One of my (very) few can’t-miss suggestions for all Dublin visitors is the fantastic (and free!) National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology. Housed in a building that could be a museum piece itself, conveniently located in the heart of city centre (and right next door to the Irish Parliament), and offering a very interesting collection of a few thousand years of Irish history, it’s a real no-brainer.
The museum is worth a thorough visit, exhibit-by-exhibit, but for those crunched for time, a highlights tour might be necessary. Below are some of my favorites for the tourist on a timetable, from highest to lowest priority.
Kingship and Sacrifice
Ground Floor, left of the entrance
Truly the highlight of the museum, this exhibit houses many of the artifacts found in Irish bogs—including the incredibly well-preserved bodies of ancient humans. Northern European bogs have a unique biology and chemistry that inhibits decomposing microbes and preserves organic material buried in its soggy soil. Commercial peat harvesting in the twentieth century has unearthed hundreds of preserved pieces like the huge Lurgan Longboat in the main hall, pots of “bog butter” buried and forgotten by ancient people, and a small but stunning collection of human remains.
Analyses of these bodies reveals much about their lives—look for the looping video about the researchers working with the remains—but most of them seem to have been rich or important people. It is suggested that these may have been clan leaders, violently sacrificed and thrown into bog pools to appease ancient gods after a year of bad weather, sickness, or blight.
Ground Floor, right of the entrance
On the opposite side of the main hall from the bog bodies, check out the impressive collection of jewelry and artwork from Celtic-, Viking-, and Christian-era Ireland. Among my favorites are the Cross of Cong, once used to house a fragment of the True Cross; the Silver Chalice from Derrynaflan; the collection of brooches, including the Tara Brooch; a paper-thin gold boat possibly sunk into a lake as a tribute; and the Faddan More Psalter, a book of psalms as old as the Book of Kells preserved in a bog in Central Ireland.
The Treasury exhibit has a free audio guide available with commentary about many of the best pieces in the collection. The guide can be downloaded in advance on older mp3 players (like mine) or streamed in the Treasury exhibit with a dedicated, audioguide-only Wi-Fi connection. If not using your own audio player, audioguide units can be rented from reception (not free).
The ground floor main hall houses a collection of prehistoric tools and weapons on the outer ring and the Ireland’s Gold exhibit in the central floor. Among the axes, hammers, and weapons of prehistoric Ireland, my favorite piece in the main floor is the massive Lurgan Longboat. This wooden dugout canoe, recovered from a bog in Co. Galway in the nineteenth century and brought to this museum to much fanfare, is beautifully preserved and almost unbelievably large. Read the news articles of the day describing its transport and careful installation in the exhibit.
Upper floor, left from main staircase
The Vikings played a very significant role in Irish history, particularly that of Dublin. One of their first strongholds on the island was right where the Liffey met the Poddle in what is now Dublin’s city centre.
When workers broke ground on what is now the civic offices at Wood Quay, the remains of a large Viking settlement were discovered right beneath the city. This incredible find was promptly bulldozed in the name of development, but a small collection of artifacts was saved. Many of these are now on display here. My favorite pieces in this collection are the everyday items like hair combs, children’s toys, and fishhooks.
At the far end of the Viking exhibit, catch the looping film series in the cinema room. These historical television documentaries might be approaching an age where they need to be placed in a museum exhibit themselves, but this makes them fit right in with the ancient treasures housed in glass cases nearby.
Upper floor, right of main staircase
This collection spans the centuries between the arrival of Christianity and modern history (which you’ll find down the road at the National Museum of Ireland: Decorative Arts and History at Collins Barracks). Bits and bobs like religious art, farm tools, weapons, and various designs of locks and keys are on display in this corridor.
Entrance from Medieval Ireland exhibit; staircase from Hill of Tara exhibit
This small collection of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts may not rival those of the British Museums, but they are tastefully arranged with interpretive information about the people and customs of Egypt for the curious. This makes a handy stop on your way out of the museum from Medieval Ireland or a convenient shortcut up to the upper floor after visiting Kingship and Sacrifice.
Check the Schedule
When you visit, ask about any special events happening on the day; even better, check the schedule in advance. The museum regularly hosts guest lectures, special exhibits, and family activities. Don’t miss your chance to take part.
Nuts and Bolts
- The National Museum: Archaeology is open Tuesday–Saturday 10:00–17:00, Sunday 14:00–17:00. Don’t plan your visit for a Monday, Good Friday, or Christmas Day or you’ll be disappointed.
- Don’t miss the other fantastic (and free!) attractions on what I call Museum Row: the National Library, National Gallery, and National Museum: Natural History, all surrounding Leinster House—the home of Ireland’s Parliament.
- When you step into the main entrance rotunda, look around. The main rotunda is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, and the floor is decorated with classical tile mosaics. This museum belongs in a museum!