Every historical itch can be scratched on a visit to Ireland’s museums, from the tiniest micro-museums to priceless treasures in thriving national institutions
"Want to hold some dinosaur droppings?” Don’t worry – the Irish welcome isn’t under threat. This is just one of the questions you – and your kids – might be asked at the Ulster Museum.
Set in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, this multi-storeyed wonderland is the kind of place where you can wander from a dinosaur skeleton to an Egyptian mummy; from an exhibition on Irish Home Rule to top-notch contemporary art. Young explorers get special maps, and hands-on discovery centres.
History also comes to life at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford, where a visit could find you panning for gold, or even staying overnight at a ring fort. Or why not drill down into local heritage at the Copper Mine Museum on Cork’s Beara Peninsula or the Cork Butter Museum?
Archaeology and history
Fancy coming face to face with a 2,300-year-old bog body? Or perhaps the bejewelled Ardagh Chalice, discovered by two boys digging a potato field, is more your cup of tea. They’re just two of the artefacts, riches and exhibitions on display in Dublin’s National Museum of Archaeology.
There’s plenty to discover in local museums, too. In Kerry County Museum, for instance, you can try solving a 500-year-old murder mystery. The cold case (the victim died by the sword, it transpires) lies in the basement, and you’re also welcome to grab a trowel and help excavate a skeleton while you’re at it...
Famine and emigration
The Great Famine of the 1840s is one of the most tragic events in Ireland’s history, and it’s touched upon in museums and heritage attractions all over the country. You can even visit a famine village in Doagh, County Donegal, and a reconstructed Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, County Wexford.
In County Roscommon, the Irish National Famine Museum explores “the single greatest social disaster of 19th-century Europe”. Unusually located in the stable yards of Strokestown Park House (big houses like these lay at the centre of the contemporary landlord/tenant system), it’s a sobering visit. You can also learn more about the famine’s aftermath at the Irish Museum of Country Life in County Mayo.
The Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyrone, brings to life the human stories behind three centuries of Irish emigration and thousands who crossed the Atlantic for the New World of North America. The journey starts in the thatched cottages of Ulster, continues aboard a crowded sailing ship, and finishes at the American frontier.
If you like things that go, you’ll love the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood, County Down. Old steam engines, electric trams, double-decker buses and vintage cars stand side-by-side in tantalising displays here, but the most surprising exhibit is not from the past. It’s from the future – or a 1980s vision of it, at least. The DeLorean DMC-12, which doubled as a time machine in the Back to the Future movies, was built in Belfast.
Hidden gems like this lie scattered all over the country. Take the National Transport Museum in Dublin’s Howth Demesne, where volunteers have painstakingly assembled a collection of vehicles dating from 1883; or classics including a 1911 Model T Ford at Henry Ford’s ancestral site in Lisselan, County Cork.
Modern design and textiles
Museums don’t always deal with buildings and archaeology, of course. In some cases, they’re as much about the way we wore as the way we were – quite literally, in the case of the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History, housed in the former Collins Barracks in Dublin.
One of the exhibits here looks at clothing and jewellery worn in Ireland from the 1760s onwards, and concludes – as you no doubt suspected – that the Irish are not, in fact, impervious to fashion.
It’s not just national museums that reflect our style, either. From the Sheelin Antique Irish Lace Museum in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, to the dashing Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge Silverware, County Kildare, pretty much every niche you can imagine is buttoned up.