A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Kavanagh Charter Horn, 13th and 15th centuries

It is particularly ironic that the Gaelic kingship that best survived the Norman invasion was that descended from Diarmait Mac Murchada, who first brought Norman warlords to Ireland. The Mac Murchadas retained lands in Carlow and north Wexford. The Kavanagh (Caomhanach) branch of the family, directly descended from Diarmait’s son Donal Caomhanach, thrived as the Norman colony weakened. Art Mór Mac Murchada had carved out a coherent kingdom by the time of his death, in 1416, successfully defying Richard II’s attempts to have him removed.

This exotic object, preserved at Borris, Co Carlow, by the Kavanagh family, perfectly captures this revival of Irish kingship. It is the only piece of Irish regalia to have survived from the medieval period. It was originally made, from elephant ivory, sometime in the 13th century, and may at first have been used as a hunting horn. But in the period of Art Mór’s resurgent kingdom it was given a new brass mounting – the maker’s name, Tigernan Ó Lavan, is inscribed on the mount – with clawed bird’s feet on which it stands. The horn could be detached from the mount, which would remain freestanding. This turned the horn into a ceremonial drinking vessel, probably for use in inauguration rituals. It was thus almost certainly an aspect of the Kavanaghs’ claims to the kingship of Leinster.

That such a claim could be at all was a remarkable historical reversal, given that Leinster had been so deeply penetrated and settled by the Normans. But by the 1420s the area called the “land of peace” – that is, under secure English administration – was confined to Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Louth. By the 1470s, this area was being referred to as the Pale.

The revived Irish kingship was in many ways remarkably similar to what it had been before the Norman invasion. The king was still drawn from a wide array of contenders, making civil wars of succession as common as they had been in the 10th century. The retinue of the king was also remarkably intact, with its hereditary ranks of brehons (judges), poets, genealogists, musicians and physicians. The expectation that a king could place his relatives in high clerical office was undiminished.

And the economy on which this hierarchy rested was not all that different either. The land looked different in the places where the colonists had cleared the great forests. The tillage and grain-based agriculture introduced by the settlers retained a significant hold, but the revived Gaelic lordships still based their notions of wealth on cattle, and most of those probably the old, small Irish breeds of which the Kerry cow is the last representative.

This strong element of cultural and economic conservatism is one of the factors behind the failure of these revived Irish kingships to cohere into anything like a national state. The resurgent Gaelic domains had little place for the urban life that was driving development in Europe: with very few exceptions (the port of Sligo being one), the large settlements in Gaelic areas were episcopal, not political, centres. Even linguistic diversity was being rolled back: French disappeared in Ireland and English suffered a rare reversal. The Gaelic world that re-emerged never transformed itself into the kind of centralised, modernised political structure that could ultimately assert its independence.

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie