The Tara Brooch: Ireland's finest piece of jewellery lost for centuries

The Tara Brooch has rightly been described as Ireland's finest piece of jewellery. It dates from the 7th century AD and represents the pinnacle of achievement by the early medieval Irish metalworkers. The story of how it was lost – and found again centuries later – is intriguing to the point of fascination.

However, the brooch has no known connection with either the Hill of Tara, after which it is named, or the High Kings who ruled there. It was, supposedly, found on Bettystown beach in County Meath, a mere four and a half miles (7km) from where I live here in Drogheda, or according to an alternative account, at the mouth of the Boyne.

The story goes that it was found at Bettystown in 1850 by a peasant woman's children. They allegedly found it in a box which had been buried in the sand. However, there is a belief the brooch was really discovered somewhere inland and that the peasant woman's family had changed details of the story to avoid any dispute with the owner of the land where it was really found. On August 24th 1850 (and remember this was just after the Great Famine, when times were tough), the woman offered the brooch for sale to the owner of an old iron shop here in Drogheda. Can you imagine receiving such a fabulous and priceless artifact into your hands and then deeming it to be of little worth? That's what happened:

"[He] refused to purchase to light and insignificant (sic) an article; it was subsequently bought by a watchmaker in the town, who, after cleaning and examining it, proceeded to Dublin and disposed of it to us (Messrs. Waterhouse & Co., Jewellers, Dame Street), for nearly as many pounds sterling as he had given pence for it."(1)

The Tara Brooch is on display at the National Museum in Dublin. Admission to the museum is free. Photo: Anthony Murphy.

A different story about the discovery of the Tara Brooch later emerged. Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) had compiled a Catalogue of the Silver and Ecclesiastical Antiquities in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy in 1862. This was not published until 1915. In it, Wilde refers to certain silver objects found "in the excavation for the harbour wall at the mouth of the river Boyne, near Drogheda, in an oak box, and along with them the brooch called that of Tara."(2)

The only thing in common with the two stories is that the brooch was found in a box and that it was found somewhere along the coast of the Drogheda area.

Whatever the truth about the location of its discovery, the Dame Street jeweller, George Waterhouse, was the one who renamed this most precious item the Tara Brooch, linking the find to the Irish High Kings, "fully aware that this would feed the Irish middle-class fantasy of being descended from them."(3)

And it worked. The Tara Brooch was displayed as a standout showpiece at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as the Dublin exhibition visited by the Queen in 1853. Prior to this, it had even been specially sent to Windsor Castle for her inspection.(4)

Around 1867, the brooch came into the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. It was sold to the RIA for the sum of £200, quite a lot of money in those days, and sold "on the express condition that it should never be allowed to leave Ireland".

The Tara Brooch is currently on display at the Treasury room of the National Museum (Archaeology) in Kildare Street, Dublin, where the public can see it for free. You are also allowed to take photographs of it - but there are conditions, so make sure to read them on the museum's website before visiting.Here is the museum's description of the Tara Brooch:

It is made of cast and gilt silver and is elaborately decorated on both faces. The front is ornamented with a series of exceptionally fine gold filigree panels depicting animal and abstract motifs that are separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber. The back is flatter than the front, and the decoration is cast. The motifs consist of scrolls and triple spirals and recall La Tène decoration of the Iron Age.

A silver chain made of plaited wire is attached to the brooch by means of a swivel attachment. This feature is formed of animal heads framing two tiny cast glass human heads.

Along with such treasures as the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten, the Tara Brooch can be considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement. Each individual element of decoration is executed perfectly and the range of technique represented on such a small object is astounding.(5)

The Boyne Estuary ... where the river meets the sea. Aerial photograph by Anthony Murphy.

 

Just one final thought, and that is the significance of the Boyne Estuary, if that is indeed where the brooch was found. This is where the builders of Newgrange brought the stones for the monument in from the sea. This is, according to myth, the place where the Milesians landed when they came to take Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann. It is also reputedly the place where Saint Patrick landed when he arrived to bring Christianity here. One wonders if the brooch was not part of a haul that was either being brought into the country, or, more likely, being secreted away to be sold abroad; and, if the latter was the case, what misfortune came upon its then owner at the mouth of the Boyne. Whatever happened, we are exceedingly lucky to be able to enjoy its splendor today.

Trading site

In his book, Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (2016), Mark Williams suggests that in the late Iron Age the Boyne estuary might have been an important trading site. Referring to the fact that Roman coins from the fourth and fifth centuries AD were found at Newgrange, he asks if Romano-Britons found their way to the Boyne complex, 'perhaps even as pilgrims?'

The whole site must have been, and still is, deeply impressive. It is within ten miles of the Boyne estuary, where there was probably a gateway community where trade between Ireland and her neighbours was conducted, so it is not difficult to imagine a context in which Romano-British travellers might have visited the complex.

In light of the above, it is not unduly audacious to speculate that the Tara Brooch was perhaps an item intended for trade by the later denizens of this 'gateway' trading community at Inber Colpa, if indeed such a trading community (a) existed in the first place and (b) survived to the 7th century. We can imagine that the brooch failed to be traded owing to some mishap or misadventure and was lost, quite literally, to the sands of time, where it lay buried at the estuary of the Boyne (in reasonable proximity to Bettystown beach, perhaps leading to the dichotomy about precisely where it was found) for centuries.

The Tara Brooch on display at the National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin.

The provenance, and indeed dating, of the silver objects accompanying the brooch when it was found, and indeed the oak box in which they were contained, may illuminate the matter further. Of course, it is possible that such data will only confuse the matter further. The truth is that we will probably never know what led the brooch to be lost at Inber Colpa, but we are eternally grateful that it was found again.

References

(1) H.A. Wheeler, The Tara Brooch: Where Was It Found?, Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1950), pp 155-158.
(2) Ibid. 
(3) http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/the-tara-brooch-one-of-irelands-greatest-treasures-explained
(4) Ibid.
(5) http://www.museum.ie/Archaeology/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/The-Treasury/Gallery-1-Iron-Age-to-12th-Century/Tara-Brooch-(1)

(6) Williams (2016), p.36.

Note: This is an extended version of a blog post, first published in September 2016, which was the basis for a short chapter in Anthony Murphy's book Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past (Liffey Press, 2017).

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This page was last updated on 11th February 2019 @ 7:18 PM