Museum Eye

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 16

Strangers to citizens: the Irish in Europe 1600–1800
National Library of Ireland
2–3 Kildare Street
Dublin 2
Mon.–Wed. 9.30am–8.30pm
Thur.–Fri. 9.30am–4.30pm
Sun. 9.30am–12.30pm
by Tony Canavan

This new exhibition staged by the National Library of Ireland is situated in the former Genealogical and Heraldic Museum (and I wonder what happened to that?) a few doors down from the main library building and is due to run throughout 2008. It concentrates on an aspect of emigration from Ireland that has largely been overshadowed by the horrors of the Great Famine and the consequent emigration of millions to the United States and elsewhere. Emigration, in the sense of settling in another country, has been a major part of the Irish experience since the sixteenth century. The opening information panel of the exhibition mentions ‘unemployed military and dispossessed aristocracy [and] itinerant academics’ all fleeing to the European mainland in the wake of the defeat of Hugh O’Neill and his allies, to which would be added over the decades merchants who set up businesses on the Continent. A large map shows the routes out of Ireland. From Dublin to Bilbao in Spain, for instance, took about twelve days.
This exodus of people over two centuries was as significant in its own way as the post-Famine one, and Irish people left their mark in the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, Iberia and further afield. The exhibition opens with the journeys themselves, beginning with the Flight of the Earls. A book on the O’Donnells from 1809, featuring the famous Cathach of Tyrconnell, and an original manuscript version of Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s account of the earls’ departure bring that event to life. Throughout the exhibition, good use is made of manuscripts and books to illustrate the topics covered; this is a National Library of Ireland project, after all.
We are reminded that as well as the famous occasions of exodus, like that following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, there was a steady flow of Irish people leaving because of warfare or oppression. A virtual slideshow using contemporary paintings and prints shows the places where the Irish established themselves and some of the individuals involved, such as James Hennessy, of cognac fame, or Lady Joseph Butler, abbess of the Royal Irish Abbey of Ypres. There is also an actual portrait of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, magnificent in his suit of Spanish armour, hanging above the fireplace at the end of the room.
The exhibition is divided thematically rather than chronologically, leaving visitors to wander around as they wish. The sections are ‘Colleges’, ‘Military’, ‘Merchants’ and ‘Professionals’. This means that you can dip in and out of it as you wish, just looking at the military or the colleges, for example. You can also skim through it, as there are lots of highlighted quotes summarising the information, and plenty of artefacts, illustrations and interactive audio-visual gadgets to keep you entertained.
It would be a mistake to do so, however, since careful perusal of the exhibits reveals a complex and fascinating story. We learn how the colleges pioneered printing in Irish and played a crucial role in educating young gentlemen—like Daniel O’Connell in Paris—as well as priests, and we see how Irishmen rose to positions of prominence in armies across Europe, such as Francis Maurice Lacy, who became a field marshal in the Hapsburg service. A neglected aspect of the Irish contribution to Europe is the professional side: the Irish administrators, doctors and scientists who helped to reform and improve the societies in which they lived, like Ricardo Wall, who was the prime minister of Spain from 1754 until 1763. Irish merchants were active along the Atlantic coast, and some have left their legacy in the vineyards of France to this day.
While the exhibition naturally celebrates the role of the Irish on the Continent, one aspect that may be new to people is how Ireland and Irish culture at home was influenced. This is particularly true of the colleges, which sent back to Ireland young men (women were educated in convents) not only fired up with Counter-Reformation zeal but also bringing with them new ideas on poetry, politics and warfare. One problem encountered in the colleges was that, after years of exile or of being raised abroad, many had lost the Irish language, and so the colleges organised Irish classes, printed books and published the first Irish-language dictionaries, all of which were to have a lasting influence on the language through the centuries.
This may all sound like hard work as there is a lot of reading involved, but there is a fun side to this exhibition too. An interactive touch-screen allows you to examine books on the genealogy of Wild Geese families, virtually turning the pages and using a ‘magnifying glass’ to examine the writing up close, while a dialogue box translates the text for you. This is a sophisticated piece of equipment that is the next best thing to handling the books themselves. There are also computer terminals where at the click of a mouse you can find out more about the Irish people who fought, taught and traded in Europe, even to the extent of looking up individual names on the databases.
The exhibition concentrates on men, on the success stories and on prominent people drawn from the aristocracy, merchant class or clerical hierarchy. I suppose we must accept that this is because these are the people who have left us portraits, records, books and so on. The presence of women in the exhibition is sparse. We are reminded that Irish soldiers and merchants brought their families with them, and that women were a part of the Irish community abroad. The two women featured are extreme opposites. One is an abbess, Lady Joseph Butler. The other is Marie-Louise O’Murphy (featured in HI 14.1, Jan./Feb. 2006), who was a mistress of Louis XV of France and a model for the artist François Boucher. We learn a lot about her and, sitting on a chaise longue beneath her nude portrait as the ‘Resting Girl’, we can watch an excellent documentary on the Irish in Europe originally broadcast on TG4.
The National Library of Ireland has put a lot of work into this exhibition and has produced a catalogue that is worth collecting in its own right. Items, such as books and paintings, have been gathered from far and wide, while the latest in high-tech gadgetry enhances the visitor experience. It is certainly good to look at and very interesting. Although it is in a relatively small room, I spent over an hour going through it (not counting watching the documentary). Despite the apparent ambition of the project, however, I felt that there could have been more. The information supplied and the objects on display are only a fraction of what could have been included. It is just a pity that the National Library of Ireland does not have even more space to do as much justice to this subject as it has done to others, such as the Yeats exhibition currently in the main library.

Tony Canavan is a former Museum Officer of Newry and Mourne District Council.


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