Chapter XVIII - Dress and Personal Adornment - Personal Ornaments

3. Personal Ornaments.

Legendary Origin

In ancient Irish tales and other records, referring to both pagan and Christian times, gold and silver ornaments - especially gold - are everywhere mentioned as worn by the upper classes: and these accounts are fully corroborated by the great numbers of objects of both metals found from time to time in various parts of Ireland.

In the National Museum there is a great collection of ancient artistic ornamental objects, some of pure gold, some of silver, and some of mixed metals and precious stones. All, or nearly all - of whatever kind or material - are ornamented in various patterns, some simply, some elaborately. Those decorated with the peculiar patterns known as opus Hibernicum or Irish interlaced work were made in Christian times by Christian artists, and are nearly all of mixed metals and precious stones. Those that have no interlaced work, but only spirals, circles, zigzags, lozenges, parallel lines, &c., are mostly of pagan and pre-Christian origin, many of them dating from a period long antecedent to the Christian era. Nearly all the gold objects, except closed rings and bracelets -and most even of these - belong to this class -made in pagan times by pagan artists. All the articles of gold are placed in one compartment of the Museum, and they form by far the largest collection of the kind in the British Islands: twelve or thirteen times more than that in the British Museum.

Rings and Bracelets

Among the high classes the custom of wearing rings and bracelets of gold, silver, and findruine (white bronze) on the fore-arm, wrist, and fingers - including the thumb - was universal, and is mentioned everywhere in ancient Irish literature. The words for a ring, whether for finger, or arm, are fa/il: fa/inne []: nasc, which was applied to a ring, bracelet, collar, or tie of any kind: and sometimes flesc. The word id was applied to a ring, collar, circlet, or chain. Still another name for a ring or bracelet was bunne [2 syll.]. These several names were no doubt applied to rings of different makes or sizes: but the distinctions have been in many cases lost.

Both men and women belonging to the highest, and richest classes had the arm covered with rings of gold, partly for personal adornment, and partly to have them ready to bestow on poets, musicians, story-tellers, and ollaves of other arts, who acquitted themselves satisfactorily. Circlets of gold, silver, or findruine were also worn round the legs above the ankle. Fully answering to all the entries and descriptions in the records we find in the National Museum in Dublin, and in other Irish museums, gold and, silver rings and bracelets of all makes and sizes: some pagan, some Christian.

Precious Stones and Necklaces

Ireland produced gems of many kinds - more or less valuable - which were either worn as personal ornaments by themselves - cut into shape and engraved with patterns - or used by artists in ornamental work. Precious stones are often mentioned in ancient Irish writings. In Kerry were found -and are still found -" Kerry diamonds," amethysts, topazes, emeralds, and sapphires: and several other precious stones, such as garnet. were found native in other parts of the country. A pearl was usually designated by the word se/d [shade]: but this word, as we shall see in chapter xxiii., sect. 4, was also applied to a cow regarded as an article of value or exchange; and it was often used to designate a gem or jewel of any kind. Se/d is still in use in this last sense. Several Irish rivers were formerly celebrated for their pearls; and in many the mussels that produce pearls are found to this day - often with pearls in them.

Of the various ornaments worn on the person, the common necklace was perhaps the easiest in use. Necklaces formed of small shells are common among primitive people all over the world, and they have been found with skeletons under cromlechs in several parts of Ireland, of which specimens may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin, belonging to prehistoric ages. In historic times necklaces formed of expensive gems of various kinds, or of beads of gold, were in use in Ireland; and they are frequently mentioned in the tales and other ancient Irish records.

Torques or Muntorcs

Besides the necklaces properly so called, there were various kinds of gold and silver ornaments for wearing round, the neck, of which perhaps the best known was the torque, which is repeatedly mentioned in our literature under the names torc and muntorc. The torque was often formed of a single straight bar of gold, square or triangular, from which the metal had been hollowed out along the flat sides, so as to leave four, or three, ribbons along the corners, after which it was twisted into a spiral, something like a screw with four, or three, threads : and the whole bar bended into a circular shape. But they were formed in other ways, as may be seen by an inspection of those in the National Museum in Dublin. There are in this Museum many

muntorcs of various shapes and sizes. Some are barely the size of the neck, while others are so large that when worn they extended over the breast almost to the shoulders and there are all intermediate sizes. One of the largest, found at Tara in the year 1810, is represented here (fig. 147). The one represented in fig. 148 is of unusual make, being formed by twisting a single plate of gold, and having two apples or balls of gold at, the ends. The custom of wearing torques, as well as rings and bracelets, was in ancient times very general, not only among the Irish, but among the northern nations, both of Europe and Asia, especially the Gauls, as all who have read Roman history will remember.

Crescents, Gorgets, or Necklets

The word muince [moon-ke] denotes a neck-circlet, from muin, the neck. It was used in several different applications; but the necklets that we find constantly mentioned in the ancient tales by the name muince are to be generally understood as golden gorgets or collars for the neck, worn by both men and women, now often conveniently called "crescents." These golden crescents are of three main types.

The FIRST is quite flat, thin, and brightly burnished. Most of those of this kind are ornamented in delicate line patterns, which were produced by fine chisel-edged punches. Crescents of this kind are often called by the name lunula or lunette. Fig. 149 represents one of those beautiful objects, of which there are now more than thirty in the National Museum.

The SECOND type, and by far the most elaborate, is dish-shaped in general make, convex on one side, concave on the other: covered all over with ornamental designs. The illustrations (figs. 150 and 151) will give a good idea of the general shape, but represent the ornamentation only imperfectly. There are five specimens of these gorgets in the Museum, all of very thin gold. Both the general convex shape and the designs were produced by hammering with a mallet and punches on a shaped solid mould. The designs are all raised from the surface (with corresponding hollows at the back); and in this respect they differ from those of the other two kinds of crescent in which the lines are indented. The patterns and workmanship on these are astonishingly fine, showing extraordinary skill of manipulation : they are indeed so complicated and perfect that it is difficult to understand how they could have been produced by mere handwork with moulds, hammers, and punches. Yet they could have been done in no other way.

The circular bosses at the ends of these gorgets deserve special notice. One of them is shown of half-size in fig. 152. They were made separately from the general body of the crescent, to which they are securely fastened: and the ornamentation on them is of extraordinary delicacy and beauty. Each of the little circular ornaments forming the two rows between centre and edge (19 in the inner row, 28 in the outer) consists of three delicate raised concentric circles, each triple series of circles round a central conical stud or button, with point projecting outwards: and in the centre of the whole boss is a large projecting stud of the same shape surrounded with raised circles: all of pure gold. Each boss consists of two saucer-shaped discs, fastened (not soldered) together all round the edge, with the convex sides outwards so as to enclose a hollow space.

Of the five gorgets of this class in the Museum, Wilde truly observes -"It may with safety be asserted that, both in design and execution, they are undoubtedly the most gorgeous and magnificent specimens of antique gold work which have as yet been discovered in any part of the world." In weight they vary from four to sixteen ounces: and taking material and workmanship into account they must have been of immense value in their time.

The necklets of the THIRD kind, of which the Museum contains five specimens, are of a semitubular make, the plate being bonded round so as to form, in some specimens, about a half tube, in others less than half. The gold is much thicker than in those of the other two types. The one represented in fig. 153, which is the largest and most perfect of the five, is ornamented at the ends with a punched herring-bone pattern. In an adjacent case of the Museum are five models of the type of these five real ones, of which the originals - all pure gold -were found in Clare in the great hoard mentioned at p.420, below, paragraph at bottom.

All the muinces of the three types were intended, and were very suitable, for the neck. The inside circular-opening is in every case of the right size to fit the neck, and on account of the flexibility of the plates they can be put on and taken off with perfect ease, even though the opening at the ends is only a couple of inches, or less.

All these crescents -of the three types - were worn on the neck with the ends in front, so as to exhibit the ornamented bosses to full advantage. Some have thought that the crescents of the first two type's (represented in figs. 149, 150, arid 151) were worn on the front of the head as diadems: but this was not, and could not have been, the case: the crescents of the three types were all muinces or necklets.

The Do-at and the Muince-do-at

At each extremity of all the muinces or crescents is a disc or boss or button - seen in the illustrations - generally circular, or nearly so : very elaborate in one of the types, simple in the other two. Their primary use was as fasteners, to catch the ornamental string by which the necklet was secured. These terminal appendages were known in ancient Irish records by the name of at, a word which means a knob, button, or disc - a swelling of any kind. Accordingly these gorgets, of all the three kinds, are designated muince-do-at, 'the necklet of the two ats or terminal discs.'

The Bunne and the Bunne-do-at.

There is a class of gold objects in the National Museum, very numerous - much more numerous than any other gold articles - and of various shapes and sizes, but all agreeing in two points of similarity :-open rings with ats or buttons at the two ends, of which figs. 154, 155, and 156 represent typical examples. These are what are called in the old records by the name Bunne-do-at, in which bunne (or buinne) means 'a ring,' and do 'two' :-Bunne-do-at, a ring with two ats, terminal knobs, or buttons. The designation Bunne-do-at for these rings is exactly similar to Muince-do-at for the neck crescents, and applied for the same reason. There are in the Museum about 150 specimens of' Bunne-do-at: they are now commonly called by the name "Fibula." They are of various shapes, as shown in the figures; and are of all sizes, from the diminutive specimens here shown in their natural size to the great bunne-do-at represented in fig. 159, the largest known to exist.

The Bunne-do-at was used as a personal ornament, and also as a mark of affluence - like many valuable articles of the present day - the size and value of course depending on the rank and means of the wearer. These articles were sometimes worn in pairs, one on each breast, and sometimes singly, on one breast: suspended from buttons like that shown at page 392, fig. 122. In one of the old tales certain persons are described as wearing Bunne-d0-ats each of thirty ungas or ounces of gold (equal 224 oz. Troy). There is not necessarily any exaggeration in this statement, inasmuch as the Trinity College bunne-do-at figured here is much heavier, weighing 83 Troy ounces.

Circular Gold plates

Among the gold ornaments in the National Museum are a number of very thin circular plates, with raised ornamental patterns punched from the back, varying in diameter from 1.5 inch up to 4 inches. Fig.160 represents one of these, 3.25 inches in diameter, found near Ballina in Mayo. All of them have the two holes at the centre (shown here) for fastening on the dress.


The brooch was worn by both men and women, and was the commonest of all articles of jewellery. It was used to fasten the mantle at the throat and was fixed crosswise. Its value - like that of the bunne-do-at - depended on the rank and means of the wearer. The poorer people wore a plain one of iron or bronze, with little or no ornamentation; but kings, queens, and other persons of high rank wore brooches made of the precious metals set with gems, and in Christian times elaborately ornamented with the peculiar Irish interlaced work. These must have been immensely expensive. That the descriptions given of brooches in old Irish writings are not exaggerated we have ample proofs in some of those now preserved in our Museums, of which the Tara Brooch figured at p.248 is the most perfect.

The general run of brooches had the body circular, from two to four inches in diameter, with a pin from six to nine inches long. But some were much smaller, while others again were larger and longer, and reached in fact from shoulder to shoulder. These great bro6ches are often noticed in the records; and the Brehon Law mentions a fine for injuries caused by the points extending beyond the shoulders. As in many other cases, the records are here corroborated by existing remains; for among the collection of brooches in the National Museum are two specimens 22 and 20 inches long respectively. Brooches were made of other shapes also, of which one is represented opposite.

The usual names for brooches were delg (a 'thorn'), eo [1 syll.], cassan ('having a twisted shape'),' roth a wheel'), and brethnas: but there were others.

The Lann, Blade, or Plate

It was customary to wear a band or ribbon of some kind round the forehead to confine the hair. It was generally of some woven fabric; and it will be mentioned farther on that a charioteer wore a bright yellow gipne or fillet in this manner as a distinctive mark. Among the higher and richer classes the band was often a very thin flexible plate, strip, or ribbon, of burnished gold, silver, or findruine. This was what was called a lann, i.e. 'blade,' or more commonly niam-lann, 'bright-blade.'

The Minn, Diadem, or Crown

Kings and queens wore a diadem or crown, commonly called minn : often designated minn o/ir, 'diadem of gold': which does not mean wholly of gold, but ornamented with gold. The minn, however, was not confined to kings and queens, but was worn by men and women belonging to all the higher classes, probably indicating rank according to shape and make, like the coronets of modern nobility. It was not worn in common, but was used on special occasions: a lady usually carried her minn-o/ir,' in her ornamental work-bag, along with other such valuable or ornamental articles, ready to be used at any moment.

The Irish minn, diadem, or crown was very expensive, and elaborately made, its value and shape being in accordance with the rank of the wearer. The body was of some fabric, probably silk or satin, adorned with gold, silver, white bronze, gems, and enamel. It was a cap made to encircle and cover the head, of which a good idea is given by the illustration (fig. 162), a representation of an Irish king, seated in state; copied from the high cross of Durrow, erected about A.D. 1019. The original crown of which this is a representation was about five inches high quite flat on top, with a slender band all round, above and below, the two bands connected by slender little fillets or bars, about two inches asunder. It covers the whole head like a hat, and there are two bosses over the ears, three or four inches in diameter.

The Irish crown varied in shape, however. It is pretty certain that some had rays or fillets standing up detached all round. Crowns of this kind, belonging to the O'Conors, kings of Connaught, as represented in the thirteenth-century fresco-painting in Knockmoy Abbey, are shown at p.24; and they are also mentioned in our old records. Two small objects now in the National Museum are believed to be portions - rays or fillets - of an old Irish radiated crown. One of them is figured in outline here; but this illustration gives no idea of the extraordinary beauty of the original, which is ornamented all over in richly coloured enamel. Mr. Kemble, a distinguished English antiquarian, says of these two objects: -" For beauty of design and execution they may challenge comparison with any specimen of cast bronze work that it has ever been my fortune to see."


Men of the high class wore gold earrings, as we know from Cormac's Glossary and other old Irish authorities. An earring was called Unasc, from U or 0, ' the ear,' and nasc, ' a clasp or ring.' There were several other names, all of which - as well as unasc- mean 'ear-clasp' or 'ear-binder,' from which, and from other evidence besides, we know that the ear was not pierced; but a thin elastic ring was clasped round it ; and from the lower extremity of this another little ring was suspended (like that represented in fig. 164).

Golden Balls for the Hair

Both men and women sometimes plaited the long hair; and at the end of the plait they fastened a thin, light, hollow ball of gold, which was furnished for the purpose with little apertures at opposite sides. Sometimes those balls were worn singly - probably behind - and sometimes in pairs, one on each side. These are often mentioned in the tales. King Labraid is described as having an apple of gold enclosing the end of his hair [behind] : Cuculainn had spheres of gold at his two ears into which his hair was gathered: and a young warrior is seen having two balls of gold on the ends of the two divisions of his hair, each the size of a man's fist. Ladies had several very small spheres - sometimes as many as eight -instead of one or two large ones.

As corroborating the records, there are in the National Museum a number of these golden balls, found from time to time in various parts of Ireland. They are all hollow and light, being formed of extremely thin gold: and each has two small circular boles at opposite sides by means of which the hair was fastened so as to hold the ball suspended. Each is formed of two hemispheres, which are joined with the greatest accuracy by being made to overlap about the sixteenth of an inch, and very delicately soldered - so that it requires the use of a lens to detect the joining. The one figured here is nearly 4 inches in diameter: so that the old story-teller was not wrong in describing some of these balls as "the size of a man's fist."

Some recent writers have expressed the opinion that these balls -large and small -were used for necklaces-strung together on a string, and ranged according to size: but this opinion is erroneous. At the time they wrote - now fifty years ago (plus 90!) they had not before them the information regarding the use of gold balls for the hair that is now available to us.

The corroboration of the truthfulness of the old records by existing remains has been frequently noticed throughout this book; and this is a very striking example, inasmuch as the custom of wearing gold balls in the hair seems so strange that it might be set down as the invention of story-tellers, if their statements were not supported.

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