing interest in Irish antiquities. The 1916 rising; attempts by the British to impose conscription (1918); the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War reshaped Irish society.

After independence; national museums were largely ignored by governments faced with harsh economic conditions; despite having provided substance to the emerging; nationalist ‘Gaelic Revival’. Towards the end of the twentieth century government attitudes changed; and with EU 521 help; funding was increased. Expansion enabled new approaches to Ireland’s history and new avenues for art. Pre-historic antiquities began to make room for displays on the Viking and Anglo-Norman contributions to Irish culture. More recently; there is a measure of awareness that the Republic of Ireland; formed on the basis of a distinct cultural identity; now faces the challenge of a more pluralistic; multicultural society; which Bourke reflects on in the context of Irish museums (2011: 423-6).


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