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Medieval Ireland 1150-1550

Discover Medieval Ireland, its farmers & nobles, churches, books, and art


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The exhibition contains three galleries entitled Power, Work and Prayer, reflecting the three-fold division of medieval society - nobles, common people and clergy.

The lifestyle of nobles is explored, while surviving arms and armour reflect the distinctive characteristics of warfare in medieval Ireland.

The exhibition looks at the different forms of agriculture (pastoral and arable), which were practiced. Finds from urban excavations illustrate Ireland’s import trade and the various crafts and industries operating in towns.

The Irish church changed fundamentally in the 12th Century, although many older church traditions survived. The exhibition also looks at religious practice and devotion as well as church furnishings, including a fine selection of late medieval reliquaries: book shrines, bell shrines and croziers.

Kavanagh Charter Horn

This exhibition focuses on the later Middle Ages in Ireland, a period that is defined effectively by two ecclesiastical processes – the Church reform movement of the mid 12th Century and the Reformation in the mid 16th Century. This is the period when the English invaded and partly colonised Ireland. The invasion resulted in the existence of two cultures on the island; each with its own language, laws, social system and agricultural practices, and out of which a hybrid Anglo-Irish culture developed during the later Middle Ages. In a wider context, much of the material on display illustrates lifestyles, trades and activities common to much of medieval Europe.

A contemporary view of medieval European society divided it into three categories – bellatores (those who fight), oratores (those who pray) and laboratores (those who work). While such a scheme clearly does not adequately describe the complexity of medieval Irish society, it provides a useful template for the exhibition, which is divided into three galleries, titled Power, Prayer and Work.

Power

Power deals with the nobility, both Irish and Anglo-Irish, who ruled medieval society in Ireland. Kingship and lordship in Irish and English cultures are examined, and the roles of music, poetry, games, hunting and hospitality in courtly life are highlighted. Jewellery and other items of personal adornment used by noble and affluent men and women are displayed, as are treasures associated with important aristocratic families. This includes the 11th-Century Breac Maodhóg shrine associated with the O’Reilly lords of East Bréifne; the Kavanagh Charter Horn, a symbol of the Gaelic kingship of Leinster; and a 16th-Century book cover from Donabate, Co. Dublin, made from whalebone and bearing the coat of arms of the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond. There is also a fine display of late medieval swords and axes that highlights the unique characteristics of medieval Irish warfare.

Prayer

Prayer explores the dominant features of religious life during the Middle Ages in Ireland. It focuses, in particular, on the fundamental changes that took place in the organisational structure of the Church and the introduction of new monastic orders. Many practices of the older Church tradition survived, however, especially in areas outside English control, and this is strongly reflected in the important collection of shrines and reliquaries on display.

The exhibition features most of the surviving medieval Irish shrines and reliquaries, most of which are associated with Irish saints. These include a number of book shrines: the Domhnach Airgid, the Cathach, the Miosach and the Stowe Missal; and bell shrines: St Senan’s Bell and the Corp Naomh, as well as the shrine of St Patrick’s Tooth and the Mias Tighearnáin. The latter is a dish-shaped reliquary, perhaps made to hold a relic of St John the Baptist. Also on display are wooden statues from Fethard, Co. Tipperary, and Askeaton, Co. Limerick, and a magnificent 15th-Century embroidered cope from Waterford.

Work

Work focuses on secular, non-noble society, with particular emphasis on economic and social life. Separate sections deal with the agricultural practices of the countryside and with the life of towns, which became a widespread feature of the Irish landscape for the first time in this period. A large part of the gallery is devoted to the tools and products of medieval crafts and trades, both urban and rural, drawing largely on material that has come to light as a result of recent archaeological excavations. Among the highlights of this gallery are a large metal basin from Geashill, Co. Offaly. Other notable exhibits include: part of one of the earliest spectacle frames in northern Europe; a striking display of medieval pottery; a reconstructed section of a 14th-Century tiled floor; and an inscribed oak beam from a late 16th-Century house in Drogheda, Co. Louth.