At the steps of the Royal Irish Academy founded in 1785 ‘to promote the study of science, polite literature and antiquities’, the start of our walking tour for Colm Cille – The Object. Enter a hushed library with dark wood book casements and galleries above, green lamps hanging low over tables above the heads of readers. It’s reverential, a true repository of knowledge.

Royal Irish Academy

The cathach or ‘battle book’, one of Ireland’s most rare objects containing examples of some of the earliest Gaelic writing, has been brought out for display specially for the four walking tours. All that remains of the psalter, allegedly written by Colm Cille (although more likely a later origin) copied from Biblical texts of the period, are the remnants of its pages, torn and browned at the edges, mounted in a modern binding. I can’t take a photo. Cathach means ‘war’ in Irish – the book was taken into battle, a talismanic weapon that ensured victory, which also had other powers – when dipped in a pond the water was made save for cattle to drink from.

The cathach was traditionally kept in a gold and silver shrine, elaborately decorated – now on display next to a crozier at the National Museum. I peer into the glass, listening to our excellent guide from Trinity College. I try to imagine the shrine not in a modern museum vitrine, but slung around the neck of a holy man, leading the clan into battle through mud and gore.

Trinity College Book of Kells ent

And to the Book of Kells at Trinity College, I strain my eyes drilling into the intricacy of the design, and wonder at the author’s hand, the colours made from natural pigments still vivid after the passing of centuries. Its origin is still not clear, it may have been written at the monastery on Iona, then, when Iona was under attack by Vikings, brought to Kells where monks from Iona founded a new monastery.

At Chester Beatty library there are tiny fragments of pages from scriptures originating in the Middle East – evidence of early millennium trading, cultural and religious networks that linked Ireland, the Mediterranean shores and the Levant, mostly by sea routes. International exchange of knowledge and ideas was very much alive in these times, but it just took more time.

Marsh’s Library was built in the age of Enlightenment in a predominantly working class part of Dublin to encourage wider access to books and learning. Inside are dark, high casements ranked full of books in wonderful aged bindings. Here, in a casement, is The Life of Colm Cille, produced in the 15th century, and on top of it, a triangular card label holder announcing, without ambiguity, the title of the project: Colm Cille – The Object. At the end of the passage between lines of book casements are the reading cells, cages in which the reader was locked to prevent books being stolen – which seemed a strange contradiction to the ethics of the Library.

Marsh's Library readers cage

A sense of Ireland’s history is emerging through these objects and finely preserved institutions, still more felt rather than known. We hear, in contrast, stories of landless farmers forced to the city, people living in wretched poverty, several families to each house. Echoes of British colonialism abound: we pass a wall below Dublin Castle, reputedly built for Queen Victoria when she visited to block her view of working class slums.

Tracy Hanna messages in light, some things change

Tracy Hanna, messages in light, Some Things End

Turning into an un-remarkable dead end street flanked by warehouses, a door lets us into the dark interior of The Chapter House at St Mary’s Abbey, all that remains of extensive abbey buildings beneath the ground. It is virtually pitch dark as we descend the steps from street level to the floor below. Perhaps 20 feet down, incredibly this was the ground level when the abbey was founded in the 12th century – we are passing down through the detritus of centuries. Here is Tracy Hanna’s installation, messages in light, Some Things End, layers of peat which emerge only gradually as eyes adjust to the dimness, a number of glass lenses on which flickering light of moving water is projected accompanied by the gurgling sound of water – an evocative and liberal imagination of the past and things hidden or forgotten, suggestions of preserved peat bog bodies, and the dank smell of peat. The lenses and points of light perhaps a means of looking into the past, through the darkness to another time.

Ben Eastop, 22 Nov 2013