Antiquities of Ireland (Irish Brooches)

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 the 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 the 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 Denmark, 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 the 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.