Light and Time at the National Museum of Ireland

Light and Time, an exhibition currently at the National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks, is the Museum's contribution to Hamilton Year 2005: Celebrating Irish Science, the bicentenary of the birth of William Rowan Hamilton, Ireland's greatest scientist. The exhibition examines questions of light and time, their measurement, meaning, relevance and significance. It draws on the scientific instrument collection of the National Museum and other institutions to illustrate these issues and in so doing to focus on the work of Irish scientists and instrument makers.

One of the objects on display is a gold watch by the Dublin watchmaker and jeweller, John Donegan, made in 1856. With the growth of towns and the demand for more precise time-pieces, the mid-eighteenth century saw watches being produced not just in Dublin but in many towns throughout Ireland. However, by the mid-19th century watchmakers were unable to compete with mass-produced pieces, initially from Britain and later from the United States and were reduced to being repairers and retailers. Watchmaking, in the traditional sense, did not survive the end of the nineteenth century. Against this background Donegan was promoted as "the last of the Irish watchmakers".

Donegan was a prolific watchmaker and carried on his business at various addresses in Dublin. He is first recorded at 21 Essex Quay in 1844. Between 1846 and the early 1850s he traded at 5 Ormond Quay where, for a period, the firm traded as Donegan and Wright. His last recorded addresses in the Dublin Directory of 1862 were at 32 Dame Street and 24 Essex Quay. The latter may have been his residence. He is variously described as a watchmaker and jeweller, a watch manufacturer, a jeweller, watch and church plate manufacturer and, intriguingly, in 1845 as an importer of jewellery, watches and watch material. He was registered with the Dublin Goldsmiths Company in 1848 and exhibited "gold and silver watches" at the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853.

The watch on exhibition has a gold dial with applied Roman numerals with a light double swell style minute hand and a heavy double swell style hour hand. There is a seconds dial numbered in 10-second intervals. The centre and rim of the dial is finely decorated with applied foliage. It is stamped on the inside with the hallmark of John Donegan and the date letter I for 1856. There is engraved strapwork on the back of the watch with the initials JH, presumably the original owner but, as yet, his identity remains a mystery.

The exhibition continues at the National Museum Collins Barracks until January 2006.

Paul Doyle Assistant Keeper, Art & Industrial Division, National Museum of Ireland.

An exhibition to celebrate Hamilton Year' which opens to the public on 28 September at the National Museum of Ireland-Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks, Dublin