The Magic of Ancient Ireland
Ireland is old… like, really, really, really old. As Americans, I think it’s hard for us to fathom the ancient structures that are found in Ireland. I will never forget being in class with our professor and one of the American students exclaiming with awe that one of the local pubs was founded in 1811. Our professor laughed and said, “I’m Irish. 1811 was practically yesterday!”
The professor had a point. In Ireland, the modern exists adjacent to the ancient. On an anthropological tour of the area that I lived, our guide pointed to an ancient neolithic tomb, two large stones supporting one that lay across the top, that was in someone’s front yard. Further down the road, the standing ruins of an eighth century tower was in someone’s horse pasture.
While in Ireland, I was lucky enough to see a few of these ancient structures. On a trip to Dublin, our group stopped at Newgrange Tomb. Newgrange dates back about 5,200 years, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The amazing part of visiting structures in Ireland is that they allow visitors to really experience them. We were allowed to go inside the ancient structure in small tour groups, following a long hallway to the heart of the mound, surrounded by what are thought to be three altars.
The downside of this casual treatment of the ancient is that there is graffiti on the inside of the ancient tomb, scrawled on one of the walls above the altar. My personal favorite was; “Thomas was here, 1847.” (There is, of course, no recent graffiti since the passage tomb is now a significant historical site. The early modern visitors seemed to have no qualms about making their mark.)
Before excavation, a stunning stone was blocking the entrance. That stone now sits in front of the tomb. Covered in carved spirals, the stone is another mystery for archeologists; what did those spirals mean? Are they decoration? Did they have some spiritual significance?
Whatever they mean, they make beautiful jewelry. Many Irish artisans have used this piece of ancient art to make their own incredible pieces. If you look closely at the rock, you can see that the spirals come in three, making it an early example of the triskele. Click here to see more great spiral jewelry!
Jumping forward a couple thousand years, I also visited Clonmacnoise, an ancient monastery located in Co. Offaly. Founded in the 6th century, Clonmacnoise is one of the earliest signs of Ireland’s emerging Christianity. Today, it is one of the best preserved monastic sites out of dozens across Ireland. My American professor, an anthropologist who served as an impassioned guide for my whole Ireland experience, was excited about this “inbetween” of the ancient worlds. Away from the main church is a smaller women’s church. On one of the beams, so small you have to be looking to see it, is a stone carving of a pagan fertility symbol known as a sheelah na gig.
Located on the River Shannon in the middle of Ireland, Clonmacnoise quickly became a center of religion, learning, and craftsmanship in the ninth century. However, the settlement had numerous difficulties, including raidings by the English and the Vikings and was fading from prominence in the 12th and 13th centuries. Like many ancient places in Ireland, Clonmacnoise has layers; one of the churches was renovated in the 17th century, Victorians were known to have picnics on the sight, and people are still be buried in the nearby graveyard today.
During its height of activity, Clonmacnoise was a center for writing and craftsmanship. Most early monasteries have standing Celtic Crosses, intricately carved using primitive tools by dedicated monks. Clonmacnoise features three of these intricately carved crosses that feature biblical stories across their surface.
In the modern era, the Celtic Crosses that were originally found in monasteries like Clonmacnoise have become an important symbol of the Irish-Catholic faith. If you like the look of the storytelling crosses, Biddy Murphy carries several decorative crosses for you to add for meaningful decor in your home or to wear as a significant piece of jewelry!
Do you love learning about Ireland’s history like I do? Are you fascinated by the ancient world and how it connects to the modern one? Then you will love the “History of Ireland” collection, which showcases events of Ireland’s past, allowing you to keep them close to your heart.