Irish Treasures: The Loughnashade Horn

The Loughnashade Horn is one of the top ten most important archaeological finds in Ireland. It has been given pride of place in the National Museum of Ireland and is regularly cited as one of the most unique and intriguing insights into Irish history. Despite all of this, few people have ever actually heard of it, let alone seen it in the flesh. Often overlooked by more well known and more ornate objects such as the Ardagh Chalice, Tara Brooch or the Broighter Hoard, the Loughnashade Horn often gets forgotten about.

Here’s what you need to know about it and why its importance needs to be recognised more often...


The Fort of Emain Macha and the Ulaidh

To begin the story of the Loughnashade horn, we first have to delve back in history to the Fort of Emain Macha in Navan, county Armagh (more commonly known as Navan Fort). This ancient fort was one of the great royal sites of Celtic Ireland and the capital of the Ulaidh (the tribe responsible for the creation of Ulster), At their peak, the Ulaidh’s territory stretched from Emain Macha all the way across the north of the island, as far south as the River Boyne and as far west as what is now county Leitrim.

Evidence shows however that there was human activity on the site as far back as 4000 - 2500 BC, although in Irish mythology it was said be founded by the goddess Macha (who gave birth to twins there) some time between the 5th - 7th century BC, i.e not too long before the Ulaidh came to the fore. Today the fort is merely a grassy circular mound outlined by a ditch and bank, with remnants of a ring barrow in the middle.

However, archaeological investigations revealed that there were once several structures on the site, including a huge central ‘roundhouse’ type building. In other examples of ancient forts around Ireland the ditch is usually on the outside, but at Emain Macha it is on the inside, suggesting that it was used for a purpose other than defence.

Many historians have speculated that because of its prominence in Irish mythology, it was used as a ceremonial site for the Ulaidh rather than as a place of permanent residence for their king.

It could also be a burial site, which would require little daily defence. In one mention it states that the fort was burnt and abandoned in 331 AD after a damaging defeat in battle, and archaeological evidence supports this.

Whatever the reason for the fort’s existence, it was highly revered in mythology and annals. King Conchobar mac Nessa from the Ulster Cycle was said to have built three houses there, and several mythological heroes have been associated with it including Cu Chulainn, Deirdre and Naoise, and Fergus Mac Roich.

It’s no wonder then that the Loughnashade horn was discovered a stone’s throw away from the fort, and is largely thought to have originated from the time of the Ulaidh too.


Horns and Ancient Ireland

The Loughnashade horn is important because of its date of origin. Believed to have been crafted around the 1st century BC, it is a direct contradiction to the widespread theory that horns only arrived in western Europe in the Middle Ages, when influences and trading with the Arab world become more commonplace.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that even before the Bronze Age, inhabitants of the island had been using horns made from organic materials, such as animal horns or curved pieces of hollow wood that they came across.

As for their actual function, nobody knows for sure; war horns, distress signals, summoning signals, or ceremonial use have all been mooted as possibilities, but none can be definitively proven.

From the Bronze Age onwards in Ireland, there were two classes of horns made from metal; side-blown horns and end-blown horns (the Loughnashade horn is an end-blown horn).

Side blown horns had one or more holes along the side rather than at the end of the horn for blowing into (similar to a very, very primitive kind of flute), with different notes achieved through the different holes. When certain holes were not in use they were plugged up with some sort of organic material, usually wood or clay.

End-blown horns had one mouthpiece, usually wider than side-blown horns. The range of notes was more restricted, but the sound could be altered by using the tongue or changing the shape of the mouth when blowing (similar to playing a didgeridoo).

Although only a few examples have been found intact, they are considered to have been fairly commonplace items. Compared to later objects worked from metal they are relatively plain in decoration; little more than ribs, grooves or zig zags were found along the exterior.

Because they were largely functional items and not thought of to be all that important, it is possible that over the years many of them were melted down again to be cast into different items.

Despite being mostly functional however, it is obvious that much more attention was paid to the appearance rather than the sound of Bronze Age horns. The exterior was often smoothed and presumably polished, while little or no attempt to do this was made on the interior, which would have resulted in a clearer, better sound.

End-blown horns, the Loughnashade horn among them, usually came in two or more parts, the bell section and the blowing piece.

This meant that different parts could be interchangeable to create longer, shorter, or different shaped horns. Semi-circle and s-shapes were the most common. Horns such as these would have had a clay core to hold the pieces together when in use.


Since the musical aspect of these horns was not all that significant to the people who used them, many historians have speculated that they were largely used for ritual deposition.

This is a theory that does have some relevance considering the amount of horns that were discovered in hoards, sometimes with human remains alongside them in what was obviously some sort of ceremonial offering. The Loughnashade horn is one such example.

The Loughnashade Horn

The Loughnashade horn was discovered in 1794 during draining works of bogland area. Entrenched in the waterlogged earth which was formerly the lake of Loughnashade, a short distance from the fort of Emain Macha, the horn was found in a hoard similar to the Broighter and Derrynaflan hoards.

It consisted of four bronze horns along with a collection of human skulls and other bones. Sadly, only one of the horns survived - and it just so happened to be most ‘imperfect’ of the four, requiring plenty of repair work.

The horn dates from the 1st century BC and is crafted from riveted sheets of hammered bronze. It has four main components; the two long cylindrical tubes with a narrow mouth piece on one end and a wider bell section on the other end; a biconical ring to hold the two pieces together; and the final and most exquisite piece, a decorated disc attached to the wider end of the horn.

The two tubes have been constructed differently, which suggests that they were not constructed at the same time - one piece, most likely the narrower tube, is probably a replacement. The wider tube is closed with a seam along the concave edge by a strip of bronze fastened by a series of rivets - this would have required a great deal of skill to get the alignment perfect.

This piece is relatively delicate however, as three separate patch repairs can be seen on it. The second tube is closed by an overlap instead and fastened with rivets. The entire horn is much bigger than it looks in photos; it measures just under 2 metres (187cm to be exact) from end to end, expanding from 2.6cm in diameter at the blow-piece to 9cm at the opposite end.

It’s not the largest example found on Irish shores either - the Ardbin horn, found in county Down in 1806, is even larger at 240cm! The process of construction for most of the horns was like so; first the bronze was hammered into shape, aligned and then sealed as above with rivets (and additional soldering to add stability).

The rivets were filed smooth and then the horn was bent into its final semicircular shape. In the case of the Loughnashade horn, the decorative disc at the end would have been crafted and added last.

This disc was also hammered into shape, then the stunning decoration was hammered into the metal from behind (a technique known as repousee).


Image Source: Irish Central
Image Source: Irish Central

The decoration on the terminal disc is by far the most eye-catching aspect of the Loughnashade horn. Hammered in high relief and mirrored on each quadrant of the ring, it features long curving tendrils ending in spiral motifs based on the classical lotus-bud design in a perfect representation of the impressive skill of Bronze Age craftsmen.

It also showcases a typical early example of La Tene decoration, a style that was set to dominate the Celtic world for many centuries to come. While not exactly elaborate, its execution is perfect and its subtle beauty is something which is often lacking in later ‘High Celtic’ objects.

While it is accepted that nobody knows the single most important functions of Bronze Age horns, in the case of the Loughnashade horn the signs seem to point towards it being used as a war horn.

Remember there were originally four similarly decorated horns; seeing and hearing them all being blown together would have been somewhat intimidating at the start of a battle for the opposing side. Sadly this sight still wasn’t enough for one of the many battles the Ulaidh fought, as its deposition in the lake more than likely coincides with the recorded burning of Emain Macha.


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