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A History of Ireland in 100 Objects by Fintan O'Toole (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 149-152 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0007

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In A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, Fintan O'Toole offers concise narratives not on the "100 most remarkable objects on the island," or "a representative sample of the great collections," but rather, on a series of objects "chosen simply for their ability to illuminate moments of change, development or crisis." O'Toole's primary argument for focusing on "things" to tell the history of Ireland is that things can be handled; reckoning their size, shape, and heft allows viewers to share in the experience of those who created or possessed them. As a museum guide of sorts, then, the book is a stroke of genius. But for readers who are unable to make it to Ireland to see all one hundred, or even just some, of the items, the emphasis on things leaves the book version in a bit of an awkward position. In many cases, readers cannot gauge the size of these things, and O'Toole does not always give readers a good sense of their proportions. The mesolithic fish trap, item number one, for example, takes up the width of a single page and no measurements or informal frame of reference is included. The iPad app, however, includes a series of photographs showing archaeologists excavating fish trap examples in the field and preserving them in the lab. Given American readers' distance from the National Museum and other repositories of objects in Ireland, the iPad app is better than a mere substitute. Let us praise technology for drawing us closer together.

The narratives that accompany O'Toole's 100 Objects are, in the words of the late Seamus Heaney, who spoke on the book at its launch in March 2013, "informed, learned, entrancingly written." Historiographically speaking, they are perfectly unobjectionable—which is meant as higher praise than the tepid phrase suggests. It is no small feat to cover such an expanse of time in such detail and to have done so in such an engaging manner; O'Toole has created a book that sits squarely between the "coffee-table" genre and an introductory historical survey. For those who have strolled through museums in Dublin and elsewhere throughout the island, there are familiar sights: the impossibly delicate gold Broighter Boat; the extravagantly decorated Book of Kells; the armlet encircling Croghan Man's leathery arm; a creased ticket to the launch of the Titanic. The less familiar sights offer more cause for delight. A "nonconformist chair" designed by Modernist Eileen Gray, for example, is used to illustrate Ireland's reluctance to take on a pan-European identity.

All history is a matter of selective argument, but the list format highlights the sometimes ruthless and always arguable nature of selection. O'Toole includes a caveat that he must have left out some "most remarkable" objects to illuminate ostensibly more significant themes or moments of development. He identifies the primary characteristics of Irish culture as "concentrated, distinctive and small," but leaves the reader to deduce the meaning of Irish history. For the most part, O'Toole tells a familiar story with his selections. Items affiliated with Christianity are well represented, constituting nearly a quarter of the 100 Objects. This is to be expected in a country so deeply defined by its relationship with the church, though it reveals a drawback of focusing on objects: any history that relies on objects must, in large part, rely on those that were deemed valuable enough to preserve. In order to prevent narratives from skewing too far toward the genealogy of well-to-do families and the politically powerful, O'Toole must sometimes use the objects as a jumping-off point rather than a central figure. In other words, the objects in question do not always enhance the history being illuminated. It is easy to lose track of chalices, for example: one to illuminate Catholic identity just before the 1641 Rebellion, another to illuminate fifteenth-century cultural blending between Anglo-Norman and Gaelic families, and another to illustrate the eighth-century "golden age of Irish Christianity." To an untrained eye, a chalice is a chalice is a chalice, and one rarely does much more than the other to tell a story about religion in Ireland...



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