herald

Thursday 17 August 2017

We Irish take our treasures for granted and say, 'Ah sure it's only the Ardagh Chalice'

Keeper of Antiquities Eamonn Kelly has excavated sites in every county, he tells Eimear Rabbitte

Eamonn with the Cong Cross at the museum. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Eamonn with the Cong Cross at the museum. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

MUMMIES, golden treasure and religious symbols are all in a day's work for Eamonn Kelly.

Dealing with 4,000-year-old human remains, cataloguing the world-famous Ardagh Chalice and digging for Bronze Age gold is as far removed from reality as most of us could get.

But, says Dublin native Kelly, it's the history that made modern Ireland.

As the Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland on Dublin's Kildare Street for more than 25 years, he has excavated sites in every county in Ireland.

The 64-year-old, who began his love affair with historical artefacts as a 12-year-old excavating for old pennies, quickly rose up the ranks after studying archaeology in UCD and joined the National Museum as an assistant keeper in 1975.

Next year he retires after nearly 40 years of service and is looking forward to living the quiet country life on his farm in Connemara, with his wife and four children.

 

Remains

When I meet him in the bustling museum, it's clear his love of historical artefacts will remain long after he walks out of his spacious office.

"The concept of keepership is very important," he says, while showing me around the museum's Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition.

This includes the leather-like form of Cashel Man, the remains of a young man, discovered in Laois in 2011, who was killed in human sacrifice around 4,000 years ago and is now the oldest bog body in Europe.

"You have to ensure that your key collections are looked after and documented, then catalogued and digitised so that they are available on the archives.

"I've had communications with various families who have connections to the artefacts. An American woman came in here once and said, 'I want to see our shrine'."

Mr Kelly is currently undertaking a series of research projects that he hopes to finish before his retirement.

He is regularly called out to sites when a find is made.

"I am one of the few archaeologists who has found an ancient gold object," said Mr Kelly who was delighted to discover a late Bronze Age ear ornament in Co Wexford 20 years ago.

He says discovering an important historical artefact is the most exciting aspect of his work and the museum rewards members of the public for their discoveries to encourage them to come forward. "We are due a big find. Our last one was a batch of gold coins a few months ago; I feel that we will get one very soon – they usually come in cycles.

"All objects of that nature found in Ireland are State property so people are paid a reward.

"The last big reward was €50,000, but that was by no means the biggest we've ever paid out."

With more than two million artefacts – including the Medieval Cong cross, which once contained a part of the crucifixion cross – housed in the building, the free entry museum is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country.

 

Privilege

Regularly voted among the top 100 museums in the world, Mr Kelly says that we need to take more advantage of our Irish heritage and the quality of artefacts that we have produced since medieval times.

"It's an incredible privilege to work on a collection of such huge international recognition.

"We've had exhibitions in all the great museums, the Metropolitan in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and as far afield as Australia and Japan.

"People outside Ireland have a real sense of importance of Irish heritage objects.

"I think Irish people take them for granted and say 'Ah sure it's only the Ardagh Chalice'.

"People perhaps don't appreciate just how important these treasures are, but of course it's up to the museum to promote these objects and make them available to people."

Despite being born and raised in Firhouse, near Tallaght, Eamonn enjoyed a country living growing up surrounded by woods and farmland. This enjoyment has survived until today and he divides his time between Dublin city centre and the Gaeltacht region of Galway, where his wife and children raise Connemara ponies.

Eamonn had been living a bachelor lifestyle in Dublin's Liberties before meeting his wife, Erin Gibbons, 20 years ago, who is also an archaeologist.

The couple now have four children – Olwen (16), Macdara (14), Rosa (9), and Fiona (4), all of whom live and study through Irish.

While he is looking forward to retirement and spending more time with his family, Mr Kelly has grave concerns about the impact of the recession on the quality of the work that the museum continues to do.

"I'm leaving the National Museum at a time when we're losing staff, so it's a real challenge for us to continue to deliver the level of service," Mr Kelly told the Herald.

 

Collection

"Last year we lost our international expert on coins; you can't just replace somebody like that overnight: you have to build up the expertise.

"We have all built up expertise in certain parts of the collection and it's so important to pass that information on to the next generation, but there is no generation coming in behind us because of the recession. It is worrying."

hnews@herald.ie

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