As far as Celtic jewellery goes, The Tara Brooch is probably the most well known (not to mention the most beautiful) example found on Irish shores. As with all old artefacts, the history and context of the object is often equally if not more interesting than the piece itself. With that in mind, we decided to look at some other examples of Celtic brooches. While there are many to choose from, the Roscrea Brooch stands out as the most beautiful and historically interesting of the bunch. We often look to the past for inspiration in Our Work here at Claddagh Design in order to learn from our ancestor's appreciation of aesthetics. Although often overlooked by its more famous predecessor, it still has an interesting story to tell.
These days, Roscrea is a fairly average town in the Irish midlands (or county Tipperary to be precise) with a population of around 5000 people. However, it is in fact one of the oldest towns in Ireland, with Saint Cronan establishing the first settlement way back in the 6th century. Throughout history it has been an important trading and market town, sitting along one of the main ancient highways of Ireland; from the seat of the High King in Tara to the gateway to the Atlantic, Limerick. It all started with Saint Cronan, who set up a monastery in the 6th century in a strategic location between two mountains.
It soon became an important ecclesiastic settlement, and the town grew up around its stately church, high cross, and later round tower. Several more important buildings came along with time including more abbeys, a friary, and a medieval castle, leading to Roscrea being named an Irish Heritage down in the 20th century. It was this important and respected reputation that lead to it being a centre of learning in all trades and subjects, including metalwork. The Roscrea brooch was found close to St. Cronan’s monastery and is believed to have been made in the town too.
Vikings in Ireland
The most important historical aspect of the Roscrea Brooch is the coming of the Vikings to Ireland. Having travelled from Scandinavia to England, Scotland and Wales by boat, raiding and eventually settling along coastal regions, they set their sights on exploring the next island across the sea – Ireland. The first small batch Viking ships arrived in the 9th century, causing minor havoc and plundering a few coastal settlements. This was nothing compared to the waves and waves of ships that came the following century, which prompted monasteries to build defensive narrow round towers with one single door at ground level and one small single window at the top, where they would store their most valuable belongings and hide behind the walls when the Vikings laid siege.
The Vikings settled along the coast first in what is now Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, attacking the settlements that were already there, plundering all of their gold, silver and other useful objects, and setting up their own extensive base camps and harbours for their ships. Once their presence was properly established, they then began sailing down rivers to inland regions to find more vulnerable natives. The experienced, organised and efficient Viking forces were no match for the local tribes and settlements, although there were of course several dramatic battles between the two over the decades.
By the end of the 11th century, after many power struggles, shifting alliances and defeats, the two races finally began to peacefully co-exist. The Vikings had many valuable skills and trades that they brought to the locals, who in turn became less fiercely protective of their land and more open to the idea of peace. With time, they were trading with each other, marrying, and eventually became the single race of people that progressed right up until today.
Celtic brooches vs. Viking brooches
One of the many ways in which the Vikings and Celts intermingled was in their style of dress. The Celts were already skilled craftsmen for whom jewellery was an important status symbol. Usually it was both functional and decorative, with the quality, amount of decoration, and materials used depending on the individual’s wealth. The Tara Brooch, for example, is intricately decorated and would have taken an immense amount of skill to complete, and so would have been reserved for only a very powerful and wealthy chieftain. We did a piece some time ago on How we Handcrafted a Diamond and Emerald Tara Brooch and the detailing so that you can see the amount of detail that would have gone into theses brooches. Celtic brooches were much larger and sturdier than the kind we wear today, with elongated pins. This was because the Celts wore thick, heavy cloaks that needed a heavy duty fastener to hold the folds of material in place. The penannular style was most common; a long pin attached at the head to a ring. The pin could move freely around the ring, which was open in one section with ‘terminals’ at either end of the head.
