The Museums of Dublin

Whilst in Dublin, we spent some special time viewing some of the fine museums within the city. Here are details of the five that we visited.

Kilmainham Gaol

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on December 14, 2004

On the edge of parkland is the grim Kilmainham Gaol. It was built in 1789 and continued as a prison until the 1920s –- its story is well-told with visual displays, interesting museum artifacts, and a fairly graphic guided tour. If you’re going to Dublin, this is a must-see.

We approached the prison and were immediately struck by the allegorical stone carving of serpent-like monsters writhing across the arched entrance. If that wasn’t a message about sinners being sent to Hades, I’m not sure what it was!

The guided tour started in the huge, open space -- the main body of the prison. The design is classic, covered by a spiral staircase and enclosed upper galleries. It was not hard to imagine the din that would have echoed round the place when it was full of restricted (and probably hungry) prisoners. The cells in this part of the prison seem airy and light, but when the door is closed behind you, you’ll realise how claustrophobic life would have been.

The upstairs museum displays numerous personal mementos and clothes of former inmates and comprehensive photographic and written records confirming that this prison was not used just for political internment but, during the 1800s, also the incarceration of minor felons. The "poor and needy" were imprisoned for trying to obtain food to keep their families from starvation and spent time inside for being drunk and disorderly, or for not having a permanent abode. And sentences were not light, as prisoners were subjected to hard labour for apparently trivial offenses such as trespassing on the gentry’s land.

The museum gives fascinating and chilling insight into Ireland’s social and political history, and it is hard not to begin to offer judgments about the role people played in the oppression of their fellow man. The dark, dank west wing, with its tiny, gloomy cells, is where the political internees were held, and it leads to the "stonebreakers’ yard" (the enforced exercise yard for prisoners), where 14 leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. When we entered the yard, the light drizzle added extra atmosphere to the stories recounted by our guide. We heard about James Connolly, who was so ill that he was unable to stand and so was seated in a chair to be shot, and Joseph Plunkett, who was married in the prison two hours before he was shot. I’m not sure if that was a humanitarian act or plain vindictiveness. Perhaps you’ll have a view? The bullet holes in the prison yard wall were a stark reminder to those proceedings, and no matter what your views may be about the events, you will not fail to be moved. This is the more sinister side of Kilmainham and the role it played in Ireland’s political past.

It’s interesting to note that the last prisoner to be held was Eamon de Valera, who was Prime Minister and then President between 1932 and 1959.

Kilmainham Gaol
Inchicore Road
Dublin, Ireland
+353 1 453 5984

Guinness Storehouse

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on December 14, 2004

What would a visit to Dublin be without a trip round the Guinness Brewery? Being a fan of the dark liquid I was keen to see it firsthand and check out the rumour that it tastes even better in Ireland. I did, and it does!

The museum is housed in a 19th-century hop store but has been impressively adapted to tell the 200-year-old story of Guinness. You’re guided through all the brewing processes, and the explanation and visual displays are really informative. These include a chronology of Arthur Guinness’s life, the canny Irishman who signed a 9,000-year-lease in 1759 to secure the rent of the St James’ Gate Brewery at £45 a year. Now that was a bargain!

Guinness was based on "porter", a black London ale, and by 1769 it was being exported across to England. Now it will be exported once again, as I understand that the manufacturing plant in London is about to close. The museum has a continuous audio-visual show on the history of Guinness in Ireland.

A transport museum on the ground floor has in pride of place the narrow-gauge steam train that transported materials around the factory site and there are countless models of other "Guinness-owned" modes of transport.

There’s a static display showing the skills of the cooper, and on show, there’s the full range of containers used to store the ale over the generations. Sadly, now all Guinness is stored in standard metal containers.

It’s easy to get lost as you progress up the floors, and the upper floors are a maze of exhibitions, artwork, and posters. Indeed, there’s a superb display of all the advertising that’s been used since 1929. Everyone remembers the "Guinness is good for you" slogan, but we were just amazed at how influential the advertising has been over the decades. The Guinness Toucan was there in all its finery, and you could access videos of all the television and filmed adverts. They were and certainly still are works of art.

