Unravelling the True Story of the Beautiful Tara Brooch: A Masterpiece of Celtic Metalwork
The Tara Brooch is an ancient Celtic metalwork masterpiece. Stories say it came from the Hill of Tara - traditionally regarded as the seat of the Irish High Kings. Although that is a fabrication meant to increase the brooch’s value, the artifact is still one of the greatest treasures in Irish history.
Finding the Tara Brooch
Rather than the Hill of Tara, the Tara Brooch is recorded to have been found on a beach in Bettystown, near Laytown, County Meath. The peasant woman who allegedly found the brooch in August 1850 claimed that the object was in a box in the sand when she made the discovery.
However, many people don’t believe everything about that story either. They think that the brooch was actually unearthed somewhere inland. But, in order to avoid a legal dispute with a landowner it may be that the woman’s family lied about the location where the artifact was found.
Beach in Bettystown, County Meath. (Bananenfalter/Public Domain)
From a Jeweler to Exhibitions
In any event, the brooch was then sold to a dealer, after which it found its way into the hands of a jeweler in Dublin by the name of George Waterhouse. At that time, Waterhouse was already producing Celtic revival jewelry, which had proven extremely popular over the preceding decade. It was also Waterhouse’s ability to pick up on trends that led to the renaming of the brooch. By associating the artifact with the traditional seat of the High Kings of Ireland, the Hill of Tara, Waterhouse added to the brooch’s monetary value and fame.
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Mock-up with modern fabric, showing how these types of brooches were used. British Museum. (Johnbod/CC BY SA 3.0)
This may be seen in the fact that the Tara Brooch was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Later on, the brooch was also on display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and in 1853, it was displayed at the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin, which Queen Victoria visited. The Queen was so taken with the design that she ordered several copies from Waterhouse.
In 1872, the Tara Brooch became part of the Royal Irish Academy’s collection. Eventually, the brooch was given to the National Museum of Ireland, where it is still on display today. Many copies of the Tara Brooch appeared as fashion accessories during the Celtic revival in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Tara Brooch, front view. National Museum of Ireland. (Johnbod/CC BY SA 3.0)
Finely Detailed Decoration of the Tara Brooch
The Tara Brooch is often regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Celtic metalwork. Analysis of this object has shown that it was made of gold, silver, copper, amber, and colored glass. The Tara Brooch belongs to a classification of brooches known as ‘pseudo-penannular’ brooches.
Penannular brooches are one of the most common types of brooches, and are identified by their broken-circular shapes and highly-decorated terminals. While pseudo-penannular brooches look like penannular ones due to their highly-decorated terminals, they are in fact complete circles.
The Rogart brooch, a Pictish penannular brooch, Scotland, 8th century, silver with gilding and glass. (Johnbod/CC BY SA 3.0)
Both sides of the Tara Brooch, i.e. its front and its back, are decorated in fine detail, though more so on the front than the rear. Based on the quality of the materials used to make the Tara Brooch, as well as its craftsmanship, it is believed that this artifact was made for a wealthy patron, probably a male. Apart from fastening its owner’s cloak, the brooch is thought to have also served as a sign of wealth and high status.
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Tara Brooch, rear view. National Museum of Ireland. (Johnbod/CC BY SA 3.0)
The Brooch’s Celtic and Christian Motifs
Much of the brooch’s decoration is interlace, which often involved zoomorphic forms. This is a prominent motif in the Celtic artistic tradition, and is full of symbolic significance. Animal motifs that can be detected on the Tara Brooch include birds and the heads of wolves and dragons.
While the symbolism of these decorations has pre-Christian origins, they continued to be used following the arrival of Christianity in Ireland as well. Additionally, the zoomorphic symbols are believed to have taken on a layer of complex Christian meanings, though these have since faded from cultural memory. It is also thought that such decorations had the power to protect their users from evil.
Sketch of the Tara Brooch. Wakeman's handbook of Irish antiquities. (1903) (Public Domain)
Top image: Copy of the 8th century Tara Brooch. Source: Kotomi_/CC BY NC 2.0
Celtic Rings Ltd, 2016. The History of the Tara Brooch. Available at: https://www.celtic-weddingrings.com/blog/index.php/2011/10/31/the-history-of-the-tara-brooch/
Kelly, A., 2014. The Tara Brooch: Gold and Jewels from the Ancient Irish Past. Available at: http://www.headstuff.org/2014/03/tara-brooch-gold-jewels-ancient-irish-past/
National Museum of Ireland, 2016. Tara Brooch. Available at: http://www.museum.ie/Archaeology/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/The-Treasury/Gallery-1-Iron-Age-to-12th-Century/Tara-Brooch-(1)
O'Brien, S., 2016. The Tara Brooch, one of Ireland’s greatest treasures, explained. Available at: http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/the-tara-brooch-one-of-irelands-greatest-treasures-explained
visual-arts-cork.com, 2016. Tara Brooch (8th Century). Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/irish-crafts/tara-brooch.htm
www.unc.edu, 2016. Tara Brooch. Available at: http://www.unc.edu/celtic/catalogue/brooches/tara.html