Irish Treasures: The Tara Brooch

Tara Brooch showing decoration on back
Front of the Tara Brooch (National Museum Image)

On this rainy Friday, we are continuing with Our Irish Treasures series by looking at one of the most iconic pieces of Irish metalwork.

The Tara Brooch. The Tara Brooch is another piece of ancient jewellery with a rich history. Older and more ornate than The Ardagh Chalice, it could even be considered more impressive than its fellow treasure due to the unbelievable skill that went into making such an ornate yet small piece. Of the fifty or so Celtic brooches that have been found in Ireland, it is definitely the most significant.

Tara brooch
Back of the Tara Brooch (National Museum Image)

The Celts and Brooches

Brooches were a standard clothing accessory in Celtic times. They were used to fasten cloaks and were generally quite big and sturdy, a far cry from the delicate versions we wear today. They were worn by both men and women, although in different positions; at the shoulder for men and at the chest for women. The pin was always pointed upwards, in fact there was even a law stating that if a person was injured by someone else's pin, the owner was not at fault providing it did not protrude too far outwards (how exactly they measured that is anybody's guess).

Designs started out plain and simple, but from around 700 – 900 AD there seemed to be a trend of beautifully decorated brooches made from precious metals. These would have been worn by the most important people in Celtic society (usually clergymen), but would have been 'special occasion' brooches, not the type of thing to be worn during ordinary day to day life. These more ornate brooches also get a mention in early Irish law; the sons of major kings must wear 'brooches of gold having crystal inserted in them', although sons of minor kings could make do with silver. It is not known who the Tara Brooch was made for, although it's obvious that it was for someone considerably wealthy and almost certainly male.

Celtic brooches come in two styles, known as annular and penannular. Annular brooches formed a complete ring with the pin being very large in size in relation to the ring. Penannular brooches had a small gap in the ring for the pin to move in between. In both styles, the ring section does not actually have any fastening function and is supposed to sit on top of the pin as a decorative element. The pin was pushed through the material, which was pulled back inside the ring. With penannular brooches the pin was then slightly rotated around the ring to secure it.

History of the Tara Brooch

The Tara Brooch is actually a little bit misleading, in name at least. The Hill of Tara, in the very centre of the country, was the seat of the high king of Ireland in Celtic days. It was used by ancient societies for many centuries and is generally considered to be a very sacred and highly important place. However, the brooch itself has nothing to do with Tara, and wasn't even discovered anywhere close by. In 1850, two sons from a peasant family on the east coast, 50km north of Dublin, found it inside a tin box on a beach.

That was the mother's version of the story at least. It seems unlikely that a small tin box would survive centuries of erosion and shifting sand, so a more believable (although unofficial) version is that they actually found the brooch further inland but didn't want the owner of the land knowing anything about it in case he claimed it for himself. In any case, the boys brought their find home to their mother, who took it to an iron dealer. He quickly told her it was of absolutely no use or interest to him, but undeterred, the mother then brought it to a watchmaker. After cleaning and examination, this watchmaker determined that it was made of silver and covered with gold filigree, and bought it for the whopping sum of 18 pence. He didn't hold onto it for very long however, and sold it on to Waterhouse Jewellers for a somewhat more profitable twelve pounds.

At this time in Ireland a Celtic Revival was in full swing. Celtic art, songs, language and traditions were becoming increasingly popular, especially among the middle classes. George Waterhouse, owner of Waterhouse Jewellers, was one of the people responsible for it. He had been producing jewellery inspired by Celtic styles for some time already, and had a very good reputation because of it. When the brooch fell into his hands, he saw an irresistible sales opportunity and renamed it the Tara Brooch. So that's where the name comes from!

For the next 22 years the Tara Brooch was the centre piece of Waterhouse's display in his Dublin shop. People visited in droves – even Queen Victoria wanted to see it, and requested for it to be sent to Windsor Castle for inspection. It was featured in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and later in the Exposition Universelle in Paris, as well as an exhibition in Dublin in 1853, where the Queen came to look at it for a second time. In 1872 it was acquired by the Royal Irish Academy, the organisation responsible for setting up what is now the National Museum of Ireland. Sadly it lost several of its gold panels along the way, but its intricate beauty can still be seen in the museum today.

Irish pennanular Tara Brooch Detail

Features of the Brooch

The brooch has been dated back to 700AD, made from silver-gilt and gold filigree along with some coloured glass and small amounts of amber and copper. All of the materials used are of exceptionally high quality. It is seven inches in length and would have taken all of the techniques, skills and talents of one goldsmith to produce, as it was made in several small pieces with much of the decoration done on panels which were then fixed into place.

The brooch is pseudo-penannular in style, meaning that the ring has no opening but the design is the same as a penannular brooch. Instead of a gap it has fully joined terminals with an emphasis in the design on where the gap would be. It has a silver chain of plaited wire attached by a swivel attachment, which leads experts to believe that it was fastened in a slightly different way to other brooches. The pin would have been secured by tying it down onto the material with the chain, possibly using another small pin at the end to pierce the cloth.

Before some of the panels went astray, the brooch was completely covered in decoration on both the front and back. Even the pin has some gold filigree work on the shaft, although for practical reasons it is a lot less intricate than the pin. The back side is flatter than the front but both sides feature elaborate motifs separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber. The back side includes panels of silver fastened over copper. In contrast to other types of jewellery from the time, the Tara Brooch has no Christian or Pagan symbolism. Its decoration is entirely embellished with celtic knots and interlaces, triskeles, animal and human heads and geometric shapes. This is probably because it was intended as a symbol of wealth and status rather than anything else.

Interlace design covers almost the entire surface of the Tara Brooch. The techniques used to create this aspect alone include filigree, chip carving, granulation, and embossing, so it is clearly an example of a master craftsman at work. Interlace is complicated at the best of times, as an 'under-over' effect has to be created and each crossing has to alternate. It needs to be done by gold wire work and beading so doing this perfectly in minute detail on the small panels of the brooch would not have been an easy task. Triskeles (a triple spiral design that forms a triangular shape, used in Celtic art for the most important sites and people in the society) are also a prominent feature on the front of the pin.

On the seven inches of the brooch there are more than 20 representations of dragons and serpents. In some places they are incorporated into the knot-work on the interlacing, and in others there are molded heads and engravings. They appear both as opposing pairs and singly. The best example is the pin's head which started out as a golden nugget, and was moulded and engraved to look like a dragon's head. Human heads can be seen too, but either the maker or the wearer of the pin seems to have been more fond of dragons and snakes.

Tara Brooch Detail National Museum of Ireland

It is unusual for a brooch to be decorated on both sides, as only the front is seen when worn. But the Tara Brooch has equally beautiful although not as detailed decoration on the back. This was either because the maker wanted a complete piece (or wanted to show off), or because the Celts believed that placing certain designs on the body gave protective powers. The back is made up of copper plates covered in silver foil which has been cut through to make patterns and shapes. Again, interlace, triskeles, scrolls and spirals make up the bulk of the design work. Unlike the front, the decoration has been cast rather than embossed, carved or engraved. The triskel design on the Tara Brooch inspired one of our newest pieces the Silver Triskel Pendant.

Irish Tara Brooch engraved panel detail

The designs are broken up with studs at various intervals with beads of amber, glass, and enamel. These are probably the only element of the brooch that is even remotely simplistic – the maker has stuck to ordinary geometric shapes with a few human head engravings. The amber studs are the largest and are engraved with triskeles, while the smaller beads have single circles or other designs.

Tara Brooch Sketch for Pendant Design

It's a shame that the brooch is no longer in perfect condition; who knows what other intricate designs adorned the missing panels? It's fair to assume they would have been reasonably similar to the surviving panels of course, but there can never be too many examples of such high quality work. Luckily, it's easy to imagine what it would have looked like as a complete piece, since the rest of it is still in such fine condition.

Silver Brooch National Museum Ireland

The Tara Brooch inspired and influenced a lot of people after its discovery with its striking and quintessentially Celtic design. Brooches in the penannular style became extremely popular in Ireland, with many feeling that it was a perfect representation of their Celtic roots. It's still inspiring and representing people today, and although we may not wear brooches as big or as ornate these days (or cloaks to fasten for that matter), a penannular style brooch is still a unique and eye-catching accessory.

We've combined this with another adornment the Celts were so fond of – The Torc you will see, has inspired many pieces in our handcrafted Fine Irish jewellery collection where you will also see Celtic knot

Don't worry, you don't need to be a minor king to wear it :D!

We would love to hear your thoughts on the Tara Brooch?

Leave us a comment below!

Back to blog