Ancient Irish Weapons, Ornaments, etc.

Torques and Golden Ornaments—Swords, Spear-heads, and Celts of Bronze—Weapons of Stone—Sepulchral Urns—Quadrangular Bells—Crooks and Crosiers—Cross of Cong—Ornamented Cases for Sacred Writings—Weapons of Iron and Steel

From A Hand-book of Irish Antiquities by William F. Wakeman

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R EGARDING the vast number of antiques discovered from year to year (we might almost write daily) in the bogs, beds of rivers, and newly-ploughed lands of Ireland, we cannot help regretting that the feeling which now very generally leads to the preservation of these evidences of ancient Irish civilization, should have slept so long. Let any one inquire of a country watchmaker, of a few years' standing, whether he has ever been offered for sale any antique ornaments of gold or silver, and, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, his answer will be, "Yes, many: but, as there was no one to purchase them, I melted them down." If questioned as to their form and character, he will describe rings, fibulae, bracelets, perhaps torques, &c., generally adding that he regretted their destruction, as they were curiously engraved.

Bronze weapons, and articles of domestic use, suffered a similar fate in the foundries. Weapons of stone or iron, being of no intrinsic value, were completely disregarded, indeed it was but very lately that any antiques of the latter material were supposed to remain. At length a few private individuals, of known learning and taste, began to form collections. Fifteen or twenty years ago, antiques in Ireland were much more easily obtained than at present, and their success was very considerable. To form a museum then required neither the expenditure of much time nor money, and the example was soon followed by gentlemen in many parts of the country. Still, however, the destruction was only abated, and few of the collectors were possessed of sufficient knowledge to enable them to discriminate between objects of real national interest, and such as would now be considered unimportant. The Dublin Penny Journal, a weekly publication, in which numerous woodcuts, accompanied with letter-press descriptions of objects of Irish antiquarian interest, were, for the first time, presented to the public, did much to dispel this ignorance. Other publications followed, new collectors appeared, a general interest was excited, and it is to be hoped that, for some years back, there have been few instances of the wanton destruction of any remarkable relic of ancient Ireland. Any attempt to describe in a volume such as this a number of the objects of interest deposited in our public museums, or in the cabinets of private collectors, would prove utterly abortive; but a glance at some of the most remarkable of those now preserved in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy, and in that of the College of Saint Columba, at Stackallen, will probably interest some of our readers. The former may be inspected by any visitor, upon the introduction of a member.

The Royal Irish Academy, for the Study of Polite Literature, Science, and Antiquities, was instituted in 1786. Its Museum has been only a few years in progress, yet it comprises the finest collection of Celtic antiquities known to exist. Many of the objects are presentations, others have been merely deposited for exhibition in the Museum, but the great mass of the collection has been purchased by the Academy with funds raised by subscription among its members, and other patriotic individuals, the annual grant from Government being very trifling, and wholly disproportionate to the importance of the Society. A visitor, upon entering the room in which the antiques are shewn, is immediately struck with the rich display of golden ornaments, consisting of torques, collars, crescents, fibulae, &c. One of the torques measures five feet seven inches in length, and weighs twenty-seven ounces and nine penny-weights. A second weighs twelve ounces and six penny-weights. These were discovered in 1810 by a man engaged in the removal of an old bank upon the celebrated Hill of Tara, and they subsequently became the property of the late Duke of Sussex, after whose death they were purchased, and secured to this country, by subscriptions raised chiefly among members of the Academy.

Torques appear to have been common among the Gauls, Britons, and other Celtic people, from a very remote period. Plates of gold, in the form of a crescent, the ends of which are turned off, and formed of small circular pieces of about an inch in diameter, have very frequently been discovered in Ireland. They are generally ornamented with engraved borders, similar in design to the decorations most common upon sepulchral urns; but several examples are quite plain, and others are engraved upon one side only. The Academy contains several of these singular antiques. In the same case with the torques is a fine and richly carved bulla, found about a century ago in the bog of Allen.

A second is preserved in the museum of the College of Saint Columba, but it is without ornament.

The Academy Museum contains an example of almost every kind of Celtic ornament of gold hitherto discovered, and several that are unique. The bronze antiques consist of swords, skeans, spear-heads, celts or axes, bridle-bits, spurs, chains, &c. &c., and there are numerous pots, vessels, and other articles of the same period and material. The general form of swords of the bronze age will be best understood by reference to the wood-cut, which represents two of several now deposited in the museum of the College of Saint Columba.

