Ireland's Past Is True Gold—and More

Rebecca Shokrian
National Geographic News
Updated March 17, 2003
Among the treasured historical artifacts on exhibit at the National
Museum of Ireland in Dublin is a bronze-iron coated bell that is thought
to have been used by St. Patrick and buried in his tomb.

The bell
is an object of interest particularly as many people around the world
observe St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

Despite the intensive focus at this time of year on all things Irish, most people know little about the long history of Ireland—a history that has yielded a rich archaeological heritage.

The historic period in Ireland from St. Patrick to the present accounts for less than one-sixth of the time that mankind has been on the island, Patrick Wallace, the director of the National Museum of Ireland, explained in a lecture at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year

Numerous peoples, including the Celts, Vikings, and British, have inhabited Ireland and left lasting marks on the country's culture and art. Many well-preserved artifacts at the National Museum show the wide range of these influences (see photo gallery).

Ancient Past

The shape and landscape of present-day Ireland—an island of 27,100 square miles (70,200 square kilometers)—were formed 10,000 years ago when Atlantic Ocean glaciers slowly began their retreat. The event left the country rich with the soil that has nurtured Ireland's flora and fauna for centuries, and which offered a hospitable environment for migrating people to settle and plant seeds.

Some of the oldest existing Irish artifacts are megalithic tombs that date back to the Stone Age. They were lined in stone and had passages that led from the rim of a circular mound to a burial chamber at the center.

A number of factors have left these and many other ancient artifacts in a fine state of preservation, Wallace noted.

"During the times of the Vikings, the tombs were ransacked. But because the tombs were created prior to the Bronze or Iron Age, they did not hold much booty, and eventually looters stopped" their pillaging, leaving many of the artifacts for archaeologists to study, he said.

Many of the historic artifacts that survive today lay undisturbed—some in pristine condition—for long periods because of limited land changes in early Ireland.

Until the Vikings arrived in Ireland in A.D. 795, the economy centered on cattle raising, which left the land widely undeveloped. Moreover, there were no towns—and related land alterations—until the Vikings began building towns, starting with Dublin in A.D. 840.

Bronze, Gold, Silver

The first metallurgists came to Ireland about 2200 B.C. looking for copper. Exquisite metal work was not produced until 1200 B.C., however, when the Bronze Age flourished.

Sheets of bronze and gold pieces were riveted and twisted into objects with simple patterns of triangles and circles. Gold jewelry—necklaces, bracelets, and earrings—were crafted for only the most elite members of society.

With the dawn of the Iron Age in 500 B.C., iron came to replace bronze as the main material used for weapons and art. Some historians have speculated that the Iron Age came to Ireland with the Celts, or keltoi.

One thing the Celts are known to have brought with them was a style of angular and curvilinear patterns and a technique of "symbolizing animals and humans in a thought instead of physically drawing them" said Wallace.

The next major influence in Ireland was the Vikings, whose impact lasted almost 400 years. Beginning late in the eighth century, these Scandinavian raiders plundered Ireland's precious metals and kidnapped its citizens for the slave trade.

Their more positive impacts included the introduction of trade, shipbuilding, and coinage. The increased urbanization of Ireland under the Vikings basically changed the economy and way of life for the Gaelic people.

The presence of the Vikings has often been associated with the end of the "golden age" of metal work and jewelry in Ireland. The Vikings brought with them, however, a new metal used for such works, silver. About A.D. 900 silver was commonly used for brooches, which were produced in two distinct styles—one that appealed to the Irish, the other to Viking wearers.

Other Influences

Another factor affecting the nature of national art and culture is that Ireland "is more of a western European country than it is a northern European country," said Wallace.

Unlike in continental Europe, the spread of the Roman Empire and its lifestyle and values never reached Ireland. As a result, Irish culture and civilization developed for long periods with little outside influences.

Ireland was affected by the Reformation in the 16th century, but not in the same ways that the movement had an impact on continental European countries.

In England, Protestantism came to dominate state, church, and people; the Irish remained devoutly Catholic, even though they did adopt some of the principles of Reformation. Today, religion still has a deep influence on daily life in Ireland.

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