Broighter boat, circa 100 BC

 

A HISTORY OF IRELAND IN 100 OBJECTS:This delightful gold boat, just under 20cm long but rich in detail, is a rare thing in early Irish art: a realistic depiction of something that appeared in ordinary life.

It is a precise model of an ocean-going vessel, probably wooden but possibly made of hide. The boat originally had nine benches for the rowers and 18 oars with rowlocks, a long oar for steering at the stern, three forked barge poles, a grappling iron or anchor and a mast. This is the kind of boat in which Irish people traded with Britain and western Europe, bringing back not only goods but also ideas, technologies and fashions.

The realism of the boat does not mean, however, that it did not also have a symbolic meaning. It is the centrepiece of a hoard of gold objects found by the sea shore at the entrance to Lough Foyle in Broighter, Co Derry.

Together, the objects seem to have been a votive offering to the sea god Manannán Mac Lir. The sea was, as it still is today, an unpredictable force.

Manannán, who ruled an otherworldly kingdom but could ride out over the waves on his chariot, is the ultimate master mariner, impervious to the sea’s deadly turbulence. It is easy to understand why those who sailed in open boats like this one would seek his help and protection.

Apart from the delight of the boat itself, what is striking is that the gold objects found with it are mostly imports, including two neck chains that come from the eastern Mediterranean, possibly from Roman Egypt.

Ireland, which had been the great producer of goldwork in western Europe, is now bringing it in from the outside. What has happened to the people who had such staggering wealth in bronze and gold? Have they been displaced by those who use the new metal, iron?

One possibility is that the change from bronze and gold to iron is evidence of a shift in social power. Those lower down the social scale start to use the cheaper iron, challenging the dominance of the elites that controlled the bronze industry. It is striking that most of the early iron objects in Ireland are practical working tools, especially axes. As the archaeologist John Waddell puts it, “It is possible that the hewers of wood rather than the yielders of swords were the beneficiaries of the new iron technology.” This may be one of the reasons why the burial of gold and bronze objects as offerings to the gods largely ceases between 600 and 300 BC. When these votive hoards reappear, they are fewer and smaller.

Yet it seems clear that after these disruptions, a new elite established itself. The beauty of this boat suggests that it may have been founded not on the control of precious metals but on the ability to trade on the high seas.


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