At the end of your self-guided tour, you’ll finish at the top of the building in the bar. Here you can get your "free" pint, and if you’re fortunate enough to be with a non-Guinness drinking spouse, there’s a second pint! From the top, there are some great, uninterrupted views over Dublin from the circular bar. As you handed in your voucher for the free pint, you were issued with a souvenir of your visit – a drop of the real thing encased in Perspex. There is no rush up here, but getting your freebie is a bit of a tussle and securing seats requires sheer luck. We found seats near the window and discussed our visit and the finer things of life.

When you’re ready to move on, make sure you call in on the souvenir shop, because even if you don’t intend to buy, there are plenty of quality ideas for that original birthday present!

Guinness Storehouse
St James's Gate Dublin 8
01 408 4800

Old Jameson Distillery

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on December 15, 2004

Jameson’s museum is a good place to check out the production process of the "water of life" and re-dress any prejudices that you may have about the Irish equivalent of Scottish malts (whiskey if you’re in Ireland). It’s set in the restored building that formed part of the original Jameson distillery. Indeed, there were almost two hundred years of whiskey distillation on this site, until it was closed down in 1970.

This is a fully guided tour that takes you from the old cobbled courtyard, in the shadow of the mighty distillery chimney and next to an original copper still. A 10-minute audio-visual presentation shows the history of Jameson, the distillery, and the surrounding area. Then our guide gave a thorough explanation of whiskey distillation with a close examination of original equipment. We were walked through the grain store and shown the malting, milling, and mashing processes; the fermentation, distillation, and maturation; and finally, the vatting and bottling procedures.

For the group of us lovers of fine malts, it was intriguing. And then we wanted to understand the differences between Scotch and Irish. We knew there was an extra "e" in the Irish version, but we were surprised to learn that the Irish claim "first production" through the auspices of the church and St Patrick. We were told that the barley-drying process has a real impact on the end product, and Irish grain is dried through clean, warm air, whilst Scotch is smoked over peat. This, our guide was quick to report, results in a far smoother taste. "But what about the fact that Irish whiskey is all triple-distilled?" I asked. "Well," the guide smiled benignly at me, " the real point of triple distillation is that we want to give you the best product, so we need 2 B sure, to bee sure, to be SURE". A round of applause followed, and I just knew that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to ask that question.

At the end of the tour, there’s a chance to sample some of the different blends, and if you’re quick to volunteer, you’ll get extra samples at the "specialist tasters" and a "qualification certificate". The bar is open for some of the more expensive tots, and we "shared" a measure of a 35-year-old Jameson and a 12-year-old "special". They were both incredibly smooth, and the merest dash of water opened up the flavours beyond belief. Additionally, the bar had a full range of old Jameson marketing posters and memorabilia.

Our wives had stayed round the coffee-and-souvenir shop, and at the end of the tour, we had a good mooch round, deciding as a group to buy a bottle of Jameson’s for an absent friend. A bottle labelled with his name on the front -- a great gift for a whiskey lover!

Overall, we were impressed with this value-for-money tour. We were whiskey-lovers and are now fans of whiskey!

Old Jameson Distillery
Bow Street Smithfield Village
Dublin, Ireland
+353 (1) 807 2355

Dublinia & Christ Church Cathedral

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MichaelJM on December 16, 2004

This is the museum to view and understand Dublin’s history. It’s based in neo-Gothic Synod Hall that used to be the centre of the ruling body of the Church of Ireland and now houses the stimulating modern museum walking you through Dublin's medieval past.

Before you enter, there’s the chance to fool around in the photo cuts-outs, and we all posed with our heads and hands through the medieval scenes. Amazing what 50-year-olds will do when they’re let out on their own!

You’ll start the audio-taped tour in the basement and pass through life-size reconstructions of day-to-day medieval activities. There are strange sounds and peculiar, sometimes even unpleasant, smells. One scene has a variety of ancient games that you can have a go at (needless to say, we were all up for that!) and then a chance to wear some of the old headgear. I was quick to try on chain mail, and I have to report that it was blooming heavy. I just wonder how they managed to move around with a full set of armour. There are depictions of the Black Death in the 1340s and the 1534 rebellion, which gave rise to the much-maligned Act of Supremacy (1541).

