The first in our series of guided tours through Ireland's regional museums
The Hunt Museum is in what was formerly the Limerick Customs House. Built in the Palladian style in 1765, it was designed by an engineer of Italian origin, Davis Dukart. By comparison with many, the Hunt Museum is small. It contains just over 2000 pieces that comprised the personal collection of John and Gertrude Hunt. John was born in England in 1900, and Gertrude in Germany in 1901. Following graduation in the early 1920s, John established an antique business in London and very quickly won recognition for his expertise in medieval decorative art. Gertrude was familiar with medieval art, having grown up surrounded by it. Like John, she recognised good decorative art with unusual intuition.
Just before WWII, the Hunts moved to Ireland. They brought their growing collection with them, settling near Lough Gur, in Co. Limerick. There, John became involved with the excavations being undertaken by Prof. Sean P. O'Riordan. The Hunts maintained their abiding interest in antiquities for the rest of their lives. Their home was open to all and they loved visits by neighbours who enjoyed passing the time of day while having a look at the artifacts. Although they were well aware of the importance and value of their collection, the Hunts used many pieces on a daily basis. Dinner guests were served wine from an Etruscan vessel dating from the 5th century B.C. Gertrude used a 5000-year-old Egyptian alabaster vase for her cut flowers, and an early Picasso decorated the kitchen wall.
John's expertise, especially in medieval decorative art, drew commissions from large museums and private collectors who sought his advice regarding additions to their collections. It also attracted the attention of young researchers including Jorgen Andersen and Peter Harbison. Andersen, who published the definitive treatise on Sheela-na-gigs in 1976, received much encouragement from John. Hunt even provided Andersen with a picture of the Caherelly Castle Sheela-na-gig which was used on the cover of his book, The Witch on the Wall. The Caherelly Sheela is now on display in the Hunt museum. Peter Harbison has very fond memories of the Hunts. As a young, recently graduated archaeologist, he spent quite some time cataloguing their collection.
The Hunts and their children, John and Trudy, were very anxious that the collection should remain intact for the benefit of future generations. Their wish was realized when the Hunt Museum opened its doors to the public on 14 February 1997. Artifacts in the collection range in date from the Neolithic to the 20th century. Many Irish pieces spanning the same time period are on display, providing a fascinating walk through Irish cultural development from pre-historic to modern times.
Some include the name of the finder too: "Tom Barry of Kyle townland, at Raheen, Herbertstown, making a fence over edge of bog," Another was apparently found by John Hunt himself on the "Lake Shore, John Hunt's haggard, Lough Gur." The Neolithic is also represented in the collection by a variety of other stone artefacts including arrowheads, sickles, scrapers, spearheads and maces.
Among the most spectacular Irish Bronze Age pieces are a shield, cauldron, and bucket or situla. Although the exact find-spot for the shield is unknown, there is evidence to suggest it came from Co. Antrim. The cauldron and bucket are known to have been found in bogs in Co. Antrim in the 1880s. All three, which date from 700 - 650 B.C., were originally owned by a 19th century Belfast collector, T.W.U. Robinson, until he sold them at auction to the Pitt-Rivers collection in Dorset. John Hunt was determined that all three should be repatriated to Ireland, and eventually acquired them in the early 1960s.
The shield is of the Yetholm type, named after a place in Scotland where several shields of this variety were found in what may have been a ritual site. It has a diameter of 64 cm. and is made from a single sheet of bronze approximately 0.5 mm in thickness. The central umbo is surrounded by 11 raised rings, between which are circles of raised bosses, made by hammering out (repoussé) from the back of the shield. This shield would never have been used in battle because it is too flimsy to have withstood a blow. It was most likely used for some ceremonial or ritual purpose about which we can only speculate.
The bucket was found in Capecastle Bog, near Armoy, Co. Antrim. It measures 47 x 35 cms. Made from sheet bronze, it is of a heavier gauge than the shield. An unusual, if not unique, feature is the repoussé decoration around the shoulder. The two handles are held in place by bronze strips riveted to the rim. Evidence of contemporary repair is seen in a number of patches riveted to the body. It is not clear if the lower section was part of the original design or was added later.
The cauldron (not shown) was also found in a Co. Antrim bog. Having the pot-bellied shape typical of cauldrons, it measures approximately 50 cm. in height with a similar diameter. It is made from five bronze sheets riveted together using conical-headed rivets. Like the bucket, two handles are attached to the rim and, since it is round-bottomed, it was probably suspended by the handles when in use. However, as with the shield, the bronze sheets from which it was manufactured are only about 0.5 mm. thick. It seems unlikely that the handles could support the weight of the cauldron and its contents if it were filled to capacity. It is possible that, as with the shield, it was used for ceremonial purposes only.Artifacts like these are too large to lose accidentally, thus it seems likely that all three were deliberately deposited in what, at the time, were shallow lakes. Evidently of immense importance to the community at the time, today we can only speculate as to the purposes for their deposition. Whatever the reasons, they must have been very serious!
Although the museum has a very respectable collection of bracelets, torcs, pins, and fibulae from the Iron Age, only a few pieces can be identified positively as Irish. Among these are the enigmatic "Y-shaped objects." So-called for want of a better term, their precise use remains a mystery.
Found only in Ireland, it seems likely they had something to do with horses because associated finds, when they occur, are readily identifiable as horse-trappings. We still haven't been able to discover their exact purpose but, since ornamentation is minimal, it seems probable they had a functional rather than decorative use. The illustration shows one of three intact Y-shaped objects in the collection. The other two have some ornamentation at each terminal, but the basic design, illustrated here, shows that each terminal is pierced and notched.
Early Christian period
The early Irish Christian period is represented by penannular brooches, ring pins, decorated spindle-whorls, a fragment of a quern-stone, and even a peg carved from bone, supposedly from a cláirseach (Irish harp). Probably the most important piece is the Antrim Cross, found in the River Bann in the 19th century.
Late Medieval period
An entire floor of the museum is devoted to late medieval European religious art, dating from the 11th - 18th centuries. Despite the political changes taking place in Ireland during the period, decorative art was not neglected. Some fine examples of Irish work were collected by the Hunts, including a very ornate 16th century monstrance and some altar or processional crosses.
Although not part of the Hunt collection, the museum hosts the best surviving example of early 15th century Irish metalwork. The O'Dea Crosier, made for a Limerick bishop in 1418, is an example of the exquisite workmanship that produced the Cross of Cong and reliquary shrines during the 12th century. Although made 250 years later, the crosier demonstrates that skills had not been lost in the intervening period. More information, as well as photographs of the crosier, is available at http://www.limerickdiocese.org/history/ode-cro.htm
The Hunt collection contains several pieces of decorative religious art from the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the most important is the Galway Chalice, so-called because the maker's mark, 'EG,' is the same as that on the Galway Corporation Sword, the symbol of office of Galway City. The chalice dates from c.1635 when it would have been used by a priest as a traveling chalice on house visits to the sick. It unscrews into three components that fit into each other, making a compact unit that is easy to carry. On the base of the chalice is an engraved depiction of the crucified Christ. The significance of other marks has yet to be established.
19th and 20th centuries
The Hunts' main interest was in ancient and medieval art, but it didn't stop there. They appreciated and sought all forms of art that demonstrated skill, craftsmanship and artistic excellence, even when such art was not in vogue at the time. Picasso has already been mentioned, but their collection also contains works by Bernardo Daddi, Henry Moore, Sir William Orpen, Giacometti and Jack B. Yeats. Unlike Jack, his brother, William Butler Yeats, became famous relatively early in life. His poetry and plays are renowned throughout the world.
With encouragement from Lady Gregory, he was one of the major contributors to a revival of interest in Celtic mythology, albeit in a highly romanticised and sanitised form. This literary renaissance provided inspiration for Irish artists, many of whom made replicas of ancient Irish artifacts. Two such pieces, dating from the late 19th century, are in the Hunt Museum. One is a replica of the 8th century Ardagh Chalice, and the other is based on the design of a 9th century Hiberno-Viking penannular thistle brooch. The originals are in the National Museum in Dublin.
The excellence of many artists is, sadly, often not fully appreciated until after their deaths. Such was the case with Jack B. Yeats. His most prolific period was in the 1940s, but his works have become 'collectable' only in the last 25 years or so. It is a tribute to the Hunt's foresight and recognition of his skills that they purchased two Yeats paintings in the 1940s while he was still relatively unrecognized. Atlantic Drive depicts a group in a jaunting car on a coast road, while The Master of Ceremonies captures the pomp and circumstance of the MC announcing the next competitors in a boxing match (Figure 11). Both are based on sketches made by Yeats when he lived in Sligo during the 1930s.
Although this article is devoted to Irish pieces in the collection, the Hunt museum houses many artifacts from other parts of Europe and elsewhere that would be of interest to scholars and enthusiasts alike. One of the most important is a model of a rearing horse from the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci. Others include a reliquary cross owned by Mary, Queen of Scots, a huge emerald that was the personal seal of Charles I of England, and a Greek coin reputed to be one of the 30 Pieces of Silver paid to Judas for the betrayal of Christ.
Hunt Museum, Rutland Street,
© Shae Clancy MMII
Shae Clancy is a docent researcher with the Hunt Museum