Museum Eye: National Maritime Museum of Ireland

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Haigh Terrace, Dún Laoghaire,
+353 (0)1 243964/2800969
by Tony Canavan


The National Maritime Museum of Ireland is situated in the former Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire. The church was built in 1837 and became a museum in 1974 under the auspices of the Maritime Institute of Ireland. Given the fact that Ireland is an island and the sea has played a major part in its history, it is a modest effort. Recently the government provided funding to refurbish the museum, and it reopened to the public in April 2012 with the exhibits rearranged and housed in purpose-built display cabinets, along with large information panels, a small café and so on. The museum has made the best of its opportunities and has deservedly won Irish and international awards.
You enter the museum through the gift shop, another innovation, into the body of the church. There has been no attempt to disguise the ecclesiastical character of the building, which is fitting given its history, and it is worthwhile reading the memorial plaques on the walls and admiring the architectural fixtures and fittings that remain. The overall layout is simple: the nave of the church forms the main exhibition area, with the balcony above providing additional exhibition space. There is nothing in the way of the latest technology, but signs and large information panels guide and inform the visitor. As well as these, there are models of ships and manikins wearing costumes or equipment. The artefacts themselves are organised thematically, so that items to do with the RNLI are all together in one place, exhibits related to Captain Robert Halpin in another, a display on the Titanic in one corner and so on. The exhibits are interactive to a degree in that the visitor can try out certain things or switch equipment on or off, for example. The most tempting thing in this area is the foghorn, which you are invited to crank up.

A huge optic, from the Bailey lighthouse off the coast near Howth, is situated where the altar used to be and dominates the nave.

A huge optic, from the Bailey lighthouse off the coast near Howth, is situated where the altar used to be and dominates the nave.

Dominating the nave and situated where the altar used to be is a huge lamp from the Bailey lighthouse off the coast near Howth. This is an impressive structure made of glass and brass. It conveys well the scale of the actual lighthouse and reminds us how important these are as a navigational aid to shipping. The lighthouses themselves may soon be museum pieces, as today’s mariners put their faith in GPS tracking and modern technology rather than ancient navigational tools like the light and the foghorn.

Going from case to case, a bygone era is evoked with every exhibit. Almost everything on pre-modern ships was made of brass, glass and wood, which, while practical at the time, also lend an air of elegance, even beauty, to everyday objects from a spittoon to a sextant. Models of ships like the Innisfallen, Munster and Leinster reveal a similar elegance in their design, whether they relied on sail or steam. The Leinster was sunk in 1918 by a German U-boat and was one of many ships that sank for various reasons around the Irish coast. The RNLI exhibits relate this aspect of our maritime history alongside the items salvaged from sunken ships, like the Leinster’s portholes or the figurehead from the PS Victoria, depicting the young English queen herself. That ship sank in 1853 with the loss of 80 lives.
There are some actual sailing vessels in the museum as well. These are not very big, as may be imagined, but the currach represents an Irish maritime tradition, while the Water Way is one of the oldest purpose-designed sailing-dinghies in the world. Don’t forget to look up also to see the many flags hanging in the museum and the humorous sight of a large teddy bear sitting in a breeches buoy, a simple device used to transport personnel from one ship to another. Across the way is a rescue wagon originally used by the Greystones Cliff & Coast Rescue, a forerunner of the coastguard.

While at first glance the museum seems small, it is packed with objects, although not

A Dublin Bay ‘water wag’ (left), one of the oldest purpose-designed sailing-dinghies in the world, and a currach (right).

A Dublin Bay ‘water wag’ (left), one of the oldest purpose-designed sailing-dinghies in the world, and a currach (right).

overcrowded. It is impossible to describe everything, and the visitor could easily spend hours wandering from case to case looking at parts of engines, navigation equipment, photographs and paintings. Worth mentioning is the exhibit on Irish maritime casualties in World War II, when many lives were lost as ships were attacked in violation of Irish neutrality. The items belonging to Captain Halpin are worth lingering over too. He was the captain of the Great Eastern, Brunel’s great folly, which laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. As well as his uniform, you can see his sea chest and charts used for laying the cable.

Halpin was a great Irish mariner and that theme is continued upstairs, where the balcony is also utilised to display objects. Here there is a section on great Irish mariners, featuring Gráinne Mhaol, John Holland, inventor of the submarine, Commodore John Barry, Bernardo O’Higgins, liberator of Chile and founder of its navy, and Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort, who invented the wind scale named after him. Here, too, are items from the Titanic, a reconstructed radio room of a modern ship, an informative history of modern Irish shipping using models of significant ships, a display on marine wildlife and much more. After walking through all that you’ll be glad of a cuppa in the little café.
While this may be a modest effort at celebrating our maritime heritage, the museum does an excellent job. It has made the best use of its space and its resources to show off the artefacts in the best light. The history may be serious but the museum is lively and interesting. Children will find much to interest them, and they can even have their photograph taken as a pirate. Handy to get to from Dublin on the DART, the National Maritime Museum is well worth a visit. HI


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