A Classicist in Dublin

Hibernia (and Albion), 1654. Not remotely classical or even relevant, except insofar as it’s about as accurate as Pliny’s description.

Dublin might not seem the obvious city for a Classical tour, since the Greeks and Romans never really made it as far as Ireland, and don’t seem to have known all that much about what they called Ἱέρνη/Hibernia. All Pliny the Elder (4.102-3) has to report about the island is its size (300 miles wide and 600 long, apparently; he’s only out by a couple hundred miles), though Strabo (4.201) has a bit more information: apparently the inhabitants of Ἱέρνη were savage incestuous cannibals. (Keen to avoid a libel suit, though, he’s quick to add that he doesn’t have any reliable sources for this, and anyway plenty of other peoples are said to practice cannibalism, at least during sieges). And, apart from a list of towns in Ptolemy’s Geography, that’s about it on Classical interaction with Ireland; Dublin itself was probably founded about 800 A.D. So why, I hear my readers ask, does a trip to Dublin merit inclusion on Res Gerendae?

Well, it turns out that there’s actually quite a lot of stuff in Dublin of interest to classicists. First stop on the tour: Trinity College Dublin. As well as the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts, TCD has a library that quite frankly puts the UL to shame.

Trinity College Dublin - the Long Room

Trinity College Dublin – the Long Room

(Though OK, I suspect they have an ugly 70s building somewhere where the actual work happens.) It also plays host to busts of a whole series of classical figures: here’s everyone’s old friend M. Tullius:

M. Tullius Cicero

M. Tullius Cicero, looking a bit bored by the whole thing

Not only that, but TCD have another building I think we need to persuade the Faculty to copy: a Postgraduate Reading Room built in the guise of a Temple of Nike. I’m sure working in a shrine to Victory would be extremely motivational for us all (though apparently it was intended as a war memorial rather than an inspiration to struggling PhD students).

TCD Postgrad Reading Room

TCD Postgrad Reading Room. Apologies for the blurriness; you may just be able to make out the inscription over the door reading ΝΙΚΗ

Continuing the tour of Dublin libraries, next on the list is the Chester Beatty Library,

Chester Beatty Library – the Atrium, with the (very nice) cafe. I recommend the baklava.

founded by Sir Arthur Chester Beatty, who made his fortune as a mining engineer and built up one of the most important collections of books and manuscripts anywhere in the world. Of most interest for Classicists are the papyri fragments, including a collection of ancient Egyptian love songs and the oldest known copies of the Gospels and St Paul’s letters, as well as Greco-Roman and Coptic documents and letters – but there are also amazing Islamic and East Asian collections. If you see one thing in Dublin, it definitely ought to be this library. (I couldn’t take pictures of the collections, so take a look at the online image gallery.)

If that isn’t enough libraries for you, though, then I highly recommend a visit to Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland, built in 1701 and basically unchanged ever since.

Marsh's Library

Marsh’s Library

You can still see the ‘cage’ rooms readers were locked in if they wanted to consult particularly rare or valuable books. (And you thought the UL’s West Room was bad…) Of course, it has a large Classical collection – at the time I visited there was a special exhibition of scientific books, including Pliny’s Natural History and an Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements (a nice reminder of the transmission of large amounts of ancient Greek science and philosophy to western Europe via Arabic scholarship).

 

Finally, our tour concludes with the National Museum of Archaeology, located in one wing of a splendidly over-the-top neoclassical building, Leinster House, which also houses the National Library and the Irish Parliament.

(Part of) Leinster House

(Part of) Leinster House

There’s not much by way of Classical collections (though the Egyptian room was nice, if small), but the Irish collections, from the Bronze and Iron Ages through to the Vikings and the medieval period, are understandably excellent. There’s plenty of nice shiny golden jewellery and so on (also plenty of Ogham and runic inscriptions, for the linguists), but what was really designed to leave any Classical archaeologist or Aegean prehistorian feeling distinctly envious of their Irish counterparts were the wooden artefacts – Bronze Age canoes, cauldrons, chariot wheels, shield moulds, all preserved thanks to Ireland’s peat bogs. Not to mention, of course, the Iron Age bog bodies and finds associated with them – including barrels full of ‘bog butter’, which are apparently pretty common finds – nor what must have been one of the oldest things in the whole museum, a wooden fish-trap, made of nothing but small sticks, dating back to the MESOLITHIC era. That’s about 5,000 B.C.E. If the fact that a seven-thousand-year-old wooden fish trap is on display isn’t enough to convince you a) that peat bogs are cool and b) that you should definitely go and visit this museum and the rest of Dublin, then I think I give up.

Oh, except one last thing – did I mention the weather? Dublin is gloriously sunny all year round, practically tropical in fact. The only reason we spent so much time in museums and libraries was because sunbathing and sitting in the park eating ice-cream gets boring after a while. We were laughing at everyone who spent Easter back in cold rainy England. So really, there’s no reason at all not to visit.*

*Editor’s note: this blog post contains one deliberate and bare-faced lie. See if you can spot it!

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2 Responses to A Classicist in Dublin

  1. Philip Boyes says:

    Tacitus’ Agricola Ch 24 has a bit to say about Ireland. Mainly about its strategic value and how its people are basically the same as the British.

    Nice article – it sounds like I should raise Dublin up my list of places to visit. Especially that museum.

    • AnnaJ says:

      So he does. “I have frequently heard him assert, that a single legion and a few auxiliaries would be sufficient entirely to conquer Ireland and keep it in subjection”. Funny he didn’t, then…

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