No. 1 Swords

The spear-heads are extremely various in form, but they are generally well designed,No. 2 Spear-heads and not unfrequently ornamented. As examples we have engraved three from the collection at Stackallen, but there are many specimens, and several of great beauty, in the Royal Irish Academy. The most common weapon in use among the ancient inhabitants of Ireland appears to have been a kind of axe, now generally called a celt. Its material is bronze, and it appeals to have been used contemporaneously with swords and spearheads, of which we have just given examples. The celt is rarely more than seven inches in length, and several have been preserved which measure scarcely an inch and a half. There are two kinds: the most common is flat and wedge-shaped, and appears to have been fixed by its smaller end in a wooden handle; the other is hollow, and furnished with a small loop upon one side (see cut 3), through which, it is supposed, a string, securing it to the handle, anciently passed Ancient moulds of sandstone, used in the casting of swords, spear-heads, and celts, such as we have described, have often been found in Ireland.

No. 3 Celts

The museum also contains a fine collection of stone hatchets, arrow and spear heads, and knives of flint, besides a variety of other articles of stone belonging to a very remote and unknown period.

No. 4 Stone Hammers

Stone weapons have frequently been found in every county in Ireland; but in Ulster especially they are very common. The engravings represent a variety of the stone hammers, and of arrow and spear heads.

No. 5 Arrow and Spear Heads

There are also in the collection a considerable number of sepulchral urns, several of which may challenge comparison with any hitherto discovered in Great Britain. Our first illustration represents an urn of stone said to have been brought from the mound of Nowth (see page 31), in the county of Meath. Its sides are sculptured with representations of the sun and moon, but otherwise it is not remarkable in its decorations. The dimensions of this urn are,—depth, nine inches, breadth across the mouth, nine inches and a half, and it is about one foot in height.

Stone Urn from Nowth

Our second example, from a grave at Kilmurry, was presented to the Academy by Thomas Black, Esq. It measures five inches across the mouth, and four in depth, and is formed, as usual, of clay.

Urn from a Grave at Kilmurry

The urn represented in the annexed cut was found in the rath of Donagare, in the county of Antrim. It is ornamented in a manner somewhat unusual. The Museum contains several other urns quite perfect, and many fragments variously ornamented, and of great interest; but as the space which we can devote to remains of this class is necessarily limited, we are reluctantly obliged to leave them unnoticed.

Urn from the Rath of Donagare

Among the bronze antiquities, several horns or trumpets, of great size, are remarkable. That they were manufactured by the same ancient people by whom the celts and other brazen weapons were used, there cannot now be a doubt, though Ledwich, Beaufort, and other writers, have assigned them to the Danes. Many specimens have, from time to time, been discovered in this country. There is a record often or twelve having been found together in a bog in the county of Cork. We are told by ancient writers that the Gauls and other Celtic nations were in the habit of using horns and trumpets to increase the din of battle, and it is more than probable that the horns so often found in Ireland, a country rich in Celtic antiquities generally, are of the kind alluded to. A bare enumeration of the various weapons, ornaments, vessels, &c., of the Pagan era, which are preserved in the Academy, and which, it may be remarked, exhibit in their workmanship a degree of excellence generally in proportion to their antiquity, would occupy a greater space than the limits assigned to this notice will allow. Therefore, in order to afford the reader an insight to the character of the collection generally, we shall pass at once to objects of the early Christian period, a class of antiquities in which the Academy is also rich. Among these the ancient quadrangular bells of iron or bronze are, perhaps, not the least interesting. Bells appear to have been used in Ireland as early as the time of St. Patrick. They are mentioned in the lives of most of the early saints, in the Annals of the Four Masters, and in other ancient compositions. Cambrensis, in his Welsh Itinerary, says, that both the laity and clergy in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, held in such veneration certain portable bells, that they were much more afraid of swearing falsely by them than by the Gospels, "because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the saint to whom they were particularly pleasing, their despisers and transgressors were severely punished."*

Bell of Armagh

The bells so highly reverenced by the Irish during the middle ages had severally belonged to some one of the early founders of Christianity in this island, and had been preserved, from the time of the saint, in a monastery which he had originally founded, or elsewhere in the custody of an hereditary keeper.

In like manner the pastoral crooks and crosiers, which had belonged to the early fathers of the Irish Church, appear to have been regarded as holy. Notwithstanding the frequent pillage of Church property by the Danes, and the unsparing destruction of "superstitious" relics during a comparatively late period, numerous examples, remarkable for the beauty of their decorations and the excellence of their workmanship, have been preserved to our own times. There is scarcely any variety in the form of the early crooks; they are simply curved, like those used by shepherds, but they usually exhibit a profusion of ornament, consisting of elaborately interwoven bands, terminating generally in serpents' heads, or in some equally singular device. In several specimens, settings formed of stones, or an artificial substance variously coloured, occur, but this is supposed to indicate a comparatively recent date. A visitor to the Academy may inspect several examples remarkable as well for their extreme beauty, as for the excellent state of preservation in which they remain.

The Cross of Cong, the gem of the Academy collection, affords most striking evidence of the advancement which the Irish artificers had made in several of the arts, and in general manufacturing skill, previous to the arrival of the English.

Cross of Cong

It was made at Roscommon, by native Irishmen, about the year 1123, in the reign of Turlogh O'Conor, father of Roderick, the last monarch of Ireland, and contains what was supposed to be a piece of the true cross, as inscriptions in Irish, and Latin in the Irish character, upon two of its sides, distinctly record: see Irish Grammar, by J. O'Donovan, page 234. The preceding illustration, which is from the pencil of Mr. Du Noyer, an artist whose power and accuracy, as an antiquarian draughtsman, have gained him well-merited distinction, will afford but a very general idea of the original, as the extremely minute and elaborate ornaments, with which it is completely covered, and a portion of which is worked in pure gold, could not possibly be expressed on so reduced a scale. The ornaments generally consist of tracery and grotesque animals, fancifully combined, and similar in character to the decorations found upon crosses of stone of about the same period. A large crystal, through which a portion of the wood which the cross was formed to enshrine is visible, is set in the centre, at the intersection.

The Academy owes the possession of this unequalled monument of ancient Irish art to the liberality of the late Professor MacCullagh, by whom it was purchased for the sum of one hundred guineas, and presented.

Stone Chalice in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy Among the more singular relics in the collection, a chalice of stone, the subject of the annexed wood-cut, is well worthy of observation. Though formed of so rude a material, there is nothing in its general form, or in the character of its decorations, to warrant a supposition that it belongs to a very early period. Few chalices of an age prior to the twelfth century remain in Ireland, and any of a later period which have come under the observation of the writer are not very remarkable. A chalice of silver found in the ruins of Kilmallock Abbey, was melted some years ago by a silversmith of Limerick, into whose hands it had fallen. Cups of stone appear not to have been uncommon among the Irish. An ancient vessel of that material, of a triangular form, remains, or very lately remained by the side of a holy well in Columbkill's Glen, in the county of Clare, and another was found last year in the county of Meath, near the ruins of Ardmulchan Church.

The copies of the Gospels, and other sacred writings, which had been used by the early saints of Ireland, were generally preserved by their successors, enclosed in cases formed of yew, or some wood equally durable. Many of those cases were subsequently enshrined, or enclosed in boxes of silver, or of bronze richly plated with silver, and occasionally gilt; and in several instances a third case appears to have been added. Sir William Betham, in his Irish Antiquarian Researches, describes several of those evidences of early Irish piety, still extant, and remaining in a high state of preservation. They are the Caah, or Cathach, the Meeshac, and the Leabhar Dhimma.

The Caah, which has been lately deposited in the Museum of the Academy, is a box about nine inches and a half in length, eight in breadth, and two in thickness, formed of brass plates, rivetted one to the other, and ornamented with gems and chasings in gold and silver. It contains, as usual, a rude wooden box, "enclosing a MS. on vellum, a copy of the ancient Vulgate translation of the Psalms, in Latin, consisting of fifty-eight membranes." This MS. there is every reason to believe was written by the hand of St. Columba, or Columbkille, the Apostle of the Northern Picts, and founder of an almost incredible number of monasteries in Ireland, his native country.

A glance at the decoration displayed upon the top of the box will convince the critical antiquary of the comparatively late date of this portion of the relic. The top is ornamented with a silver plate, richly gilt, and divided into three compartments by clustered columns supporting arches. The central space is somewhat larger than the others, and contains the figure of an ecclesiastic, probably St. Columba, who is represented in a sitting posture, giving the benediction, and holding a book in his left hand. The arch of this compartment is pointed, while the others are segmental. The space to the right of the centre is occupied by the figure of a bishop or mitred abbot, giving the benediction with his right hand, while in his left he holds the staff.

The compartment to the left of the central division contains a representation of the Passion. There are figures of angels with censers over each of the side arches. A border, within which the whole is enclosed, is formed at the top and bottom of a variety of fabulous animals; the sides represent foliage, and in each angle there is a large rock crystal. A fifth setting of crystal, surrounded with smaller gems, occurs immediately over the figure, which was probably intended to represent St. Columba. The sides and ends of the box are also richly chased. An inscription in the Irish character, upon the bottom, desires "a prayer for Cathbar O'Donell, by whom the cover was made," and for Sitric, the grandson of Hugh, who made * * *

The Caah appears to have been handed down from a very early period in the O'Donell family, of which Saint Columba, the supposed writer of the manuscript which it was made to enshrine, was a member. The Domnach Airgid, also preserved in the Academy, is perhaps the most precious relic of the kind under notice now remaining in the country, as it contains, beyond a doubt, a considerable portion of the copy of the Holy Gospels which were used by Saint Patrick during his mission in Ireland, and which were presented by him to Saint Macarthen. Unfortunately, the membranes of which this singularly interesting manuscript is composed, have, through the effects of time and neglect, become firmly attached to each other; but as several have been successfully removed from the mass, it is to be hoped that the whole may yet be examined.

