The Glories of Ireland



From the earliest times in the history of western Europe Ireland has been renowned for her work in metal. The first metal used was copper, and copper weapons are found in Ireland dating from 2,000 B.C., or even earlier, the beautiful designs of which show that the early inhabitants of the country were skilled workers in metal. Fields of copper exist all along the southern seaboard of Ireland. Numbers of flat copper celts, or axes, have been found modelled on the still earlier stone implements. By degrees the influence of the early stone axe disappears and axes of a true metal type are developed. Primitive copper knives and awls are also abundant. The fineness of the early Irish copper work is seen at its best in the numerous copper halberd blades found in Ireland. These blades, varying from nine to sixteen inches in length, were fastened at right angles by rivets into wooden shafts. The blades show a slight sickle-like curve and are of the highest workmanship. Halberds somewhat similar in type have been found in Spain, North Germany, and Scandinavia.

Between the years 2000 and 1800 B.C. the primitive metalworkers discovered that bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, was a more suitable metal than pure copper for the manufacture of weapons; and the first period of the bronze age may be dated from 1800 to 1500 B.C. The bronze celts at first differed little from those made of copper, but gradually the type developed from the plain wedge-shaped celt to the beautiful socketed celt, which appears on the scene in the last, or fifth, division of the bronze age (900-350 B.C.). It was during the age of bronze that spears came into general use, as did the sword and rapier. The early spear-heads were simply knife-shaped bronze weapons riveted to the ends of shafts, but by degrees the graceful socketed spear-heads of the late bronze age were developed.

Stone moulds for casting the early forms of weapons have been found, but, as the art of metalworking became perfected, the use of sand moulds was discovered, with the result that there are no extant examples of moulds for casting the more developed forms of weapons. The bronze weapons–celts, swords, and spear-heads–are often highly decorated. In these decorations can be traced the connection between the early Irish civilization and that of the eastern Mediterranean. The bronze age civilization in Europe spread westward from the eastern Mediterranean either by the southern route of Italy, Spain, France, and thence to Ireland, or, as seems more probable, up the river Danube, then down the Elbe, and so to Scandinavia, whence traders by the north of Scotland introduced the motives and patterns of the Aegean into Ireland. Whichever way the eastern civilization penetrated into Ireland, it left England practically untouched in her primitive barbarity.

Of gold work, for which Ireland is especially famous, the principal feature in the bronze age was the lunula, a crescent-shaped flat gold ornament generally decorated at the ends of the crescent. These lunulae are found in profusion all over Ireland. A few have been found in Cornwall and Brittany, and a few in Scotland and Denmark. One has been found in Luxemburg and one in Hanover.

Gold collars are numerous in Ireland and also date from the bronze age. The earliest form of collar is the “torc” of twisted gold. Another type, later in date than the torc, is the gold ring-shaped collar. Two splendid examples of this latter type were found at Clonmacnois, the decoration of which, in La Tène, or trumpet, pattern, shows the connection between the Irish and continental designs.

A find of prehistoric gold ornaments in county Clare should be mentioned. An immense number was there discovered in 1854 hidden together in a cist, the value of the whole being estimated at over £3,000.

After the bronze age comes the iron age. The introduction of iron wrought a great change in metalworking, but, as iron is a metal very subject to oxidization, comparatively few early iron remains are found. There are some swords of an early pattern in the National Museum at Dublin.

It has been shown that the pre-Christian metalwork of Ireland is well worthy of attention, but it is to the early Christian metalworkers that Ireland owes her pre-eminent fame in this field. In early Christian Ireland metalworking was brought to a pitch rarely equalled and never excelled. The remains found, such as the Tara Brooch, the Cross of Cong, and the Ardagh Chalice, are among the most beautiful metalwork in the world. The wonderful interlaced patterns, which are typically Celtic, bewildering in their intricacy, and fascinating in the freedom and boldness of their execution, lend themselves readily to metal work.

The connecting link between the metalwork of the late pagan period and that of early Christian times is chiefly exemplified by the penannular brooches, of which great numbers have been found in Ireland. Examples of this characteristically Celtic ornament may be seen in all Celtic countries.

In its earliest form this brooch is simply a ring, with a gap in it, to which a pin is loosely attached by a smaller ring. Gradually the open ends of the ring, which need some enlargement in order to prevent the pin slipping off, became larger and ornamented. In time these became regular trumpet-shaped ends, generally ornamented with characteristic “trumpet” patterns. The next stage was to close the gap, leaving a ring with a crescent-shaped disc at one side. Space does not permit of the description of the numerous brooches found. It will be sufficient to describe the Tara Brooch, which is the crowning glory not only of the Irish but of any metalworker’s art.

