INTRODUCTION TO Spectacular Ireland
by Dr. Peter Harbison

Background image: From page 91 of Spectacular Ireland.
Stone walls in the Black Valley in Co. Kerry.
Photograph by Michael Diggin.

Looking back at a country's past is like peering into a telescope at the wrong end--instead of the detail getting magnified, it just seems to get smaller as it recedes. The human story of Ireland is no different from that in any other country in that the farther back we seek our roots in time, the more dwarfish our understanding of the country's earliest inhabitants becomes. This is not an effort to suggest how the leprechaun came into being, but to point out that we know so little about the people who lived in Ireland for much of the first half of the ten thousand years that humans have occupied the island. Hardy folk they must certainly have been, pitting their wits against nature, exploring up slow-flowing rivers to find fish, and penetrating the primeval forest in search of whatever protein they could discover among the dense scrub that had established itself after the glaciers had finally retreated by around 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. The necessity to still their hunger on the move meant that they had little time to stop and leave permanent visible reminders of their presence on the Irish landscape.

It was only after a new farming community had come to settle in Ireland, and had become affluent enough to build large stone tombs a little over five thousand years ago, that the time was ripe and the talent available to initiate craftworking in Ireland, a tradition of quality that--despite many intermediate interruptions--remains active down to our own day. The earliest manifestation of that craftsmanship survives largely in stone, in the carving associated with passage tombs like Newgrange and Knowth. But the spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other motifs that were chiselled into the stone were designs that the stonemasons probably copied from other media that have not withstood the test of time--including wood and leather, and perhaps weavings, too, which may have been hung on the walls of the houses of the living, to be copied subsequently in stone for the houses of the dead. It is a tribute to these nameless early craftspeople that they emerged at roughly the same time as the rise of one of the world's first great civilizations in pharaonic Egypt around 3000 B.C., thus making Ireland into one of Europe's earliest craft-oriented countries. These anonymous men and women laid the foundations for a love of geometrical design (in preference to naturalistic representations of the human form) that was to be characteristic of Irish art for millennia to come. During the Bronze Age (c. 2000-500 B.C.), the considerable amounts of gold that became available provided surfaces the goldsmiths could decorate with linear ornament such as hatched triangles, zigzags, and concentric circles. At the start of the period, however, the gold was still scarce and wafer-thin, providing a challenge to the metalsmith not to incise his lines too deeply, but later--in the last pre-Christian millennium--the gold became much more abundant and he could vary his techniques, which he did to great effect. In fact, some of the workmanship of the time is so complicated and on such a minute scale that modern jewelers would find it extremely difficult to imitate it.

This gold must have made Late Bronze Age Ireland into some kind of El Dorado, and the holdings of prehistoric gold in the National Museum in Dublin have few if any equals in the whole of western Europe. But the bubble had to burst, and by the time Celtic craftsmen came along around 300 B.C. to decorate metal and stone objects in the lively curvilinear La Tène style of the continental Celts, the gold panned from Irish rivers had been almost entirely exhausted. Nevertheless, there was enough to allow them to create masterpieces such as the torque (or neck-ring) found at Broighter in Co. Derry along with a beautiful model boat of gold with oars and a mast, deposited close to the shore possibly as a votive offering to the Celtic sea-god Manannán Lac Lir and, with a date of around the last century before Christ, it is the earliest surviving evidence for the use of sail in Irish or British waters.

Boats must have been important for this island community over the last five thousand years as bearers of people with new artistic ideas--and it is noticeable that the excellence of Irish craftsmanship is usually attested when the country was in close contact with other areas along the Atlantic coast of Europe. The Roman Empire in Britain during the first four centuries of our era had a fleet of ships, which must have made it difficult for the Irish to retain that contact, but it was in a boat that St. Patrick was brought as a captive slave from Roman Britain to Ireland in the fifth century. At the same time, Christianity was bringing a whole new stimulus across the Irish Sea in the form of literacy and the books that went with it.

