IF YOU do one thing this autumn, visit the National Museum in Dublin. You mightn’t make it in time for today’s 125th anniversary celebrations but, if you can, trip along to Kildare St to wish this wonderful institution a very happy birthday.
It’s free. It has helpful, friendly staff. And it has a café. Though, I don’t imagine that any of those things explain why it’s still one of the top 10 attractions in Ireland: Visitor numbers are up by 11% on last year.
Everyone has their own reasons to visit: It’s something to do on a rainy day; it’s educational; it’s always worth browsing in the gift shop; it’s part of our heritage. All perfectly valid, but the reason I visit the National Museum of Ireland is because it is a real showstopper.
For one thing, it houses one of the largest and most important collections of Bronze Age gold work in western Europe. To put it more prosaically, Bronze Age bling doesn’t get much better than this.
But that’s only part of the attraction. What keeps me coming back are the riddles. Take the 3,000-year-old mystery of Ballinesker, for instance. It has all the ingredients of a gripping tale: An unsolved conundrum, valuable gold and the whisper of a royal connection.
In 1990, three delicately worked gold boxes were discovered in Bellinesker, Co Wexford, as part of a hoard that included other beautiful things – a gold dress fastener, a gold bracelet and two gold disks.
There was no doubt that these were very high status artefacts; royal regalia perhaps or ceremonial garb for a tribal chief.
The boxes, though, baffled archaeologists. They had no idea what they might have been used for until one evening in 2001 when the museum’s Keeper of Antiquities Mary Cahill saw a body piercing specialist wearing huge ear spools on The Late Late Show.
“My immediate reaction was to shout, ‘He is wearing the Ballinesker boxes in his ears!’” she wrote later. The boxes were, in fact, ear spools and would probably have been worn, in very distended earlobes, by a tribal leader around 900BC.
Mary Cahill’s eureka moment and some later detective work have opened a fascinating window into the ancient world of the rich and powerful. A chief in full regalia may well have worn a gold hat, a gold collar, hair rings, beads of gold, armlets and enormous golden ear reels. Quite a sight.
Power, prestige and keeping up with the Kardashians is nothing new, it seems.
But that is just one of several stories to emerge from decades of archaeological research at the museum.
If you haven’t already seen the Kinship and Sacrifice exhibition, you are missing the story of how archaeology helped solve what must be the oldest cold case in Irish history.
Gardaí were called in 2003 when the remains of a 6ft 6in man came out of the bog near Croghan Hill in Co Meath because his fingerprint whorls were so perfectly preserved.
Radiocarbon dating would later reveal that he had lived more than two millennia ago and, as suspected, he had been murdered.
Three months before that, a second body, Clonycavan Man (5ft 2in), was discovered nearby and he too had been struck down in his prime — with three axe blows.
Seeing how archaeologists and a range of specialists have put together the stories of these two men from the Iron Age is better than any episode of CSI.
The museum is full of such triumphs.
It’s not often that we get the chance to sing the praises of a state-run body, but this is one such rare occasion.
When the museum was inaugurated on this day in August 1890, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lawrence Dundas said his “fervent hope” was that museum would “prove a source of recreation and instruction to the general public” and offer real assistance to Irish students and workers.
If he were alive today he couldn’t but be proud, in particular of the way the museum has reached out into the community to become his hoped-for “source of recreation and instruction”.
Today, everyone is invited to take part in a range of hands-on activities or attend a series of talks and demonstrations – all of them free.
It’s not an exaggeration to say, as museum director Raghnall Ó Floinn has said, that the collections housed in Kildare St have fascinated and enthralled millions of visitors from home and abroad since those visionary Victorians opened the museum in 1890.
And there are many more riddles. Education Officer Siobhan Pierce invites people to ask questions about any of the artefacts from the ancient Egyptian amulets to the array of glistening Irish chalices.
It’s a good time to focus on the riches that we have succeeded in preserving, particularly at a time when IS fighters are reducing historic monuments to rubble across Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this week, extremists destroyed an ancient temple in Palmyra and said they had returned the site to a sort of heritage “ground zero”. If you want to eradicate a people, the best way to do so is to destroy their past.
That’s a chilling lesson even on a day like today when we are marking the end of Heritage Week and celebrating all that has been lovingly preserved at the National Museum. But we have to admit that much has been lost in Ireland too and often through wanton carelessness.
Many still consider the destruction of the Viking site on Wood Quay an act of state-backed vandalism. In 1978, more than 20,000 people marched in protest against the building of civic offices on the site, but to no avail.
It would make you worry about the many less spectacular sites — the overgrown ring forts, discrete earthworks, standing stones — that are slowly being eroded all the country. A 2001 Heritage Council report exposed just how many are being lost: Of the 1,400 monuments studied since 1998, 478 have been destroyed.
It makes you wonder, too, if anyone is bothered by the news of the return of the Jedi to Unesco heritage site Skellig Michael, “the most impossible and the most fantastic rock in the world” as George Bernard Shaw called it?
An Taisce has asked Arts Minister Heather Humphreys to outline how she will manage the filming, in September, by the Disney Lucasfilm Star Wars project on the site where 6th-century monks once chiselled 2,300 steps into the island’s brittle sandstone and built a monastery 600ft above the Atlantic.
You could say that filming in this magnificent place will keep it alive in the modern age. And you could argue that no damage will be done. Fine statements both.
But consider this. New York museums are so concerned for their collections that they have banned selfie sticks. They are worried on two counts; that the wicked things might physically damage museum collections — works of art and vulnerable artifacts — and that waving pieces of plastic about will disturb visitors.
In New York, they ban selfie sticks in museums. In Ireland, we let the Force Awaken on a fragile archaeological site of international significance.
Is there anybody out there with the answer to that riddle?