Delicate Irish treasure

The Tara Brooch at the National Museum is more than it seems


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Dublin – If you go to Ireland looking for the ancient Celts, forget going down by the Liffey. Dublin, thanks to Ireland’s monster economy, has reinvented itself.

The slow rhythm of rural life is gone from this provincial capital. Instead, we find the Temple Bar crowded with drunken Brits, the Millennium Needle (or as Dubliners call it, “the stiletto in the ghetto”) finished, festivals, concerts and anything else a modern, up-and-coming old city needs or wants.

But tucked away in the National Museum of Ireland is one of the rarest and most amazing pieces of Irish/Celtic art – one that makes the heart sing.

The Tara Brooch sits in the treasury section of the museum, and at first glance it’s simple and unassuming – so simple, it deceives those looking for it. I have to stop and ask the bored-looking guard where it is. It’s the smartest thing I do all day.

The guard gets up from his seat, very pleased to have someone to talk to, and walks me over to the case where the small object is displayed.

“Do you know why it’s so famous?” he asks.

“No, not really,” I answer.

“I sat here every day lookin’ at the damn thing, and I never knew either. Until one day there was a Japanese documentary crew in here makin’ a great fuss over it. So I asked ’em, what was the big deal about this wee pin?”

“And?”

“Lean in close and look,” he says, his smile becoming puckish.

I stick my face up close to the protective glass, peering at the gold brooch.

At first it appears to be only the sort of pin you see on the shoulder of an Irish dancer or someone who likes to go to anachronistic craft festivals – an ornamented circle with pin used to fasten the wearer’s cloak.

But as I stare, I become mesmerized. What look like simple blobs of gold begin to come alive – they’re fantastic creatures, wolves’ heads, dragons’ faces, spiralling designs that fold back on themselves endlessly. The more I look, the more I see.

My eyes widen, and I say to the guard, “I can see some animals at the head of the pin.”

He stands up from his chair.

“Now consider this: the brooch is made in the pseudo-penannular style, which means it wasn’t meant to be a brooch to hold clothing, but to be decorative. So someone with a lot of money had it made, as they didn’t need it to be functional. Do you see the dragon’s head at the top?”

I nod, amazed at the artistry. “Oh, I can see faces in the beads!” I say excitedly.

“Ach, you’re way ahead of me,” the guard laughs. “This pin is 7 inches long in total, and there are more than 20 dragons on it. It was made in early 700 A.D. by someone who was rich and probably educated. At that time, many lords were sending their children here to be educated, as Ireland had a lot of monasteries.

“The religious orders did the educatin’, but notice that there is not one Christian marking on this pin. It’s pure pagan, so whoever had it made went to great lengths to make sure it wasn’t going to be seen as a symbol of religious power, but temporal to show the viewer that the owner’s power came from him and him alone.

“Now look at the back of the pin.”

I walk around to the back, which has just as much decoration as the front.

“The copper plates are covered in silver and then cut away in Celtic design. The design is really hard to create, as there are rules for carryin’ it out. Each crossin’ has to alternate: over, then under.”

I stand amazed. How could someone create something of such delicate perfection in 700 A.D.?

“Where was it found?” I ask, expecting to be told it was discovered on the Hill of Kings, at Tara.

“It was found in the 1870s by a woman on a beach not too far from Dublin, in a place called Bettystown. It was sold to an antiques dealer who immediately saw it for what it is but knew he could create more excitement if he called it the Tara Brooch.”

I laugh out loud. “Yeah, it does sound better than the Bettystown Brooch, doesn’t it?”

“Gets ya a few more bob,” he winks.

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