The Antiquities of Ireland
WE commence the study of this early race with the first rude stone implement with which a savage man killed an animal scarcely more savage. Then, simple designs of ornamentation are discernible--the first twilight dawning of soul through matter. The rude stone implement becomes decorated, more symmetrical in form, more adapted to its uses. There is evidence of a growing sense of beauty, and heightened reasoning powers. After the introduction of metals, we trace the original stone forms reproduced first in simple unalloyed copper, afterwards in that perfect and beautiful bronze of a ruddy yellow, like gold, which no modern bronze has ever equalled. There is no violent disruption of ideas, as if the new incoming race had entirely vanquished and crushed the earlier and elder; but on the contrary, a gradual and continuous development of the original ideas of this elder race itself, always co-working with whatever new influences may have come to it from without.
Many writers have held the belief that the first colonists of Ireland were a highly-civilized people, clothed with Tyrian silk, fine linen of Egypt, and adorned with costly ornaments of gold. But stern facts refute this theory. The same primitive race who used only stone weapons were unacquainted with the art of weaving, and knew of no other garment than the untanned skin of the animal they killed for food. Theorists might still, however, argue, doubt, and disbelieve, if one of the ancient race had not himself risen, as it were, from the grave, after a sleep of thousands of years, to give his testimony concerning his people. In 1821 this primitive Irishman, clad completely in skins laced with thongs, was found in a peat bog, ten feet below the surface. The teeth, long dark hair and beard, were perfect. Portions of this dress have been preserved in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. The material used in sewing was fine gut, and the regularity and closeness of the stitching are most remarkable. Specimens of the antique skin mocassins and skin caps have been also found at various times in the peat bogs, and secured for the Museum, so that we have the dress of the ancient Irishman complete.
Long after this period of barbarism, but still at a time so distant that it is anterior to all historic record, we find that the Irish had attained some knowledge of metals and the art of weaving. The Museum contains numerous highly-finished illustrations of the beautifully-formed, slender, leaf-shaped swords and daggers of bronze, which began gradually to supersede the use of the primitive celt. Many of these swords are of the pure Grecian type, formed apparently on the model of the leaf of the aloe or the agave. One sword found on an ancient battle-field is curved like a Turkish yataghan; and in "The Book of Rights" "curved swords of battle" are frequently referred to. But the specimens of the broad scythe-shaped sword, "which is especially and peculiarly Irish," are the most numerous, as many as forty-one of these heavy, thick, round-pointed battle-axe swords being in the Museum.
The same progress of artistic development is observable in the ancient swords as was noticed in the primitive celt--as the art advanced, the manufacturer began to exercise his artistic faculties in fanciful and costly decoration. The blade was adorned with either cast or engraved ornamentation, and the hilt inlaid or studded with gold. Thus, Brian Boroimhe is described as carrying a gold-hilted sword in his right hand at the battle of Clontarf.
It is very remarkable that, throughout the whole series, from the rudest to the most highly finished, a peculiar idea is traceable in the ornamentation, by which they can at once be recognized as Irish; and this idea seems to have travelled from Irish Paganism to Irish Christianism. The ornamentation on the sepulchral stones of New Grange is repeated on the stone celts; it is carried on into the age of Bronze; it decorated the swords and spears of the kings, as well as their costly diadems and ornaments of gold, and still continued to be traced, with a kind of loving fidelity to the ancient symbols, upon the manuscripts illuminated by priestly hands, so late as the tenth and eleventh centuries.
For the illustration of the costume of the early Irish, after it passed from primitive helpless barbarism to comparative civilization, by the aid of the knowledge of metals and the art of weaving, fortunately we are not left to mere theories; for, by a singular chance, the representative of the advanced period, like him of the barbaric age, arises also from the grave of the Past to bear witness for himself.
In 1824, a male body, completely clad in woollen antique garments, was found in a bog near Sligo, six feet below the surface; and so perfect was the body when first discovered, that a magistrate was called upon to hold an inquest on it. The garments also were in such complete preservation, that a photograph was made of a person clad in this antique suit, with the exception of the shoes, which were too small for an adult of our day, and a drawing from this photograph is one of the best and most beautifully executed illustrations of the Museum catalogue. The costume of this ancient Irish gentleman is exceedingly picturesque, consisting of trews of a plaid pattern, made wide above, like Turkish trousers, but fitting close to the leg and ankle over them was a tunic of soft cloth, most elaborately gored and gussetted, showing high perfection in the tailoring art. The skirt of the tunic, which extends to the knee, is set on full, and measures eight feet in circumference at the bottom. The sleeves are tight, and open to time elbow, like an Albanian jacket; and over all was thrown the immemorial Irish mantle, so invariably worn, so indispensable a portion of Irish costume that it passed into a proverb among our neighbours, the Welsh, "like an Irishman for the cloak."
