Manner of Living in Ancient Ireland
In very early Ireland practically all residences were of wood or wicker
work and most of them were in circular from. They were usually thatched with straw, rushes
or sedge. Stone was very seldom used in building residences before the eighth century. The
wooden and wicker work houses were washed with lime on the outside.
Linen sheets and ornamented coverlets were in use. Small low tables for serving meals were supplied with knives, cups, jugs, drinking horns, methers and occasionally napkins. Wheat meal, oat meal, eggs, meat, milk and honey, with some vegetables and few fruits supplied the table. Light was furnished by candles of tallow or of beeswax, rushlights, spails of bog fir, and sometimes oil lamps. All of the better class houses had basins for bathing. After their days exertion, and before taking their evening meal, hunters and warriors treated themselves to a bath. And a bath was always a common courtesy to which to treat a newly arrived guest.
The women had mirrors made of highly polished metal. They used cosmetics and had combs. Both sexes devoted the greatest attention to the care of their hair, which was often elaborately curled and plaited. Both women and men (of noble rank) wore beautiful wrought brooches, for fastening their mantle. Other ornaments were bracelets, rings, neck torques, diadems, crescents of gold and silver - all of which may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin.
The chief articles of dress were, in the case of women, one long robe that reached to the ankles, and of the men a short jacket combined with a sort of kilt. Over these both sexes frequently wore a cloak or mantle. The substance of the dress was usually either of linen or wool.
In the poem of the Bruidean de Derga, the Saxon chief Ingcel, in describing King Conaire Mor as he saw him in the Bruidean gives a glorified description of a kings dress in the early days :
"I saw his many-hued red cloak of lustrous silk,
With its gorgeous ornamentation of precious gold bespangled
upon its surface,
With its flowing capes dexterously embroidered.
"I saw in it a great large brooch,
The long pin was of pure gold;
Bright shining like a full-moon
Was its ring, all around - a crimson gemmed circlet
Of round sparkling pebbles -
Filling the fine front of his noble breast
Atwixt his well proportioned fair shoulders.
"I saw his splendid line kilt,
With its striped silken borders -
A face-reflecting mirror of various hues,
The coveted of the eyes of many, -
Embracing his noble neck - enriching its beauty.
An embroidery of gold upon the lustrous silk -
(Extended) from his bosom to his noble knees."
The structural antiquities which we can still observe in Ireland arrange
themselves under five heads : cromlechs, tumuli, the great duns of the west, ancient
churches, and round towers.
The cromlechs, sometimes called dolmen, are each composed of three great standing stones, ten or twelve feet high with a great flat slab resting on top of them, and always inclined towards the east. Sometimes these are surrounded by a wide circle of standing stones. The cromlechs are of such very remote antiquity - ancient - at the beginning of the Christian era - that all legends of them are lost. The invariable inclination to the east of the covering slab suggests altars dedicated to sun-worship. The name cromlech may mean either bent slab or the slab of the god Crom. And this latter derivation suggests to some that they were sacrificial altars used in the very ancient worship of that god.
But some of the best authorities have concluded that they were tombstones - because beneath every one of them under which excavations were made, were found the bones, or the urns and dust of the dead. From this, however, we cannot necessarily conclude that they were erected as tombstones - any more than we should conclude that the various Christian temples and altars under which honoured ones have been interred were only intended as monuments to the dead beneath them.
The tumuli or enormous burial mounds found in the Boyne section of eastern Ireland show the race in a much more advanced stage of civilisation. These tumuli, as proved by the decorative designs carved upon their walls, were erected at least before the Christian era - and maybe many centuries before it. They are great stone roofed royal sepulchres, buried under vast regularly shaped, artificial mounds. Every one of the tumuli so far explored has shown urn burial. The greatest, most beautiful, of these royal tombs are those as Knowth, Dowth and New Grange, on the Boyne.
After the tumuli, the next structures in order of time are the great duns of the west coast, such as Dun Angus, and Dun Conor, on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The great duns were erected sometime during the first three centuries of the Christian era. They consist of enormously thick walls, of stone, which, though built before the discovery of any kind of cement, are of marvelously fine, firm and impregnable construction. These great walls, in the interior of which are sometimes chambers and passages, surround an amphitheatre of about a thousand feet in diameter. In the amphitheatre are stone huts, the residences of the dun - some of them are bee-hive shape, some of them are of the shape of an upturned boat. Tradition says that these great duns were erected by the Firbolgs who maintained themselves along the western fringe for long centuries after the Milesians possessed themselves of the land.
About the round towers, the antiquarians are now pretty generally agreed that they are of Christian origin always built as adjuncts to churches, and erected after the marauding Danes had shown the harassed ecclesiastics the need of some immediate, strong, and easily defended place of refuge for themselves, and of safety for the sacred objects, and the rich objects of church art which the Northmen constantly sought. The round towers of Ireland range in height from about a hundred to a hundred and twenty feet; they are from twelve to twenty feet in external diameter at the base, and a little narrower at the top. They are of six or seven storeys high; with one window usually to each floor - except in the upper most storey which has four. The lowermost of these openings is always about ten feet or more from the ground - giving good advantage over attackers. The walls are usually three and a half to four foot thick.
There are still eighty round towers in Ireland, twenty of them perfect. They are always found in connection with churches - and almost invariably situated about twenty feet from the north west corner of the church - and with the door or lowermost window facing the church entrance. Almost all of the earliest Irish churches were of wood. It was practically in the tenth century that the use of stone for building the large churches began. And it was only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that it became general. In these last named centuries the Romanesque style was introduced, and some beautiful churches erected, like that of St Caimin at Inniscaltra by Brian Boru, and Cormacs chapel at Cashel. In the decorating of doorways and windows, sculpture began to show in the churches of the tenth century. But Irish sculpture is best exemplified probably on the high crosses of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There are some forty five of these high crosses still remaining, most of them very beautiful There was an Irish cross, having the circle of the Greek cross placed upon the shafts of the Latin. The sculpture on the high crosses include carvings of the saints, scriptural scenes, judgment scenes, royal processions, hunting scenes, stags at bay, horsemen, chariots etc
The sculpture of the Irish at this period was infinitely superior to that produced by their neighbours, the Welsh, the Anglo Saxons and the Scottish. But the soul of the artist breathed through the work of the Irish sculptor.
Various Arts of Ancient Ireland
Save that of the scribe, there was no other art in ancient Ireland
carried to such beautiful perfection as that of the metal worker. And we have, still
remaining, hundreds of beautiful pieces of this work. These ancients objects are of
various kind; articles of personal adornment, bell-shrines, cumdachs or shrines for books,
Among the personal ornaments we have brooches, bracelets, rings, necklaces, torques (twisted ribbons of gold or silver) for wearing around the neck, minns or diadems, crowns, amulets, ear-rings, beads, balls, crescents, gorgets, the niam-lann (a flexible plate of burnished gold, silver, or findruine worn around the forehead) etc - a lavish wealth of beautiful ornaments exquisitely wrought, which, after a long count of centuries, tell us the story of the rarely skilled, noble artificers of Ireland, whose genius in metal was not only unsurpassed, but even unequalled, in western Europe. Of all the many beautiful articles of personal adornment that remain to us from those ancient times in Ireland, probably the most luxurious are the delgs or brooches - the size and costliness of some of which may be judged from the Dal Riada brooch, which was dug up in an Antrim field in the last century, contained two and one-third ounces of pure gold, was five inches long, and two and an eighth inches in diameter.
But for beauty none of them all equals the Tara brooch. Both the face of the brooch and the back are overlaid with beautiful patterns, wrought in an Irish filigree or formed by amber, glass and enamel. These patterns of which there are no less than seventy-six different kinds in this single article are wrought in such minute perfection that a powerful lens is needed to perceive and appreciate the wonderful perfection of detail. There are many other handsome brooches, such as the Ardagh brooch, the Roscrea brooch etc - each with particular beauties of its own.
Only by a very different kind of object, the celebrated Ardagh chalice, is the Tara brooch surpassed in richness and beauty of workmanship.
There are in existence many wonderful bell shrines, like that of St Patricks bell, St Cualanus bell - and shrines like the shrine of St Mogue, the cross of Cong, the crozier of St Dympna, the crozier of Liosmor etc all of them displaying the extraordinary work of the artist of those days.
The making of beautiful shrines called cumdachs, for prized books, rarely occurred in any part of the world except for Ireland. Some of the most finest and most celebrated cumdachs are those of the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh, the Book of Durrow and many more.