A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Apr 23, 2011, 01:00

Tara torcs, c 1200 BC:IN 1810, a boy digging close to the ringed fort known as the Rath of the Synods on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath found two magnificent gold torcs. They had been made with considerable skill by hammering the edges of a gold bar into four thin flanges on an anvil and then twisting the whole lot into a circle.

The amount of gold used to make them, the fact that torcs are a new kind of object, the technological sophistication they required, and the emergence of Tara itself as an especially important ritual centre all point to a society that is becoming more complex.

The largest of the torcs has a diameter of about 42cm and, if untwisted, would extend to about 167cm. Both of them have a strange extension at the end: there are some suggestions that these may be male and female symbols.

The ability to make these things comes with a period of development that may have been stimulated by the deterioration of the Irish climate from about 1200 BC. This may have led to conflict and insecurity (new types of weapons and enclosed settlements date from this period) with the emergence of more powerful kings.

The assumption is that torcs were worn around the neck, but these ones are large enough to have to be worn around the waist. They could even have been placed on idols. The strong likelihood, however, is that, as Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum puts it, “these objects were regalia worn by the kings of Tara. How do we know? Well Farmer Joe wasn’t wearing this kind of stuff. You’ve got to be top dog to get your hands on this kind of loot. These are the finest objects of the period.”

The torcs take over from the older lunulae. Whereas the latter were a very clever way of making the most of a small amount of precious gold, the torcs seem to be designed to show off the amount of gold used to create them. They are intended for ostentatious display.

Tara had been an important centre for three millennia before the torcs were made, but their awesome quality suggests that it had become considerably more so.

“You get the sense,” says Kelly, “that Tara was not just about political power or even religious power. It’s a spiritual power. Later on in the Gaelic world, this is where everything connects to the other world. This is what gives the kings their authority. There’s already a sense of that in these objects. They identify the guy who’s wearing them as the person who connects this world to the other world.”

With thanks to Eamonn Kelly

Where to see it:National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin