Olivia Robertson, ArchPriestess and FOI co-founder, is accomplished in many areas. Besides being a gifted psychic, she is both a renowned artist and author. This article, first published over fifty years ago in the pages of the prestigious Irish literary journal, "The Bell", offers valuable insights into the historic background and function of the ancient Irish Bronze Age ornaments on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. (*)
Irish Bronze Age Art
Lady Olivia Robertson
Originally published in
“The Bell, A Magazine for Ireland Today”
Volume XVII No. 10
January, 1952 (**)
The most neglected and yet the loveliest specimens of Irish culture are in the National Museum in Dublin. The reason why our writers and artists so seldom refer to the art of our Bronze Age in Ireland is partly that Bronze Age work comes under the specialized category of archaeology - and anthropology - and partly because Irish visionaries have also claimed their own specialized knowledge of this period. Hence the ordinary lover of art is apt to steer clear of lunulae and torcs, because either he will talk ignorantly of AE’s Danaans, or else irritate those workers who call the mythical Danaans Iberians and object to the poetic “Milesians”. To tread on a path worn by Yeats and Lady Gregory and AE on the one hand, and to challenge the knowledge of scientific experts on the other, is the last thing even the most courageous critic will do. So the world in general at the mention of ancient Irish art has only a distasteful mental image of imitation Tara brooches worn by artistic women, and also of torcs and gorgets painted in by nineteenth century illustrators, who undertook to render Haggard’s “She” and “Queen Maeve” and Guy Boothby’s “Beautiful White Devil” as glossy frontispieces to 1890 Victorian volumes. Seen in such a setting to “Ancient Irish Tales Re-Told” the lunulae and torcs and gorgets present a depressingly Pageant appearance, either decorating that male lay-figure of a Victorian hero who fights abroad or discovers King Solomon’s Mines, or else as lunula lying on the breast of one of those massive ladies with long plaits and Wagnerian carriage who were held to look most like the heroines of Sagas and Legends.
Yet the Irish gold ornaments in the Dublin museum tell the history of civilizations and of art in a more vivid and actual way than any amount of textbooks.
To begin with, the ornaments are beautiful. They must be seen in actuality: in illustration they have the antiquarian look of something wrongly labelled “Celtic” and the beauty of shape and design and colour must be seen. Gold is not a metal that demands the elaborate elegance that one expects from Chinese jade. Its beauty lies a great deal in its open spaces, unworked. It has the beauty of a mirror reflecting the light.
A new race appeared in Ireland during the late Bronze Age - 700 to 500 B.C. They were of Nordic origin who, according to Mr. Gogan, Director of our museum, brought with them from Europe the true Celtic or Gaelic tongue. The blonde colouring so beloved by our poets had even now not properly been apparent, these invaders having, it is said, brown or auburn hair. It is curious that Irish writers of the myths and also our late nineteenth century poets emphasise golden curls to such a degree. Only about 250 B.C., in the full Celtic period, is it thought that fair hair was predominant - and then it is said that it was the flaxen colour of the present-day Swedes and Danes.
These late Bronze Age Nordic invaders produced an entirely different kind of art: the art that has now been most popularized as ancient Irish. Looking at their ornaments, one can see that they were indeed men of the sword. Their gorgets are of elaborated craftsmanship, massively wrought gold suggesting power and riches. These gorgets are insignia for kings rather than for priests. In the lunula, gold is used to suggest light: now in the gorget it emphasises weight. These attitudes of mind epitomize the spirit of two civilizations. One is reminded of early Greek Art contrasted with Roman. You were now respected not for the amount of light that your gold ornament reflected, but for its sheer weight. The fact that Irish gold was growing scarce may have added to this attitude. And looking at Royal Regalias today, we can see that the same treatment of gold still prevails.
The late Bronze Age gorgets are magnificently made of hammered gold, with rope design and ribbing. Everything is cylindrical and coiled like snakes: typical is the prevalent concentric circles. For sheer glory of gold, and arrogance in its use, the gorgets are supreme. They look like giant horse-shoes dropped by a golden Pegasus. Our present Lord Mayor chains and Orders and knightly insignia look nothing when compared with these gorgets. They could never have been worn by women. Unlike the priestly matriarchy suggested by the lunulae, now we feel that the warrior rules supreme, though one wonders how he managed his beard and gorget at the same time. The terminal disks and the great loop of collar are all familiar to us: they bring to life the ferocity and yet the chivalry of Cuchulain and his like. Clearly the wearers were rich and unashamed. One feels looking at this glittering display that at least the chieftains gave their people value.
About 250 B.C. came the Celtic period, with even more elaborate ornaments. Now we find cylindrical collars with relief or applied decoration. The resemblance between these collars and Third Empire and late Victorian art is extraordinary. There is the same passion for heavy rounded shapes with organic forms suggesting flowers and leaves and movement as relief. One of their multi-stranded plaited necklaces show a delicacy and intricacy of clasp that recalls the Rue de la Paix. These necklaces and the bracelets could be worn today. This is because the great civilisation of Rome was bringing its influence to Ireland. Fashions travel where troops cannot and now the King Malachy collar was clearly giving place to women’s jewellery suggesting that peaceful form of civilisation usually stigmatized as ‘decadent’. Thus in a few museum cases we can see, as clearly as in a book, or through a study of weapons, the history of a people’s love of beauty mirrored in gold through one thousand eight hundred years.
(*) The collections and exhibitions of the National Museum of Ireland are currently displayed at four different sites, divided by subject category, three in Dublin and one in the west of County Mayo. The Bronze Age gold ornaments mentioned in the above article are located at "The National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology and History" on Kildare Street in Dublin. You can read more about this site of the National Museum of Ireland here: http://www.museum.ie/archaeology/
(**) Re-printed by permission of the author, all rights reserved.
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