This graceful garment, as found upon the hero of the bog, and now visible in our Museum, is composed of brown, soft cloth, made straight on the upper edge, which is nine feet long, but cut nearly into the segment of a circle on the lower. The form resembles closely that worn by the Calabrian peasant at this day. These cloaks were often of great value; kings were paid tribute of them. They were made of various colours, each colour being a symbol to denote the rank of the wearer. The number of colours also in a dress had a significant value, and was regulated by law. This, one colour only was allowed to slaves; two for soldiers; three for goodly heroes, or young lords; six for the learned men; five for a poetess; and seven was the regal number for kings and queens.
In the "Book of Rights," the earliest accessible authority on the subject of costume prior to the Norman Invasion, we read of cloaks of various colours presented in tribute to the kings--cloaks of purple, red cloaks, green, white, black: in fact, cloaks of all colours. Some are mentioned as bordered with gold. The tunic is also described frequently, "with golden borders--with gold ornaments--with golden hems." Another form of cloak was fashioned with a hood like the Arab bornous, and was bordered with a deep fringe of goat's hairs.
Irish costume seems, in fact, to have been half-Oriental, half-Northern, like the compound race that peopled time island. The trews were the same as the Germanic braccae while the tunic was Albanian, and the mantle Eastern; as well as the high, conical head-dress, which is identical in form with the Persian cap of the present day. On this subject Sir William Wilde remarks--
"Every day's observation and research bring to light new affinities with early Irish costume. In the great French work, 'Herculaneum et Pompeii,' there is a battle scene, copied from a mosaic at Pompeii, in which the arms and dress of the combatants are almost identical with those of ancient Ireland. The vanquished wear tight-fitting trousers, close tunics, several of which are plaided, and cloaks with the hood coming over the head precisely like the Irish cochall. The chief figures wear torques round the neck, and bracelets on the wrists, and the hood is retained in its place by a narrow frontlet, apparently of gold. The colours of the garments are also peculiarly Irish. In some, the cloak is yellow; the mantle, dark red; and the tunic, purple bordered with white; the latter spangled with triple stars of gold, precisely after the fashion figured in the 'Book of Kells.' The chariot in which the principal figure stands resembles some figured on our ancient crosses, and time charioteer wears a pointed cap, green tunic, and tartan vest. All the vanquished wear beards, and their hoods envelop their chins."
The study of ancient costume has especial interest for the historian, as the culture, civilization, and commercial relations of a people can be readily deduced from it; and in the numerous and curious illustrations of the catalogue, taken from ancient records, illuminated manuscripts, and the ancient crosses and sepulchral monuments of the country, everything has been brought together that could throw light on this obscure subject. One most remarkable illustration is a full-length portrait of Dermot M'Morrough, king of Leinster, taken from an illuminated copy of Giraldus Cambrensis in the possession of Sir Thomas Philips, which portrait was very probably drawn from the life.
From all that is known on the subject, it would appear that linen and cloth of every degree of fineness, according to the rank of the wearer, were the principal materials used in ancient Irish dress. No remains of silk garments have been discovered; nor do the historical records, as far as we are aware, make any mention of silk being employed in personal wear. It is remarkable also, that while a traditional belief exists that linen has been known from time immemorial to Ireland, yet the Academy does not possess a single specimen of ancient linen. The linen shirts worn at the time of the Norman Invasion are said to have been of immense size, and dyed a saffron colour. But there is undeniable proof, that the tartan, or cloth of divers colours, which we are accustomed to associate only with Scotland, was worn universally in Ireland in ancient times. Portions of tartans are preserved in the Museum, and probably each grade of rank and clan possessed a characteristic plaid as well as a special dress. A love of variegated and glowing colours, and a tendency to gorgeous decoration, seem to have been always instinctive to the Irish nature.
