Earrings and Golden Balls

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVIII....continued

Earrings.—Men of the high class wore gold earrings, as we know from Cormac's Glossary and other old Irish authorities. An earring was called Unasc, from u or o, 'the ear,' and nasc, 'a clasp or ring.' There were several other names, all of which—as well as unasc—mean 'ear-clasp' or 'ear-binder,' from which, and from other evidence besides, we know that the ear was not pierced; but a thin elastic ring was clasped round it; and from the lower extremity of this another little ring was suspended (like that represented in fig. 164).

Ancient Irish gold earring

FIG. 164. Ancient Irish gold Earring: one of a pair found in Roscommon.

Golden Balls for the Hair.—Both men and women sometimes plaited the long hair; and at the end of the plait they fastened a thin, light, hollow ball of gold, which was furnished for the purpose with little apertures at opposite sides. Sometimes these balls were worn singly—probably behind—and sometimes in pairs, one on each side. These are often mentioned in the tales. King Labraid is described as having an apple of gold enclosing the end of his hair [behind]: Cuculainn had spheres of gold at his two ears into which his hair was gathered: and a young warrior is seen having two balls of gold on the ends of the two divisions of his hair, each the size of a man's fist. Ladies had several very small spheres—sometimes as many as eight—instead of one or two large ones.

As corroborating the records, there are in the National Museum a number of these golden balls, found from time to time in various parts of Ireland. They are all hollow and light, being formed of extremely thin gold: and each has two small circular holes at opposite sides by means of which the hair was fastened so as to hold the ball suspended. Each is formed of two hemispheres, which are joined with the greatest accuracy by being made to overlap about the sixteenth of an inch, and very delicately soldered—so that it requires the use of a lens to detect the joining. The one figured here is nearly 4 inches in diameter: so that the old story-teller was not wrong in describing some of these balls as "the size of a man's fist."

Light hollow gold ball

FIG. 165. Light hollow gold Ball, worn on the end of the hair: 3 7/8 inches in diameter. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Some recent writers have expressed the opinion that these balls—large and small—were used for necklaces—strung together on a string, and ranged according to size: but this opinion is erroneous. At the time they wrote—now fifty years ago—they had not before them the information regarding the use of gold balls for the hair that is now available to us.

The corroboration of the truthfulness of the old records by existing remains has been frequently noticed throughout this book; and this is a very striking example, inasmuch as the custom of wearing gold balls in the hair seems so strange that it might be set down as the invention of story-tellers, if their statements were not supported.

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