Workers in Wood, Metal and Stone in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells

Composed from the Book of Kells



SECTION 1. Chief Materials.

Letter T
imber.—All the chief materials for the work of the various crafts were produced at home. Of wood there was no stint: and there were mines of copper, iron, lead, and possibly of tin, which were worked with intelligence and success.

We know that in early ages Ireland abounded in forests; so that wood as a working material was plentiful everywhere. Even in the time of Giraldus Cambrensis—the end of the twelfth century—when clearances and cultivation had gone on for a thousand years, the greater part of the country was clothed with trees. He says:—"Ireland is well wooded and marshy. The [open] plains are of limited extent compared with the woods." The common Irish word for a tree was, and is still, crann: a wood is coill or feadh [fah]. The Brehon Code, in setting forth the law for illegally felling trees, divides them into four classes, with a special fine for each class.

Metals.—The metallic weapons and tools preserved in our museums are generally either of bronze (sometimes brass, occasionally copper) or iron. The bronze objects far outnumber those of iron, which is partly explained by the fact that iron rusts and wastes away much more quickly than bronze. It is generally recognised that the three materials—stone, bronze, iron—represent three successive stages of human progress; that is to say, stone in its use as a material for tools and weapons is more ancient than bronze, and bronze than iron. But there was no sudden or well-marked change from one to another: they all overlap. Stone was used in a primitive stage when bronze was not known; but it continued to be used long after the introduction of bronze. So bronze was used for some long period before iron was known; but continued in use long after the discovery of iron. And more than that: all three were used together down into Christian times.

That the ancient Irish were familiar with mines, and with the modes of smelting and of extracting metals of various kinds from the ore, is shown by the frequent notices of mines and mining both in the Laws and in the general literature; and the truth of this documentary testimony is fully confirmed by evidence under our own eyes. Sir Richard Griffith remarks that the numbers of ancient mine excavations still visible in every part of Ireland prove that "an ardent spirit of mining adventure" must have pervaded the country at some remote period; and he gives many instances. Of the detailed smelting processes of the Irish we have very little knowledge. But we know that, whether these arts grew from within or were brought hither by the first immigrants, the Irish miners successfully extracted from their ores all the native metals then known.

In Ireland as elsewhere copper was known before iron. It was almost always used as bronze, which will be treated of farther on. It is certain that iron was known in Ireland at least as early as the first century: probably much earlier. According to tradition, the mines of Slieve-an-ierin (the 'mountain of iron'), east of Lough Allen in the County of Leitrim, were worked by Goibniu, the great Dedannan smith: and it is now as celebrated for its iron ore as it was when it got the name, long ages ago.

Tinstone occurs in several parts of Ireland, such as Wicklow, Dublin, and Killarney. But whether tin was mined at home or imported from Cornwall—or both, as is more likely—it was constantly used—mixed with copper—in making bronze: and often, in ornamental work, without any mixture. The ores of lead are found in many parts of Ireland; and the mines were worked too, so that the metal was sufficiently abundant. Zinc, which was chiefly used in making brass, was also found, commonly in connexion with lead. Gold and silver have been already treated of.

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