The pin was worn at the shoulder by men and on the chest by women, always with the pin pointing up. Gold brooches were the most prestigious, worn by high chieftains and kings, with their immediate subordinates wearing silver. Bronze and other metals were used for everyone else. Viking brooches, on the other hand, were much less fussy, usually made from silver with simple, functional designs with little or no decoration. They were still large and heavy like their Celtic counterparts and stuck to similar designs, but the similarities end there. The ‘thistle’ design was popular among Vikings, so-called because they were similar in shape to a thistle. The ring of the pin was topped off with a round projection, often with a flare detail on top. The space between terminals was larger and in more ornate types, one terminal was curved outwards with some carving detail on the ball (usually an animal head). With the entwining of the two cultures, the Vikings adapted some elements of Celtic craftwork into their jewellery and vice versa. Eventually, some brooches with Celtic designs were found in Scandinavia too!
The Roscrea Brooch
The Roscrea brooch is the perfect example of this exchange of cultures between the Vikings and the Celts. Dating from the 9th century, it would have been crafted during a time when Viking presence in Ireland was intensifying and their skills and trades were being exchanged with the Celts. It has been deemed by many historians as a ‘transitional brooch’, perfectly blending elements of both Viking and Celtic styles, materials and designs. Crafted from silver, it includes some simple yet beautiful decoration a world away from the ornate Celtic brooches, but still firmly in the same style, using filigree and gold and amber embellishments. All evidence points towards the brooch being made by local craftsmen using Viking techniques, as it is said to be less expertly made than both genuine Viking or Celtic artefacts.
This would have been commonplace at the time, with natives eager to learn new skills or at the very least, to find a way to incorporate these new techniques into their own styles. Unfortunately little is known about the brooch or its owner, but some have speculated that it was crafted in Roscrea by skilled monks from St. Cronan’s or one of the other monastic sites. It was found along with the Book of Dimma, a pocket gospel book dating from the 8th century, also made at Roscrea abbey. This illuminated manuscript was contained within its own elaborately decorated case or shrine, crafted from silver. The Annals of Roscrea were also found at the same time, so whatever the circumstances of the brooch, it was most definitely crafted by men with considerable skill for an important purpose.
The Roscrea brooch measures just over 8cm in diameter and 9.5cm in length, and unusually for brooches dating from the period, it is only half a centimetre thick. It has been fashioned from cast silver and includes a number of intricate decorative details (although still not quite as elaborate as the Tara Brooch). It features a round, flat pin head that includes a triangular panel stretching from the top, meeting another curved panel at the bottom. The pin emerges from a basal animal head, similar in style to the Tara brooch. Each decorative panel is bordered by semi-circles of gold filigree, but the rest of the ring and the pin itself is merely plain silver. Inside the borders of gold filigree is a second border of interlacing with animal images incorporated throughout. At each corner this pattern is interrupted with a round amber setting.
Inside this second border is a final raised gold plate with more Celtic patterned filigree work. Even the ridge between the two panels is itself a long animal body, while the dividing gap on the curved panel has an added small diamond shaped plate of filigree work. The pin, the tip of which is missing, has also been left plain and simple with just an engraved chevron design. The back of the plate is bordered with a row of dots and an incised line (unlike other Celtic examples which are adorned with decoration on both sides), with some of the carved animal heads continuing over from the front side. Considering its large flat head, the use of silver as the main material, the relatively small amount of gold filigree, and the fact that there are large undecorated sections rather than every inch being richly adorned, the Viking influence on this piece is clear.
As well as being one of the first and one of the finest examples of Irish craftsmen using Viking materials and techniques, the Roscrea brooch also proves that there were plenty of advantages to counteract the disadvantages of Viking invasions. Not only did they bring fresh ideas, skills and trading to the natives of Ireland, they also helped to progress the country to make it more dynamic, open minded, and self aware. But whatever happened to the brooch itself? Thankfully, it now rests in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, still in exquisite condition and on display for everyone to admire its distinctive beauty. If you enjoyed this article you may also appreciate our previous Blogpost All About Torcs
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