Down to Earth – Exploring Ireland’s Geology

Written by Roy Starkey, Mineralogist and Author

Image © Roy Starkey.

Down to Earth – Exploring Ireland‘s Geology is a new permanent exhibition which opened at the Collins Barracks site in September 2021. I was last in Dublin for the GCG AGM in November 2017. On that occasion we were able to visit the Natural History Museum (affectionately known as the ‘Dead Zoo’), and also spent some time at the Collections Resource Centre at Swords looking through the mineral collection.

In May and June of this year (2022) I spent two weeks touring Ireland on a trip originally planned as part of the research for my recently published book Making it Mine – Sir Arthur Russell and his Mineral Collection, but which had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our itinerary saw us arriving at Rosslare (Co. Wexford), driving along the south coast and then following the dramatic coastal route marketed as The Wild Atlantic Way as far north as Westport (Co. Mayo) before cutting across for a couple of days in Dublin. We had arranged to meet up with recently appointed Curator of Geology, Patrick Roycroft, who has taken over the role formerly occupied by the late Matthew Parkes, and managed to squeeze in a short visit to Down To Earth at the Riding School in Collins Barracks (Dublin City) to see the new exhibition.

I was not sure what to expect from a new exhibition, which is aimed at the general public, but was pleasantly surprised at what we found. The exhibition occupies a single large gallery easily accessed immediately off the reception hall of the Museum. The visitor is greeted by a large geological map of Ireland which is laid out on the floor of the gallery with a number of large rock specimens arranged around its perimeter. The floor map is designed to be walked on but was in good clean condition at the time of our visit.

Image © Roy Starkey.

As is common practice nowadays, the gallery is in semi-darkness, with illumination provided at case level and with spotlighting directed at graphics on the walls. A number of cases contain physical exhibits, maps, instruments, geological objects, mineral specimens, etc., and these are augmented by other special displays, such as a mock-up of a survey ship’s bridge, a topographic diorama of a karst region, metals, and ores, to name but a few.

The exhibition covers a great breadth of material and subject areas, neatly combining displays celebrating the history of Geological Survey Ireland with current themes embracing such topics of concern as natural resources, recycling and waste disposal, critical metals, and the importance of geology, to planning and the built environment. And, of course, climate change.

The first major display panel introduces the concept that Ireland has been 1.75 billion years in the making, and following panels provide an overview of the history of Geological Survey Ireland (formerly “the Geological Survey of Ireland”), founded in 1845. A small display pays tribute to the importance of the work of early fossil and mineral collectors, including Nathanael Leske and Sir Charles Giesecke, and the collections of the Royal Dublin Society.

The work of the early geological surveyors is reviewed, together with examples of the equipment that they used, and one of the most striking exhibits shows how a slab of limestone was coated with wax and then inscribed and acid-etched, rather like the process for the manufacture of semi-conductor wafers in modern day electronics, to produce a printing plate from which copies of a geological map were printed.

Image © Roy Starkey.

Nice illustrations and examples of field notes, sketches, and mapping field slips provide a glimpse into the life of these early surveyors.

Several wall panels and an island display introduce the topic of groundwater and this leads on to a corner display bringing in the importance of minerals and rocks to the modern world under the slogan ‘If it can’t be grown, it must be mined’.

Image © Roy Starkey.

The history of mineral exploration and mining in Ireland is briefly described and a range of specimens (not all of them from Ireland) illustrate some of the mineral species that occur in Ireland, although these do not have any locality details.

Image © Roy Starkey.

A large vertical graphic and two island displays illustrate a variety of minerals and ores and the refined products that are made from them, e.g., ores of iron (steel), copper, lead, and zinc. Other panels and displays explore the importance of metals to the modern world and specifically the up to 60 geological materials that are to be found in a typical smart phone as used by around 3.5 billion people.

Image © Roy Starkey.

A set of cut-away kitchen cupboard units and a sink full of crockery, implements, and appliances invites the visitor to reflect on ‘what it takes to make a kitchen’. Adjacent displays raise the question of the finite nature of natural resources and the need to ‘reduce, reuse, repurpose, reimagine’, introducing the concept of a ‘circular economy’ and the challenges of waste disposal.

An interactive display – a working seismograph made from Lego and electronics – permits the visitor to jump up and down on the floor in front of a computer screen which then plots a trace of the vibrations so caused, mimicking the behaviour of a seismograph in monitoring earth tremors.

An elaborate mock-up of the bridge of a survey ship illustrates the importance of underwater surveying and shows how the ‘Real Ireland’ map is ten times larger than its visible landmass.

Image © Roy Starkey.

Exhibits covering present day exploration and the interaction of geological science with town planning, construction, and climate change bring the visitor back, full circle, to contemplating our needs and challenges on the restless earth which we inhabit and the collective responsibility which we all have to make sure that we look after it properly for future generations.

There is much here to stimulate discussion, not only for school groups and families but for the interested adult. The message is clear: if you want an interesting career and would like to help save the planet … become a geologist! The exhibition will probably run until mid-2023, so if you find yourself in Dublin with an hour or so to spare do give it a look.

Down to Earth – Exploring Ireland’s Geology is located at: Collins Barracks, Benburb St, Dublin 7. D07 XKV4. Further information and full visitor details can be found here https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Decorative-Arts-History/Visitor-Information/Opening-Hours,-Location-and-Facilities

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