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 the 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. Thus, 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.