Rings and Bracelets in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVIII....continued

3. Personal Ornaments.

Legendary Origin.—In ancient Irish tales and other records, referring to both pagan and Christian times, gold and silver ornaments—especially gold—are everywhere mentioned as worn by the upper classes: and these accounts are fully corroborated by the great numbers of objects of both metals found from time to time in various parts of Ireland.

In the National Museum there is a great collection of ancient artistic ornamental objects, some of pure gold, some of silver, and some of mixed metals and precious stones. All, or nearly all—of whatever kind or material—are ornamented in various patterns, some simply, some elaborately. Those decorated with the peculiar patterns known as opus Hibernicum or Irish interlaced work were made in Christian times by Christian artists, and are nearly all of mixed metals and precious stones. Those that have no interlaced work, but only spirals, circles, zigzags, lozenges, parallel lines, &c., are mostly of pagan and pre-Christian origin, many of them dating from a period long antecedent to the Christian era. Nearly all the gold objects, except closed rings and bracelets —and most even of these—belong to this class—made in pagan times by pagan artists. All the articles of gold are placed in one compartment of the Museum, and they form by far the largest collection of the kind in the British Islands: twelve or thirteen times more than that in the British Museum.

Irish bracelet or armlet

FIG. 139. Irish Bracelet or Armlet, of solid gold, of beautiful shape and workmanship: weighs 3¾ oz.: in National Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Rings and Bracelets.—Among the high classes the custom of wearing rings and bracelets of gold, silver, and findruine (white bronze) on the fore-arm, wrist, and fingers—including the thumb—was universal, and is mentioned everywhere in ancient Irish literature.

Irish bronze bracelet

FIG. 140. Bronze Bracelet: in National Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

The words for a ring, whether for finger or arm, are fáil: fáinne [faun-ye]: nasc, which was applied to a ring, bracelet, collar, or tie of any kind: and sometimes flesc. The word id was applied to a ring, collar, circlet, or chain. Still another name for a ring or bracelet was bunne [2 syll.]. These several names were no doubt applied to rings of different makes or sizes: but the distinctions have been in many cases lost.

Ancient Irish Finger-ring

FIG. 141. Ancient Irish Finger-ring: pure gold. In the National Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Both men and women belonging to the highest and richest classes had the arm covered with rings of gold, partly for personal adornment, and partly to have them ready to bestow on poets, musicians, story-tellers, and ollaves of other arts, who acquitted themselves satisfactorily. Circlets of gold, silver, or findruine were also worn round the legs above the ankle. Fully answering to all the entries and descriptions in the records we find in the National Museum in Dublin, and in other Irish museums, gold and silver rings and bracelets of all makes and sizes: some pagan, some Christian.

Precious Stones and Necklaces.—Ireland produced gems of many kinds—more or less valuable—which were either worn as personal ornaments by themselves—cut into shape and engraved with patterns—or used by artists in ornamental work. Precious stones are often mentioned in ancient Irish writings. In Kerry were found—and are still found—"Kerry diamonds," amethysts, topazes, emeralds, and sapphires: and several other precious stones, such as garnet, were found native in other parts of the country.

Beads or studs of jet

FIGS. 142, 143, & 144. Beads or Studs of jet: in National Museum. Used as buttons or fasteners, or strung for necklaces. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

A pearl was usually designated by the word séd [shade]: but this word, as we shall see in chapter xxiii., sect. 4, was also applied to a cow regarded as an article of value or exchange; and it was often used to designate a gem or jewel of any kind. Séd is still in use in this last sense. Several Irish rivers were formerly celebrated for their pearls; and in many the mussels that produce pearls are found to this day—often with pearls in them.

Gold beads

FIGS. 145 & 146. Gold Beads: portions of necklaces: natural size. In National Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Of the various ornaments worn on the person, the common necklace was perhaps the earliest in use.

Necklaces formed of small shells are common among primitive people all over the world, and they have been found with skeletons under cromlechs in several parts of Ireland, of which specimens may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin, belonging to prehistoric ages. In historic times necklaces formed of expensive gems of various kinds, or of beads of gold, were in use in Ireland; and they are frequently mentioned in the tales and other ancient Irish records.

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