Go up a floor and you’ll be able to examine the life-size reconstruction of a medieval merchant’s kitchen and study a superbly crafted scale model of Dublin in the early 1500s. There’s a display of some of the excavated relics from the Viking village, discovered in the 1970s, near to the Liffey. This is what I would call a traditional museum layout, and although interesting, lacked luster in presentation.

We went up another floor and saw the magnificent wood-panelled Great Hall, with another presentation relating to medieval Dublin. To be honest, I’m all "museumed up" at this point and have lost interest, but in front there’s the staircase to yet another level. This is quite a climb, but St Michael’s tower (total height of 200 feet) is well worth the effort because it will give you the finest views across the city of Dublin. Take in the views and enjoy the smells that go with the ancient timbers that surround you.

We left Dublinia by the Victorian-covered bridge, which links Synod Hall to Christ Church Cathedral. This Norman church was commissioned in the late 1100s, replacing a small wooden Viking church. It has had to be totally remodeled, following a long period of neglect, and boasts a superb nave with early Gothic arches (look out for the lean on the northern wall). In the chapel of St Laud, tiled with original medieval tiles, a casket contains the heart of St. Laurence - macabre but true. There’s a particularly fine tomb with an armoured clad knight. I thought this was Strongbow, but was quickly put right on that. It was an unknown noble, but not the Norman conqueror.

The cathedral has real atmosphere, and I personally enjoyed this more than Dublinia.

Christchurch Cathedral
Christchurch Place
Dublin, Ireland
+353 1 677 8099

Trinity College & The Book of Kells

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on December 16, 2004

The nearest I was going to get to Irish academia was to join the hoards of visitors and tour the famous Trinity College. It’s a cracking visit, but your concentration levels will need to be finally honed before you embark on this tour.

This magnificent seat of learning has existed since being founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, and an interesting, yet disturbing, fact is that Catholics were not allowed to study there (unless they converted to Protestantism) until the late 1960s. The grounds of this venerated University are impressive, and if you enter the main gates, by the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith, you’ll be standing in Parliament Square with the 100-foot tall 1850s bell tower looming in front of you. This does seem to be a bit of a folly; it certainly has pride of place next to one of Henry Moore’s famous "reclining forms." There’s a range of age to the buildings, with the 300-year-old red-bricked Rubrics, the Dining Hall (1761), the interdenominational chapel built in late 1790s, and the modern Berkeley Library (1967).

Inside, there are two stunning features – the book of Kells (a work of art completed in the early 800s by monks from Iona depicting the gospels on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the old university library built in 1732.

The library is over 200 feet in length and houses in excess of 200,000 antiquarian books. Overall, the libraries in Trinity College stores over three million books, as Trinity college exercises its rights under copyright laws to claim free copies of all British and Irish publications. Now I have a fair few books in my house, but apparently Trinity College requires over half a mile of shelving every year to store its selection of new publications. I find that really hard to envisage! For the book lover, the library is an uplifting and exciting experience enhanced by some remarkable marble busts of scholars and the oldest surviving Irish harp.

I took the book of Kells as an artistic experience rather than a scholastic journal. These incredible illuminated Latin manuscripts are inscribed on vellum parchment with ornate patterns and fantastically designed animals. The designs are so inventive that it is often hard to remember that they are forming letters, words, and sentences. The detail in each illuminated letter would have taken such an amazing length of time that it is hard to comprehend how long the 680 pages would have taken to compile. It truly is an act of absolute skill, but also of dedication and commitment to the task. Just gazing on these masterpieces and wondering at the intricacies of each small section is mind-boggling.

You will leave here having taken in only a small percentage of the total, but be prepared for that - enjoy the art and get ready for a return trip when you next return to Dublin. I guarantee that you’ll never claim to have seen or understood it all!

Trinity College
College Green
Dublin, Ireland
+353 (1) 608 1000

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