Dr. Petrie, in a valuable paper upon the Domnach Airgid, published in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, has described the manuscript as having three distinct covers: the first, and most ancient, of wood—yew; the second of copper, plated with silver; and the third of silver, plated with gold. The outer and least ancient cover possesses many features in common with that of the Caah, though it is probably of an age somewhat later. The plated box enclosing the original wooden case is of very high antiquity. See Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. xx.

While our public and private museums abound in antiques formed of stone, earthenware, glass, bronze, and even of the precious metals, few relics of an early age composed of iron or steel have been found in a state of preservation sufficient to render them of value to the antiquary as evidences relative to the taste, habits, or manufacturing skill of the people or period to which, from their peculiarities, they might be referred. This may in a great measure be attributed to an opinion generally received, that iron is incapable of resisting decomposition for any length of time when buried in the earth, or exposed to atmospheric influences. To a certain extent the fallacy of this supposition has of late been proved by the discovery, at Loch Gabhair, near Dunshaughlin, and elsewhere, of a considerable number of weapons, &c. &c., of iron, which there is every reason to refer to a period not later than the eleventh century, and which are here found in connexion with articles of bronze and bone, chased and carved in a style peculiar to a period at least antecedent to the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.Sword found digging the Cashel Railway The Academy museum contains many specimens of swords, axes, and spear-heads, besides many antiques of a less obvious character, found at Dunshaughlin. Their preservation may be attributed to the fact of their having been buried among an immense quantity of bones, the decomposition of which, by forming a phosphate of lime, admitted but of a partial corrosion of the metal. There are also a number of swords and other weapons found near Island-bridge by labourers engaged in clearing the ground upon which the terminus of the Dublin and Cashel railway now stands. Their preservation is not easily to be accounted for, unless it be shewn that the earth in which they were found contains a peculiar anticorrosive property, as, although some bones were also found, their number was insufficient to warrant a supposition that their presence had in any remarkable degree affected the nature of the soil. The swords are long and straight, formed for cutting as well as thrusting, and terminate in points formed by rounding off the edge towards the back of the blade. The hilts are very remarkable in form, and in one or two instances are highly ornamented, as in the example given upon the next page. The mountings were generally of a kind of brass, but several richly plated with silver were found, and it is said that one of the swords had a hilt of solid gold. The spears are long and slender, and similar in form to the lance-heads used in some of the cavalry corps. The axe-heads are large and plain, and were fitted with wooden handles, which, as might be expected, have long since decayed. A number of iron knobs of a conical form, measuring in diameter about four inches, were also found. They are supposed to have been attached as bosses to wooden shields, of which they are the only remains.

All these weapons, with one exception, are composed of a soft kind of iron. Many of the swords were found doubled up, a circumstance for which it is difficult to assign a reason, as they had evidently been purposely bent. The sword represented in the engraving is remarkable for the unusual degree of ornament which appears upon its hilt, and also for its material, steel.

From several circumstances relative to the neighbourhood in which these remains were found, as well as from certain peculiarities in their form and character, our most judicious antiquaries have been almost unanimous in pronouncing them Danish; and their opinion was fully borne out by that expressed by the celebrated Danish antiquary, Warsaae, during his visit to Dublin in the beginning of this year.

Several axe-heads, discovered with many other antiques of various periods in the bed of the Shannon, and presented to the Academy by the Commissioners, are generally supposed to be Norman; but they are quite as likely to have been used by the Irish, with whom the axe was a favourite weapon.

Axe from the Bed of the Shannon

Giraldus Cambrensis, in the reign of King John, thus speaks of the power with which the Irish of his time were wont to wield the battle-axe: "They hold the axe with one hand, not with both, the thumb being stretched along the handle, and directing the blow, from which neither the helmet erected into a cone can defend the head, nor the iron mail the rest of the body; whence it happens that in our times the whole thigh (coxa) of a soldier, though ever so well cased in iron mail, is cut off by one blow of the axe, the thigh, and the leg falling on one side of the horse, and the dying body on the other."—Given by John O'Donovan, in his account of the battle of Clontarf, Dublin Penny Journal, vol. i.

In conclusion we may remark, that a few hours' examination of the truly national collection of antiquities preserved in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy alone, will afford an inquirer a more correct knowledge of the taste, habits, and manufacturing skill of the ancient Irish, than may be obtained by mere reading, even should he devote years, instead of days, to the attainment of his object.

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* See Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy.