Earlier this year The Mariner’s Church in Dún Laoghaire, which houses the National Maritime Museum, re-opened after undergoing extensive restoration work. The Maritime Institute of Ireland operates the museum as part of its mission to promote an appreciation of Ireland’s maritime heritage. The Institute took over The Mariners Church for its collection in 1974 for a peppercorn rent, after the church closed for worship in 1972. The then President, Dr Patrick Hillery officially opened the museum in 1978. The historic church (dating from 1837) closed in 2005 for work on the roof, re-plastering, fitting of new lighting and restoration of the stained glass windows. The Institute finally was able to purchase the building outright in 2008.
It has been a long painstaking process to both restore the fabric of the church and then to re- display the National Maritime collection. As part of the work, a new layout incorporates additional visitor facilities into the building. The museum is wheelchair accessible and toilets, a gift shop and a cafe were also added as well as the inevitable Wi-Fi hotspot. However, the work is not yet over, as more funding will be required to complete the Institute’s plans for the future (see website). The President, Michael D Higgins performed the official opening ceremony on June 5th but the museum actually opened its doors to the public in April.
The exhibits cover different aspects of maritime history, though there is no suggested route around the museum. I found myself wandering haphazardly from one piece to another, so perhaps a guided route map would be a useful idea for the museum to consider. One of the highlights of the museum is the Baily Optic, which is an original lighthouse beacon lamp from Howth Head. It forms a fantastic centrepiece sited in front of the beautiful stained glass triple windows. As it rotates, the lens casts beams of coloured light reflected from the stained glass. The lens was operational in Howth Head Lighthouse from 1902-72 before being donated to the Maritime Institute’s collection.
Not surprisingly perhaps one of the most interesting sections relates to the history of the lifeboats and the heroic efforts of lifeboat crews down the years. On display are commemorative plaques recording the names of the earliest RNLI lifeboats in Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown as it was then) in 1862 (The Princess Royal) and 1879 (Hector). The exhibition reminds us just how much sailors and sea going passengers owed the courageous lifeboat volunteers. In 1895, tragically all fifteen members of the lifeboat crew were lost in going to the aid of a sailing ship called the Palme. A walk along the harbour will bring you to a memorial listing the names of the crewmembers lost in the heroic rescue attempt.
There are so many fascinating items to see that I ended up with a long scribbled list. I particularly liked an old wooden filing cabinet, which belonged to John Richardson Wigham, (1829-1906) a lighthouse engineer based in Dublin. The ninety-six drawers retain most of the labels showing where Wigham’s customers were located. He supplied lighthouses as far afield as Melbourne, Bombay (Mumbai) and the Cayman Islands and as close to home as Hull and Liverpool. Wigham obviously managed to keep the world’s lighthouses supplied without the aid of a computerised filing system!
This is only a snapshot of what the museum has to offer so next time you are in the area, stop by and take a crash course in maritime history. For further information, the website is www.mariner.ie