The artefacts in National Museums NI collection from this era reflect this growing wealth. Silverware, pottery, and jewellery speak to a new opulence. Pieces of regalia of the Order of St. Patrick, a dormant order of chivalry once as exalted as the Order of the Garter, are part of this collection.
Growing wealth was accompanied by growing inequality. New laws were passed to suppress the Catholic population, and subtle forms of resistance emerged. One such was the production of ‘penal crosses’, made at the pilgrimage site of Lough Derg, County Donegal, and there are several in our collection. Beggar’s badges, worn by beggars to show where they could ask for alms, was one way that the authorities tried to manage the poor population.
The 18th century was also the Age of Sail. European powers vied for control of the sea lanes, distant colonies, and the spoils of empire. The collection includes items representing the influence of international expansion, trade, and exploration. We hold artefacts from Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific.
Eventually the calm that had prevailed over the Irish political scene broke. The late 18th century witnessed the American and French Revolutions, encouraging radical thought. Many in Ireland demanded reform, while other stoked sectarian resentment. This tinderbox exploded with the United Irishman’s rebellion in 1798. It was eventually crushed, and the Act of Union was passed in its aftermath, tying Ireland ever more tightly to Great Britain.
Our collection includes military uniforms, weapons, and personal belongings of significant figures involved in this struggle. The sword and coat of Henry Joy McCracken, industrialist and revolutionary, are on display, as is the death mask of agitator and organiser, James Hope.
James II, defeated by William of Orange’s armies, fled Kinsale in 1690. William of Orange was secure on the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the longest period of peace in modern Irish history followed. With political stability came rising prosperity, an enriched cultural life, and an appetite for new ideas.