National Museums of Ireland
A visit to any of the four branches of the National Museum will give you insights into Celtic culture and Ireland’s past that will stay with you long into the future.
You can admire gold jewellery from thousands of years ago or innovative 20th century jewellery designs. You can examine utensils from a rural Irish cottage or silverware that graced the tables of the finest mansions. You can see ancient axe heads or firearms from Ireland’s fight for independence. There are rock samples, Iron Age artefacts, and even life-like exhibits of tigers and bears from the 1800s.
The first thing that wows visitors to the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology on Kildare Street in Dublin city is the building itself. Built in Victorian Palladian Style, it has a magnificent rotunda with a domed roof and a row of marble columns.
It first opened in 1890 and inside, a large central space is surrounded by an ornate balcony, with mosaic floors underfoot – look out for the zodiac design on the floor of the rotunda.
The exhibits start with a selection of prehistoric finds, including stone tools from the earliest years of humankind. A flint axe from the years 400,000 to 300,000 BC was possibly transported here by moving ice.
There are ornaments dating back from the Medieval period, Iron age and Bronze age. Looking at a gold collar or earrings from 2200 BC, you might wonder who wore them and what their story was.
Many of the items in the museums were found in Irish peat bogs – often during turf cutting – and you can learn all about these amazing finds including ancient weapons, jewellery, and even human remains. Most famous of all are the bog bodies, such as Old Croghan Man.
There are pieces from Celtic art, such as the beautiful Ardagh Chalice or Tara Brooch, plus artefacts and art from the Viking age. There is also a collection on life in Medieval Ireland, with farming tools and objects from life in castles and manors.
The National Museum of Ireland – Natural History on Upper Merrion Street near St Stephen's Green, is another beautiful building in the Georgian area of Dublin. It was built in 1856 and little has changed since then – with more than 10,000 exhibits of all types of creatures, ranging from tiny insects to giant mammals.
As you enter the museum, you will encounter the skeletons of the giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus, which went extinct just after the last Ice Age in Ireland more than 10,500 years ago.
Glass cases display different Irish species, such as a family of playful badgers, which look remarkably life-like. They are preserved by taxidermy – where the body is preserved by stuffing and then mounting it, a method that was popular in the 1800s. There are so many taxidermy exhibits, preserved in a life-like state, that locals call the museum the "Dead Zoo".
There are foxes, otters, seals, rabbits and hares, and you can also see brown bears and wolves – two species no longer found in the wild in Ireland, plus birds, fish and whale skeletons. You can look into the huge jaws of an African hippo, examine the fur of a Bengal Tiger or count the stripes of an African zebra.
In the Wonder Cabinet full of curiosities, you’ll find all sorts of things including the fossils of a Hyena’s jawbone, a giant Irish deer’s antler and a shark’s tooth.
A visit to this museum gives a mix of fun, education plus a glimpse back into the past to show how Ireland's museums were in the 1850s.
Note: The museum is temporarily closed – keep an eye on the website for the reopening date – and in the meantime enjoy a virtual visit.
Across the River Liffey on the north quays, the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History is located in one of Dublin’s most impressive structures, Collins Barracks. Built in 1702, it was renamed Collins Barracks, in tribute to the revolutionary leader Michael Collins. The Irish Defence Forces left in 1993 and it became home to the museum in 1997.
Set in a series of stone buildings around different squares, the museum is divided into decorative arts and history collections. The decorative arts section has exhibitions on clothing, silver, ceramics, glass and furniture, while the history side focuses on Ireland’s military history, particularly the fight for independence and formation of the Irish Free State.
Rather than covering everything in one visit, it’s a good idea is to choose the exhibits that you would most like to see before your visit. You might focus on the exhibition on Irish coins and currency, or look for a highlight like the Fonthill Vase, an early piece of Chinese porcelain from the year 1300 or the Waterford Jug, a silver trophy from 1732.
There is also an exhibition about the life and work of Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray, who had a huge influence on the 20th century modern design movement and created iconic pieces like the adjustable chrome table and non-conformist chair.
The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Castlebar, County Mayo gives a fascinating insight into everyday life in rural Ireland in past times. Located in Turlough Park, the museum’s Irish folklife exhibits explain everything from how cottages were built and how roofs were thatched, to the different furniture in a cottage, from cradles to dressers, plus the tasks of daily life in a household.
The exhibits show how people made a living from the land and sea, and the sometimes harsh conditions, with the traditional methods of farming, fishing and cutting turf and the importance of seasons.
Also on the site, you can visit two rooms of the mansion Turlough Park House. You can spend time on the grounds and walk around the lake. There’s even a playground and picnic areas. The 10km Castlebar to Turlough Greenway connects the museum to Castlebar on a mostly off-road trail which runs along the Castlebar River.
Need to know
Admission to the four National Museums is free and advance booking isn't necessary for individuals. Groups should email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Museum of Archaeology has twice-daily tours of the treasures of Ireland. Some of the museums have virtual tours.
There is paid on-street parking or nearby car parks only at the Archaeology or Natural History museums. Parking at the Decorative Arts & History Museum is pay and display. Parking at the Country Life museum is free.
There are gift shops and cafés at all the museums.
Museum of Literature Ireland
Whether you are new to Irish literature or an expert, you will be inspired and surprised at MoLI – The Museum of Literature Ireland. Located at 86 St. Stephens Green in the historic UCD Newman House, where James Joyce once studied, MoLI is an interactive celebration of Irish poets, playwrights and novelists. It is a must-see for anyone interested in Irish literature. The Commons Café and MoLi Shop are free to visit.
The Little Museum of Dublin
Visit The Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green, in the heart of Dublin City. It is one of the city’s most charming and loved museums telling the fascinating story of Dublin. Experience the warmth of a real Irish welcome in a magnificent Georgian townhouse.
Irish Whiskey Museum
The Irish Whiskey Museum is based in the heart of Dublin City in a historic building on Grafton Street. Come learn the complete and unbiased history of Irish whiskey and its importance in Ireland’s turbulent past. The Classic tour takes about an hour, or you can try the Whiskey Blending Experience and bring home a small bottle of your own blend (1.5 hours). Or come have a Whiskey tour and Brunch (1.5 hours). Visitors can attend various events on the weekends.
Dublin Writers Museum
The Dublin Writers Museum, across from the Garden of Remembrance, celebrates Irish writers and is a must-see for anyone who wants to discover, explore or enjoy Dublin's immense literary heritage. The museum has a fascinating collection of personal items, first editions and more. It holds occasional exhibitions, lunchtime theatre and readings. The book shop is free to visit.