National Museums of Ireland

Exploring Irish (pre-) history at the National Museum in Kildare Street
Exploring Irish (pre-) history at the National Museum in Kildare Street.

Bernd Biege

The National Museums of Ireland are, for the most part, located in Dublin. Three can be found in the heart of Dublin, while one lies further afield in County Mayo. All four of the museums offer collections that should be considered for your Ireland itinerary. Though certain museums will be most appealing to visitors with specific tastes and interests, obviously. Best of all? Entrance to the National Museums of Ireland is free.

Here is other basic information you need to know.

National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

Upon entering the National Museum in Kildare Street you will be struck by the grand cupola in the entrance hall. The building itself is an attraction but the treasures contained within are priceless. The combination of the two makes it one of the best museums in Dublin.

You will be confronted immediately with sparkling gold. The impressive amount of precious gold dates from prehistoric times and was buried or hidden for ages. The rich ornamentation and subtle craftsmanship has to be seen to be believed. Most visitors will, however, turn right and enter the treasure chamber. Celtic and early medieval artifacts are on display, several of them having gained an iconic status. The Tara Brooch, shrines, croziers and other church paraphernalia are covered with unbelievably detailed ornaments. Hidden away in a corner the rougher Sheila-na-Gig glares in contrast.

One of the newest exhibitions is "Kingship & Sacrifice", a presentation focusing on four bog bodies of uncertain origin, including iconic Clonycavan Man. Better preserved than Egyptian mummies, these prehistoric noblemen were found during peat harvesting - one actually became part of the harvest from his waist down. This is the nearest you will ever come to face Celtic men from the Bronze Age. Thoughtfully arranged with moody lighting, the exhibition explores the (possible) reasons why these men ended up dead in a bog.

Also recently overhauled for the anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf was the splendid exhibition on Viking life in Ireland.

Address: Kildare Street, Dublin 2

National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History

Upon entering the massive Collins Barracks courtyard, keep an eye out for the museum entrance on the left-hand side. From here you have access to four floors of exhibitions - ranging from Irish Country Furniture to coins, from silverware to clothing and old scientific instruments. This eclectic mix feels a bit like getting a glimpse into the Aladdin's Cave of storage, where you will find even Samurai armor.

There are noteworthy exhibitions on the Easter Rising period, definitely thought-provoking and lacking blatant, uncritical hero-worship, and on Ireland's military history in general. Some of the more interesting pieces explore the "Wild Geese" and UN service, including a rare Landsverk tank, armored cars, planes and weapons used by the warring Lebanese and Palestinian factions.

A parking lot is available, but the easiest access is by using the LUAS tram.

Address: Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7

National Museum of Ireland - Natural History

The ground floor of the Natural History Museum, also affectionately called "the Dead Zoo" has a comprehensive display of Irish wildlife, from the skeleton of the extinct giant Irish deer to the rabbits introduced by the Normans. The other floors are devoted to international fauna, jumping between continents rather than sticking to native Irish wildlife. You will see elephants, a rare Tasmanian Tiger and a polar bear shot by Irish explorer Leopold McClintock.

Most of the mammals and birds are preserved through taxidermy in the Victorian style. This makes for some truly creepy looking creatures due to the simple process followed. A sizeable number of exhibits bear little more than a passing resemblance to the living animal. Add the fact that time, sunlight and insects have taken their toll on several specimens. The fish and other animals preserved in alcohol lend the museum a certain sideshow feeling with their ghostly pallor.

That said I have to say that some displays are fascinating, such as the family groups done by Williams and Son for instance, or the huge basking shark and moonfish caught in Irish waters. And the huge number of glass animals designed by the Blaschka family from Leipzig deserves a good look too.

Address: Merrion Street, Dublin 2

National Museum of Ireland - Country Life

This museum focusing on the rural aspects of life in Ireland has a host of interactive displays and screens, including actual video footage of traditions that are in danger of becoming a distant memory. Also featured are traditional crafts like harvest knots, wickerwork, spinning wheels, and artifacts from bygone days like boats, clothing, and all sorts of hand-operated machinery.

Address: Turlough Park, Castlebar, County Mayo