The Tara Brooch, whose only connection with Tara is its name, was found near Drogheda; it is about seven inches in diameter and the pin about fifteen inches long. It is made of bronze covered with the most elaborate interlaced ornament in gold. The fineness of the interlaced work may be compared with, and is quite equal to, that of the best illuminated manuscripts; the freedom of its execution is amazing. Besides panels of ribbon ornament, which include spirals, plaited work, human heads, and animal forms, the front of the brooch is decorated with enamel and settings of amber and colored glass. The back of the brooch is, as is often the case in Irish work, decorated in a bolder manner than the front, and the “trumpet” pattern is there very marked. The head of the pin is also elaborately decorated. The minute and intricate style of the work is strikingly shown by the fact that, even after prolonged study, some patterns escaped notice and have only lately been discovered. Further, each of the gold lines is made of tiny gold balls, so small as only to be seen by means of a magnifying glass.

With the introduction of Christianity, the attention of artificers was turned to the manufacture of church vessels and shrines. Of these perhaps the most beautiful are the Ardagh Chalice, the Cross of Cong, and the Shrine of St. Patrick’s Bell, though great numbers of other sacred ornaments, such as the Shrine of St. Lactan’s Arm and the numerous bell shrines, are also fine examples of the work of an unsurpassed school of metalworkers.

The date of the Tara Brooch is not easy to determine, but it may probably be placed in the eighth century of our era. The Ardagh Chalice belongs probably to about the same date. It was found in a rath at Ardagh, county Limerick, in 1868. It measures 7 inches in height and 9-1/2 in diameter. Around the cup is a band of fine filigree interlaced ornament in the form of panels divided by half beads of enamel. Below this are the names of the twelve Apostles in faint Celtic lettering. The two handles are beautifully decorated with panels of interwoven ornament, and on the sides are two circular discs divided into ornamented panels. The under side of the foot of the Chalice is also very beautifully decorated.

The shrines of the bells of the Irish saints are interesting examples of Irish metal work. As is fitting, the finest of these is the Shrine of St. Patrick’s Bell. This was made by order of King Domnall O’Lachlainn between the years 1091 and 1105 to contain St. Patrick’s Bell, a square iron bell made of two plates of sheet iron riveted together. The shrine is made of bronze plates, to which gold filigree work and stones are riveted. The top of the shrine, curved to receive the handle of the bell, is of silver elaborately decorated. The back is overlaid with a plate of silver cut in cruciform pattern. Around the margin of the back is engraved the following inscription in Irish: “A prayer for Domnall Ua Lachlainn, by whom this bell [shrine] was made, and for Domnall, successor of Patrick, by whom it was made, and for Cathalan Ua Maelchallann, the keeper of the bell, and for Cudulig Ua Inmainen with his sons, who fashioned it.” The whole is executed in a very fine manner and is the most beautiful object of its kind in existence. Another beautiful shrine, known as the Cross of Cong, made to enshrine a piece of the true cross presented by the pope in 1123, was made for King Turlogh O’Conor at about that date. It is 2 feet 6 inches high and 1 foot 6-3/4 inches wide. It is made of oak cased with copper and enriched with ornaments of gilded bronze. The ornamentation is of the typical Irish type, as on the Ardagh Chalice and the Shrine of St. Patrick’s Bell. A quartz crystal set in the centre of the front of the cross probably held the relic.

It is clear from the succession of beautiful work executed from the eighth to the twelfth century, that there must have existed in Ireland during that period a school of workers in metal such as has seldom been equalled by any individual worker or guild before or since, and never excelled. The examples described are only the more famous of the remains of early Irish Christian art in metal, but they are surrounded by numerous examples of pins, brooches, and shrines, each worthy to rank with the finest productions of the metalworker. The Shrine of St. Moedoc (date uncertain) ought perhaps to be mentioned. On it are found several figures, including three nuns, men with books, sceptres, and swords, and a lifelike figure of a harper.

Besides articles of ornament, articles of use, such as bits for horses and household utensils, have been found, which show that the Irish smiths were as well able to produce articles for every-day use as the artificers were to create works of art in metal.

With the landing of the English in 1169 the arts and sciences in Ireland declined. Indeed, from that time on and for long afterwards, almost the only metalworkers needed were makers of arms and weapons of offense and defense.


British Museum, Bronze Age Guide; Coffey: Bronze Age in Ireland; Allen: Celtic Art; Abercrombie: Bronze Age Pottery; Wilde: Catalogue of the Royal Irish Academy’s Collection; Allen: Christian Symbolism; Stokes: Christian Art in Ireland; Petrie: Ecclesiastical Architecture in Ireland; Coffey: Guide to the Celtic Antiquities of the Christian Period perserved in the National Museum, Dublin; Kane: Industrial Resources of Ireland; O’Curry: Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish; Coffey: New Grange and other incised Tumuli in Ireland; Dechelette: Manuel d’Archéologie pré-historique; Ridgeway: Origin of Currency and Weight Standards.

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