A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Jul 30, 2011, 01:00

Mullamast Stone, 500 - 600 AD

When a castle at the Hill of Mullamast was being demolished, this limestone boulder was found being re-used as a lintel. The spiral carvings, which are close to those found on metal dress-pins and brooches of the period, date it to the sixth century AD, after the mission of St Patrick. What is intriguing, however, is that its symbolism reminds us that in Ireland the arrival of Christianity did not mark a sudden break with the past. Instead, the stone speaks of a remarkable continuity in one of the most resonant of so-called Celtic rituals: the sword in the stone.

The idea of the true king being the one who can pull a sword from a stone is central to the British legends of King Arthur. Conor Newman has noted that many sacred stones which functioned as “icons of tribal and cultural identity” have straight, narrow grooves on their surfaces. These have generally been dismissed as results of vandalism or ploughing. But Newman has pointed out that they occur far too often and are far too regular for this to be the case.

The Mullamast Stone is one such stone. It functioned, almost certainly, as the place where the Uí Dúnlainge kings of Leinster were initiated. In itself, it is notable that such an important ritual object has no Christian symbolism. “There is little doubt that this is the inaugural stone of the Uí Dúnlainge,” says Newman, “and there’s nothing in the ornamentation that you could describe as Christian”. This does not necessarily mean that those who first used the stone were clinging to the old religion. But it does show that in Ireland, Christianity was often another layer on top of older traditions that survived and thrived. In particular, rituals of kingship retained their broad shape for another thousand years. The idea of the “sword in the stone” seems to have lasted at least from the fifth or sixth centuries to the 12th.

The Mullamast Stone has four blade marks on the left hand side and two very deep ones on the top. The new king seems have struck or sharpened his stone against the stone as a key part of the inauguration ritual. The persistence of these older rituals may be rooted in the paradox that rising local chieftains, with new money gained from the exploitation of the collapse of Roman Britain, needed to disguise the novelty of their power.

“These young kids on the block,” says Conor Newman of the National University of Ireland, Galway, “still have to legitimate their power. If you’re an arriviste, the first thing you do is buy a house and fill it with antiques. There’s a very keen awareness of the rituals surrounding that moment of taking your place in history.” These rituals may have been self-consciously archaic, used by upstarts to claim the authority of antiquity.


Thanks toConor Newman, National University of Ireland, Galway

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin