Dublin: A history through 10 peculiar objects
The Little Museum of Dublin is a cove of quirky artefacts
Spread across just four rooms, the Little Museum of Dublin retells the offbeat history of the Irish capital through an assortment of quirky items donated by residents. James Hendicott has a poke around.
From masonry and political documents to abstract art and gas masks, the Little Museum’s archives can be both upsetting and humorous as they sketch a snaking line through the trials and tribulations of a city that’s still coming to terms with independence.
From the museum’s many artefacts donated by residents past and present, here are 10 that succinctly summarise Dublin’s turbulent 20th century.
1906 – A first edition of Ulysses
Little Museum of Dublin
Occupied and poverty-stricken, turn of the century Dublin is personified in the ramshackle prose of James Joyce’s tough-to-handle literature. Though many readers can withstand little more than the preface,Ulysses (1906) is regarded as Joyce’s magnum opus, and celebrated annually on Bloomsday, where fans retrace the daylong jaunt undertaken by the book’s narcissistic protagonist. Here, a first edition of the classic sits alongside Joyce’s death mask, a creepy facial casting taken for perpetuity just two days after the great author’s passing.
1916 – The original Proclamation of the Republic
Patrick Pearse shakily read Ireland’s Proclamation of the Republic before the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916, a symbolic, feted act of revolution doomed to short-term failure. The document itself proclaims a grand republic, independent from Britain, but it is thrown together, with some letters cut from a print house’s scraps in the rush to go public. Though the military uprising ultimately failed, the proclamation succeeded to some degree as its influence on later politicians helped establish what Pearse could not. Error-strewn original proclamations like this are now national treasures worth close to a million euros.
1921 – The letter considered a betrayal
Following years of smouldering tensions, the Irish Republic was formally established in 1921, yet key representatives like Arthur Griffiths still remain controversial. Revolutionary leader Eamon De Valera sent this letter to Britain, where Griffiths was to negotiate for the country’s independence. This document, which ultimately paved the way for Irish independence in 1949, is still considered a betrayal in some quarters as it only initially offered partial autonomy, and didn’t include Northern Ireland. This Little Museum original languished at the back of a filing cabinet for half a century before going on display.
1939 – A gas mask from The Emergency
Despite choosing to remain neutral throughout WWII, or simply The Emergency as it was known in Ireland, the fear of bombing raids (from both allied and axis powers) was rife in the city and gas masks like this one were made available to citizens. These fears were realised, most notably during the May 1941 Nazi raid that destroyed over 70 houses on the north side of the city. The country’s neutrality remained a contentious issue throughout the war, reaching a climax when the prime minister Éamon de Valera signed the book of condolence after Adolf Hitler’s death.
1943 – A postcard from George Bernard Shaw
One of Dublin’s most celebrated playwrights and successful literary exports, George Bernard Shaw, left his hometown at the age of 20 but never lost his fondness for the city. This handwritten postcard, penned by Shaw aged 87, comes in response to a popular magazine asking when WWII would end. Shaw writes: “I never prophesy until I know; and nobody yet knows where those two will end. My best guess is that Adolf will enjoy a dignified retirement in the ViceRegal Lodge in Dublin, which is presumably to let at present.”
1951 – A report card from a Magdalene laundry
Church-run “recuperation” for women suspected of “falling” (expressing even modest premarital sexuality) led to families sending young women to the laundries, which ran for 200 years as repressive asylums. These documents, dated 1951, show one of an estimated 30,000 young women who were confined to these institutions. Life inside the laundries was harrowing, and in 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one Dublin institution. The government is still paying compensation to survivors, though the Catholic Church has refused to contribute.
1966 – A fragment of Nelson’s Pillar
Once the towering hub of central O’Connell Street, the IRA blew the top off 40m-tall (131ft) Nelson’s Pillar in 1966, “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising by downing the British icon. Although it’s now claimed to be an urban myth, the army reportedly failed to blow up the stump-like remnants of the monument on first attempt, instead managing to smash every window on the street. These fragments of the pillar (one real, one fake) are almost all that remains of the iconic structure. The lightsaber-like modern replacement is known jokingly as the Stiffy on the Liffey.
1971 – Feminists march to Belfast to buy contraceptives
Women’s rights finally took hold in Ireland in the 1970s, manifested by boisterous protest. In this picture, that hangs in the museum, we see the Women’s Liberation Movement returning to Dublin with condoms (which remained illegal in Ireland until 1980) and spermicidal jelly purchased in Belfast. For many, Ireland’s feminist movement is still progressing; the criminalisation of marital rape arrived in 1990 and legalised divorce followed in 1996. A battle over Ireland’s strict abortion law rages on.
1982 – The Wanderly Wagon
As television was initially imported from the United Kingdom, Irish politicians were anxious of its introduction as well as its growing popularity. Wanderly Wagon, an iconic 1970s kid’s TV show produced by national broadcaster RTÉ, is an example of broadcasters attempting to adopt a more nationalistic digital identity. The show brought Irish mythology to life through puppets, a roaming colourful caravan and a dog delivering messages in morality. The plastic miniature wagon in the Little Museum is an original feature from the opening credits. The show ran until 1982.
1990 – An autographed Italia ’90 Ireland shirt
Who stuck the ball in the England net? There was a countrywide party in Ireland during the summer of Italia ‘90 as Jack Charlton led a national team of footballing underdogs to the World Cup quarter finals, where they narrowly lost out to hosts Italy. The team (whose names are emblazoned upon this tournament shirt) returned home as heroes – despite not having won a game (4 draws, 1 loss). It was Kevin Sheedy, by the way, with a low drive to the far post.
2011 – Gold-plated Monster Munch
Created by artist Caroline McCarthy, this pointless, gilded-snack extravagance is a symbolic representation of an era that’s economic prosperity became known as the Celtic Tiger. An objectification of fickle extravagance, The Celtic Tiger period saw Dublin’s moneyed classes become loaded like never before, as the economy flourished from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Unfortunately, massive pride came before a massive fall and the country spiralled into recession in 2008, turning Dublin into a shadow of its darkest Joycean days.
The Award-Winning Little Museum of Dublin is located on St Stephen’s Green, on the northern side of the famous park. The museum opens from 0930 to 1700 seven days a week, and opens until 2000 on Thursdays. Tickets cost €8 (€7 when booked online) and include a guided tour.