A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Coggalbeg gold hoard, 2300-2000 BC

Two years ago this month gardaí in Roscommon announced that they had recovered, from a rubbish skip in Dublin, some rather unusual objects. Wrapped in a sheet of paper, and weighing just 70g between them, they had been in a safe stolen from a pharmacy in Strokestown. The thieves had entirely missed them.

What the gardaí recovered from the smelly skip were an early Bronze Age lunula – a crescent-shaped collar – and two gold discs of the kind that this column featured last week. The lunula (the word was first applied in the 18th century and is Latin for “little moon”) was made by beating gold into a very thin sheet on which decorations were incised or impressed with considerable skill. Like other lunulae, it is a very clever object, making a very impressive and large-looking token of high status from a relatively small amount of gold.

The ornaments that were dug up from a bog at Coggalbeg in 1945 and barely escaped reburial in a dump in Dublin make up a unique assemblage of objects.

“It’s the first time ever that we have an association between the discs and the lunula, because the discs would be considered amongst the earliest gold ornaments and the lunula as coming a little bit later,” says Mary Cahill of the National Museum of Ireland. The appearance of discs and a lunula together opens up the possibility that they may have functioned as part of the same set of regalia, with the discs representing the sun and the lunula the moon.

The vast majority of gold lunulae – more than 80 of the 100-plus found in western Europe – come from Ireland. They are thus the first strong evidence we have of a distinctively Irish cultural form. Instead of Ireland receiving influences from abroad, the process in this case seems to work the other way around: Irish lunulae spread to Britain, and their shape is copied in necklaces of other materials, like jet and amber.

But just as the Coggalbeg hoard therefore tells us something about the international nature of Irish culture at this time, it also points to its intense localism. Eamonn Kelly of the museum notes that “when we recovered that material, and found out where it was from, I went and looked at a map”.

It was buried on the boundary that still marked the division between the two main branches of the O’Connor clan in the Middle Ages. This, he says, is typical. When ancestral objects are found “almost every one of them is on a boundary that appears on a modern map, most often on a barony boundary. But also when you find Bronze Age and Iron Age material, very often you find stone objects as well, so some of these boundaries go all the way back.”

With thanks to Mary Cahill and Eamonn Kelly

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, D2; museum.ie