The female dress of Ireland at a period subsequent to the barbaric age is also illustrated not from conjecture, but from actual observation; for in 1843 a complete female antique dress was discovered many feet below the surface in a bog (these museums of Nature, where she stores up and preserves her specimens of antique life with a care and perfection that no mortal curator can ever hope to equal), and is now to be seen in the Academy's museum.
It consists of a boddice with a long waist, open in front, and attached to a full plaited skirt; which, like the Albanian fustanell, consists of several narrow gored breadths, gathered into small plaits at top, and spreading into a broad quilling at the bottom; each plait being stitched on the inside to preserve the form.
The bottom of the skirt measures twenty-two and a half feet in circumference, and there are ninety-two plaits, most elaborately arranged., so that the joining of each of the narrow breadths should fall within a plait. The material is of a brown woollen cloth.
No pictorial representations exists of female costume earlier an the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries but from the sculptured effigies on tombs, we find it consisted of either a flowing robe and veil, or of the plaited skirt and tight bodice already described, while the head-dress varied according to the fashion of the day.
The subject of personal decoration is perfectly illustrated in the Museum; the Academy possessing one of the largest collections in Europe, beginning at the first rude effort at adornment of the barbaric age, up to the rich golden ornaments of a later, though still pre-historic period.
It is not pleasant to national pride, after feeding on the gorgeous fables of our earliest annalists, to contemplate the primitive Irishman fastening his mantle of untanned deerskin with a fish-bone or a thorn, as we know the Germans did in the time of Tacitus; yet, unhappily, antiquarian research will not allow us to doubt the fact of the simple savageness of the first colonists. But when the intellect of the rude man stirred within him, he began to carve the bones of the animals he killed into articles of ornament and use. Thus the slender bones of fowls were fashioned into cloak pins, especially the leg bone, where the natural enlargement at one end suggested the form, and afforded surface for artistic display. From this first rude essay of the child-man can be traced the continuous development of his ideas in decorative art, from the carving of bones to the casting of metal, up to the most elaborate working in enamel, gold, and precious stones. Our Museum is rich in these objects, containing more than five hundred specimens. Pins, fibulae [a], and brooches having been discovered in Ireland in immense quantities and variety, some of which are unsurpassed for beauty of design and workmanship.
"In these articles," Sir William remarks, "the process of development is displayed in a most remarkable manner; for, from the simple unadorned pin or spike of copper, bronze or brass (the metallic representation of the thorn), to the most elaborately wrought ring-brooch of precious metal, the patterns of which are now used by our modern jewellers--every stage of art, both in form and handicraft, is clearly defined, not one single link is wanting. In the first stage all the artist's powers were lavished on the decoration of the pin itself, or in the development of the head, which was enlarged and decorated into every possible shape and conceivable pattern. When it was almost impossible to improve the head, a ring or loop was added, passed through a hole in the neck. In the next stage, the ring was doubled, or many rings added. Finally, the ring was enlarged, flattened out, decorated, enamelled, covered with filigree, and jewelled, until, in those magnificent specimens of silver and gold found in Ireland of late years, it reached a degree of perfection which modern art can with difficulty imitate."
The forms of many of the Irish brooches, pins, and fibulae, are identical with numbers found in Scandinavia, but the peculiar ornamentation--a curiously involved spiral or serpent coil, which can be traced back through all ages of Irish art to the most remote antiquity--is met nowhere else; neither in Etruscan nor Teutonic art, though some assert its origin can be traced to Assyria and Egypt. However, this Opus Hibernicum, as it was termed by the learned Kemble, is one of the tests by which an antiquary can distinguish national from imported work. It is also remarkable that the ornaments of like form found so copiously in Scandinavia are all of bronze, while the Irish are of gold, a metal which, there is every reason to believe, existed in Ireland abundantly in former times, and is still found in small quantities. That it was used for ornament, even coeval with the stone celt, is also probable, as the rudest savage can make the ductile metal assume any form by simply flattening it between two stones.
Many centuries before the Christian era, according to time annals, gold was smelted in Wicklow, to the east of the Liffey. Goblets and brooches were covered with it, and the artificer's name was Ucadan; but no further mention of native gold occurs throughout our ancient histories. However, two thousand years after, the story of the old annalist was singularly confirmed; for, in the year 1796, in the same part of Wicklow, perhaps on the very site of the furnace of Ucadan, upwards of £10,000 worth of native gold was obtained in about two months, and small quantities have been gathered there from time to time ever since.
The subject of the gold antiquities is one full of interest, and even of mystery. The quantity of antique manufactured gold ornaments dug up in Ireland, even in recent times, has been estimated as exceeding half a million of money. As much more may be lying beneath our feet, for, every year, as new cuttings are made for railroads, or bogs are drained, deposits of gold ornaments come to light. Two or three years ago a deposit of massive gold bracelets, in value nearly £5,000, as bright and beautiful as if just finished, was dug up in Carlow; and, still more recently, several antique golden frontlets were found by a labourer while working in a field, who, utterly unconscious of their value, threw them to his children, and the author of the Catalogue actually discovered, one day, the son of the man cutting them up into nose-rings for his pigs. They were happily rescued, and are now in the Academy. The form is beautiful and classic it is a half-moon diadem, resembling accurately some seen in Etruscan sculpture.
What inestimable treasures may have been thus lost! not merely from ignorance, but also from cupidity; for numbers of gold articles have disappeared in the smelting-pot of the jewellers, who bought them from the country people at perhaps a fractional part of their value. The very small annual sum allowed to time Academy by Government is another cause why the work of destruction still goes on. Valuable gold ornaments are frequently offered there for sale--too valuable, unhappily, for the Academy to purchase, and with an indignant regret that is almost like a sense of shame, the members are obliged to leave them to their fate. Of course legislation could remedy all this, as it has done in Dennmark, where the State has secured the possession of all antiquities found in the country for the National Museum, without any wrong being done to the finder, who is paid the full value of all he brings. But in Denmark there is a strong national pride in this subject, and the peasant, who is early taught by the local authorities the value of such things, would as soon think of destroying an antiquity as of burning his Bible.
It is still a question among the learned whether this enormous amount of manufactured gold, far exceeding all yet discovered in England and Scandinavia, was altogether native, or to some extent imported. An analysis of some of the gold has been made, to test the identity of its constituents with the gold of Wicklow, and in the instance selected the gold was found similar. This fact and the ornamentation are proofs to uphold the native theory: while opponents state that they came in the way of commerce from the Carthaginians who traded here. Ornaments identical with the Irish in form--the twisted torques, the bracelets, the diadems, and frontlets, having been found in the interior of Africa, and along the Gold Coast; in India, Barbary, Spain, and the islands of the Mediterranean.
Several ancient Irish musical instruments, the chief of which were the harp and trumpet, and numerous fragments of harps have been found also in the oldest crannoges, proving how ancient was the knowledge and the practice of music in Ireland--a fact confirmed by the Welsh Annals, which state that the Irish surpassed all nations in their proficiency on the harp.
The Museum possesses sixteen antique bronze trumpets, one of which--the finest specimen yet found in Europe--measures about eight feet in length, and the joining is curiously riveted with metal studs, a fact proving its antiquity, as it must have been formed in an age unacquainted with the art of soldering. With regard to coins, Sir William Wilde utterly denies that bronze ring-money was ever used in Ireland, as stated by Sir William Betham, who borrowed his idea from Vallancy: for all the articles hitherto described as ring-money, are now proved undeniably to belong to chain-dress or armour. The ancient medium of barter seems to have been so many head of cattle, or so many ounces of gold. A native coinage was utterly unknown. The amount of bronze discovered in Ireland is enormous, and proves the long duration of a period when it was in general use, before iron was known. Specimens of every object necessary to a people's life have been found fabricated of it--weapons, tools, armour, swords, and spears; culinary vessels, caldrons, spoons, arid other minor requisites; hair-pins for the flowing locks of the women; brooches for the graceful mantles of the chiefs, but not of the dark, dingy, modern compound that bears the name. Irish antique bronze was a metal of bright, glowing, golden beauty, and the effect of an army marching with spears of this metal in the flashing sunlight, we can imagine to have been truly magnificent.
The people of this remote age must have attained considerable skill in the manufacturing arts--must have had laws, religion, and social culture--yet how little would have been known of them if these mute witnesses of a past humanity had not been interpreted by science. Archaeology and philology are the only solvents of the past; and no theory can henceforth be tolerated that will not stand the test of being assayed by them. The philologist traces the origin and affinities of our people in the roots of the Irish language; while their habits, modes of life, their position in the scale of civilization throughout the long duration of the unwritten age, can only be read in the letters of stone, bronze, and gold upon the walls of our Academy.
Irish manuscripts, though the oldest in North-western Europe, date back scarcely further than the fifth or sixth century. Beyond that period we enter a region of darkness, through which no literature or letters radiate their light; yet, unassisted by either, the archaeologist can reconstruct the primitive world and the primitive man with greater truth and certainty than if he possessed both; for the facts of a museum are changeless and enduring, and can suffer no mutation from prejudice or ignorance, yet we must remember that it is science alone that gives value to these facts. Without its aid a museum would be only an aggregate of curious lumber. The archaeologist must combine, in a synthetic and comprehensive view--must arrange in their proper sequence--must elucidate by a world-wide learning, these sibyline fragments of the past; or this writing on the wall, though it express the most irrefragable truths of history, will remain an undeciphered hieroglyphic, as useless and unprofitable to the student as the alphabet of an unknown language, which he is unable to form into intelligible words. All this Sir William Wilde accomplished for the Museum of the Academy, and in his clear and well-arranged volumes we can read the stone pages of our history by the light of all the learning and antiquarian research of the past and present age gathered to one focus.
The conclusion to be drawn from the facts laid before us is, that in an age of remote antiquity (M. Boucher de Perthes, the well-known French author and antiquarian, has written a book to prove that it was prior to the Deluge) the entire face of the earth was covered by a nomad people, speaking the one language, and living after the same rude fashion, with no other weapons than sharpened stone. This race passed away, and no research has ever yet discovered their name, their language, their religion, or the era of their existence. Not an inscription, not a word, not a letter graven on any stone have they left to allay the torturing curiosity of the inquirer. Yet traces of them have been found from Mexico to Japan; from the steppes of Tartary to the Pampas; round the shores of every European sea, and along the coasts of the two oceans. Wherever man's foot has trodden within historic times, they trod before all history. Even in this outlying isle of ours vestiges of this people are strewn so thickly that the very soil seems made of their remains. Then another race swept across Europe--a comparatively cultured race, bearing with them the chief element of civilization--a knowledge of metals. They spread over both sides of the Danube; left their footprints in Italy and on the shores of the Baltic; overran Switzerland, France, and Belgium, giving names to the rivers they passed, the mountains they crossed, and the towns they founded, which names cling to them even to this day. From Belgium they spread to Britain, and from thence, or by the seacoast of Spain, they reached Ireland, where they founded the existing Irish race, and brought with them the knowledge of metals, the art of music and poetry, and the still existing Irish language. Historians name these people the Celts. On the Continent they were gradually crushed down beneath the Roman and Gothic races, and in Britain also by successive conquests. But Ireland suffered no conquest. Here the old Celtic race lived and flourished, and here alone their language, which everywhere else melted into a compound with the Gothic and Latin, maintained its distinct existence. The English language is the gradually formed product and result of the successive conquests of England. But no invading people ever gained sufficient strength in Ireland to influence the original language. It exists still amongst us, living and spoken the same as when thousands of years ago the Celtic people first crossed the Danube and gave it the name it now bears. For this reason all the archaeologists of Europe turn their eyes to our sacred isle, as to the one great museum of the Celtic race. Thus, Professor Keller, of Zurich, anxiously studies the formation of Irish crannoges, to compare them with the Swiss; and the learned Pictet, of Geneva, demands the long-deferred completion of the Irish Dictionary, with an ardour that puts to shame our own apathy, as without it comparative philology wants its chief corner-stone. The great facts of our Museum, illustrated, described, and laid before the learned of Europe in a comprehensive form, will go far to correct the crude, imperfect notions of Continental writers concerning Irish antiquities. For instance, Professor Linden-schmidt, of Mayence, asserted in one of his earlier published works, that all the ancient bronze articles found on this side of the Alps were imported from Etruria, as a people so barbarous as the Irish could never have produced them. The fact being, that the largest, most varied, most highly decorated collection of bronze celts existing is to be found in our Museum, along with numerous specimens of the moulds in which they were cast, discovered on the very spot where the ancient workman had lit his furnace. This universal interest and demand for information are enough to stimulate our learned men to exertion, seeing that they are, in a measure, answerable to Europe for the proper preservation of our antiquities, the very rudest of which can tell some tale of the past, as the mere furrows along the streets of the dead Pompeii show that life once passed there.
[a] This word "fibulae" is a heathenish and imported term, quite foreign to the Irish tongue. There is no other word known in the Irish language to designate a brooch, be it of bone or be it of gold, than Dealy, which signifies a thorn.