Dublin is Ireland in miniature; nay, Dublin is Ireland in concentrated essence. All that makes Ireland great or miserable, magnificent or squalid, ideally revolutionary or hopelessly reactionary, grandly unselfish or vilely treacherous, is stronger and more pronounced in Dublin than elsewhere in Ireland.
So wrote James Connolly in the pages of Labour in Irish History. Undoubtedly the statement still rings true. With the closure of the Civic Museum on South William Street in 2003, which was once home to the head of Admiral Nelson alongside some other great Dublin gems, the city was left without a ‘City Museum’. There was talk of a new Civic Museum for the Wood Quay area, but that never came to life. In the end the Little Museum of Dublin spun up, seperate of the ‘City’ (with a capital c) on paper, but attempting to tell its story.
Opening in October of last year, its collection comes from items donated by Dubliners, which range from items of monumental political importance, like DeValera’s instructions to the Irish delegation in London during Treaty negotiations, to nostalgic items like a 7″ copy of Summer in Dublin . The ‘Little Museum’ starts at a time when Dublin is a British city hosting Royal visits, and ends with a look at Celtic Tiger Dublin. The huge political, economic and social changes to Dublin life in the period are all examined.
To its credit, the ‘Little Museum’ doesn’t appear to be in the business of shamrocks and shillelaghs. Indeed passing the small bookshop on the way in and noticing Diarmaid Ferriter’s Occasions of Sin study, which looked at sexual abuse in Ireland among other issues, and Darkest Dublin, which examined tenement life in the city, you see that this won’t be only a story of U2, the Rare Oul’ Times and the brewery on the Liffey.
On entering the small museum, my attention was immediately pulled to iconic images of Dublin tenement life. The inclusion of this aspect of the history of the city has to be welcomed, and one can’t help but remember the contrast between the lives of those small children on the walls before us and the sort of people who resided where the museum is today, at Stephen’s Green, in a prosperous corner of Dublin. Along with tenement life, the Easter Rising features early on, with Harry Kernoff’s iconic image of James Connolly, which ran as the front page of the left-wing Republican Congress newspaper in the 1930′s, grabbing the attention of the visitor.
If the museum is lacking anywhere, it is in terms of information. There is an awful lot upon the walls to take in, some of it too high up to properly examine, but some of these items require explanation and deserve to be expanded upon. A 1913 Dublin tenement image, while shocking, would be all the more shocking alongside facts of tenement life. When I visited a tour was underway, but I browsed myself and listened in at times. The guide was knowledgeable, charming and a great ambassador for Dublin- but in ’29 minutes’ (the advertisement outside informs visitors the can learn the story of Dublin today in “29 minutes”) how much can she or any guide tell you? A great point made by a fiend who visited prior was that in such a museum, where there is no information with items but rather tours on offer, one is relying on the interpretation of the guide. Some information panels would greatly add to what is a strong museum.
The Little Museum deserves a lot of credit for attempting to tell the story of all different kinds of Dubliners, something embodied in the plaque of the Hirschfeld Centre, the gay community centre of Temple Bar in the 1970s, at a time homosexuality was still illegal on paper. There are many kinds of Dubliner, from men like Charles Haughey to the women of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, and they all feature on the walls. There is an effort to show movements as much as individual personas too, and that is welcome. The Little Museum also wisely shuns using too much in-your-face audio visual material, which makes it a winner in my books. The best museums the city has are those which place the emphasis on items themselves..
From an early Captain America’s menu to a fan letter from two young Ballyfermot girls to The Dubliners, there’s a lot to see here. Some items, not least those connected to the huge figures of 20th century Ireland, will make this a more than worthwhile visit for many visitors who just want the grand narrative of the city. Other items, like the prior mentioned Hirchcfeld Centre plaque and political leaflets of old, will make it stimulating for Dubliners interested in social history.
There remains a need for a ‘People’s History’ museum centered on the history of Dublin’s workers and poor of course, but to see aspects of their story enter a museum centered on the broader narrative of 20th century Dublin is to be welcomed. They, the ordinary Dubliners, are every bit as important as the political leaders, and the Little Museum of Dublin is a welcome addition to the museums of the capital, not least for attempting to tell their stories too. I recommend a visit.
Little Museum of Dublin
15 St. Stephen’s Green
Open 7 days a week.