The monasteries that sprang up all around the country within a hundred years of St. Patrick's death reaped the benefits of these new ideas, and set the country off on a whole new phase of the greatest artistic activity. From the sixth to the twelfth century, these monasteries became not only the fosterers of Latin learning and literature, but also the promoters of craftsmanship in a variety of media and, at the height of its brilliance in the eighth century, unmatched anywhere else in Europe. To judge by the material that survives, it started around 600 with metalwork that had somehow managed to keep alive and give new meaning to the old curving Celtic patterns of the prehistoric period. These designs were joined in due time by interlace and animal ornament, all of which taken together were to become the staple assemblage of motifs combined and modified in myriad variations in Irish art of the Golden Age. They were to be grouped together with supreme mastery in the Book of Kells around 800, but a century earlier they had already played an important role in the Book of Durrow--both manuscripts now preserved and displayed in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. In its evangelist symbols, such as the Eagle, the Book of Durrow shows the influence of metal and enamel motifs, and we must presume that the scriptorium for manuscripts must have been located sufficiently close to the metalsmith's workshop that the two could borrow mutually from one another.

Because of the nature of its material, metalwork has probably managed to survive time and destruction more than manuscripts, and the Treasury of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is full of wonderful metalwork, much of it, such as the St. John's Crucifixion plaque, used in the service of the church and testifying to the artistic genius of the ancient Irish monasteries. The chalice found at Ardagh in Co. Limerick in 1868 is among the finest, combining silver, gold filigree, enamel, and glass with a taste that is exuberant without being showy. One feature of these great works of art of the period around the eighth century is the miniscule scale of the designs which, even when magnified a number of times, can be seen to be perfect in execution.

The arrival of the Vikings in the ninth century must undoubtedly have had a debilitating and unsettling effect on monastic production, and they are likely to have been responsible, at least in part, for the decline in metalwork and manuscripts after 800. But, equally, their carrying off of monastic metalwork to their Scandinavian homeland may have been a contributing factor in the creation of those less easily movable and certainly monumental stone High Crosses that copy many metalwork designs. On the crosses, these intermingle with sculpture illustrating Bible stories where--unusually for Ireland--the human figures are carved naturalistically, suggesting a non-Irish source possibly as far away as Rome.

But the dawn of our own millennium saw a revival of quality in Irish metalwork, much of it in the form of shrines containing relics of Irish saints whom pilgrims would have come to venerate in the old Irish monasteries. A typical and particularly fine example is the crozier-shrine of c. 1100 discovered in the wall of Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, in 1814; on it the animal ornament and enamel decoration of earlier centuries is revived, yet given a new contemporary twist. In the twelfth century, Irish stonemasons once more came into their own with the erection of Romanesque churches on which they carved obscure but imaginative beasts and human masks as part of round-headed doorways such as that marking the burial place of St. Brendan the Navigator at Clonfert in Co. Galway. That doorway, of c. 1200, was the last high point but also the swan song of the art and architectural sculpture of the old Irish monasteries, for their lifeblood waned and drained with the advent of the reforming Cistercian order in the twelfth century. Their decline marked the end of that individualistic Irish art that had gone its own way for six centuries and had created a character instantly recognizable and very different from anything on the European continent. Until, and even after, the Reformation, there were a few pieces of metalwork that almost came near to the old styles and standards but, on the whole, Irish art from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century was little more than a pale reflection of the art and architecture of the Continent and that of the Norman/English conquerors of Ireland.

The seventeenth century was so riven by wars that few artistic commissions materialized, and what little there was rarely rose much above the level of folk art, no matter how admirable that in itself may be. In the eighteenth century, however, the emergence of a new and prosperous landed gentry, largely of English origin and collectively called the Ascendancy, brought with it the creation of a new classically inspired style in both architecture and design. The craftsmanship that had "gone underground" for so many centuries was now reborn, and native Irish craftsmen and sculptors rose to the occasion to produce wonderful works in various media. This renaissance expressed itself first in architecture of a Palladian kind, with enchanting rococo stuccowork molded manually by both foreign and Irish stuccodores, at places like Russborough, Co. Wicklow, in the 1740s. Later in the same century, a neoclassical style emerged, ornamented with garlands and other symmetrical floral motifs of Greek and Roman origin executed in the Adam style as seen, for instance, at Lucan House near Dublin. The exquisite interiors of these houses were fitted out with the best of Irish furniture, including tables bearing Irish porcelain, Waterford and Dublin glass, and silver which had an elegance that still speaks to us across two centuries. The tradition re-created by these craftspeople is continued in a different form in more recent times, when the echoes of old Irish art from the Stone to the Georgian Age are being reused and combined to enrich a lively community of craft-workers throughout modern Ireland.

Text © Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.