Summing up the history of an entire island is a tall order, but Ireland has attempted to do just that – in 100 objects. And for the month of March the resulting book is free to download, “a gift from the people of Ireland to the world”, in celebration of Ireland’s EU presidency, and St Patrick’s Day.
Fintan O’Toole from the Irish Times took the recent BBC Radio 4 project “A History of the World in 100 Objects” as his inspiration. Initially, he believed that using objects would simplify the task. “When so much about the past – especially Ireland’s past – is contested, physical things seem to provide secure anchors in history.”
He was mistaken; even the simplest questions challenged accepted wisdom and threw up surprises.
The objects range from a 7,000-year-old fish trap to the contribution made by unexalted “women’s work” – lacework and linen-making – that built world-leading industries.
Emigration, that other shaper of modern Ireland, is told through tender, humble objects, such as a teapot, rather than official documents. And there are things that throw up surprises: a collar and fetters reveal Dublin as a 12th-century slave-trading centre, where Ireland’s own people were bought and sold.
The story beside each object gives both domestic context and its international resonance. Bronze Age jewellery shows design techniques shared across Europe; religious vestments feature Renaissance stylings; an essay on a 20th-century Eileen Gray modernist chair becomes an exploration of Ireland’s unequal relationship with Europe and America.
What to choose?
In choosing what would feature in this mammoth undertaking, O’Toole had to set rules: “They are not intended to be the 100 most remarkable objects on the island. They are chosen simply for their ability to illuminate moments of change, development or crisis.”
Each object had to be a single, man-made entity, so no buildings, and they had to be freely accessible to the public. At the end of each caption there are details of where the object can be seen – most are in the National Museum of Ireland – but many are all over the island of Ireland.
Beauty in the eye of the beholder
The objects are so beautifully presented and lit that you can see them in great detail. But as O’Toole explains, however you examine them, there’s an intangible magic that belongs to the thing itself.
”What makes it pulse with life is the idea of the people who touched and were touched by it,” he says. “It is the hands that made it, the eyes that feasted on or feared it, the terror, wonder or delight it evoked. It is the simple, awe-inspiring thought – this thing connects me to my ancestors.”
It’s also food for thought to many of us – if you could tell your Ireland story with a single object, what would it be? Tell us...
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects is free to download until the end of March. It is available on Apple iPhone and iPad, for most Android tablets and on the Kindle Fire, or via the internet onto computer, smartphone or ereader.