Collins Barracks

Dublin’s Wooden Saint

National Museum of Ireland - Collins Barracks
Permanent Exhibition - Curator's Choice

Ireland wants to be wood.

Clear the Irish from the land and in a few short centuries the whole of Dublin will disappear beneath a wooden canopy.

As it was in the beginning…

Pollen studies of undisturbed bogs indicate that the last glaciers receded about 10,500 years ago. From that point on, trees returned to Ireland. First came birch, then hazel and pine. Oak and Elm followed.

The characteristic tool of the first farmers were stone axes which were used to clear large swaths of the primeval forest. The National Museum – Kildare Street has several display cases filled with these indispensable tools.

From the first farming communities some 6,000 years ago, Ireland remained a patchwork quilt of clearings interspersed with bogs and forests, fens and mountains. Well into the 20th century, wood remained an indispensable resource. Endlessly malleable, it was sawn into planking, carved into churns and barrels, spoons and spokes, wagon wheels and posts.

It’s appropriate, then, that the most impressive statue in Dublin is carved from wood. There’s no great tradition of marble or stone sculpture in Ireland since the early medieval period. But wood was a material beloved of Irish artists and craftsmen.

Now ensconsed in the National Museum – Collins Barracks you will find Dublin’s sculptural masterpiece in “The Curator’s Choice” exhibit. It is a statue of Saint Molaise. The statue was found on a stone slab in the oldest church on Inishmurray Island off the coast of Sligo in the west of Ireland.

The artist has captured that “peace that passeth understanding” in the Saint’s features. Yet somehow the sculptor retained the strength and presence of the native oak.

In Ireland, even the saints want to be wood.

by Scott Simons