Tara Brooch

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Tara Brooch
Spillone di tara, da bettystown, contea di meath, viii secolo 02.jpg
front side
Materialsilver, gold, glass, enamel, amber, copper
Sizediameter: 8.7 cm (3.4 in), length: 32 cm (13 in)
Createdlate-7th or early-8th century
Discovered1850 (reportedly)
Present locationNational Museum of Ireland, Dublin
Reverse of the brooch

The Tara Brooch is an Irish Celtic brooch dated to the late-7th or early-8th century. Of the pseudo-penannular type (i.e. with a fully closed head or hoop),[n 1] it is made from bronze, silver and gold, and has a head formed from a circular ornate ring that is highly decorated on both sides. It is upper half is hollow while the lower half is solid with fused terminals. The brooch was constructed from numerous individually made pieces, and it's front and reverse sides are equally decorated with around 50 inserted cast panels containing with highly ornate filigree. The borders and terminals contain multiple panels holding multi-coloured studs, interlace patterns, filigree and Celtic spirals. The brooch is widely considered the most complex and ornate of its kind, and would have been commissioned to be worn as a fastener for a cloak and as an ceremonial insignia of high office for a high king in Irish Early Medieval society.

The brooch was buried sometime during the 11th and 12 centuries, probably to protect it from Viking and later Norman invaders. It lay undiscovered until around 1850. Despite its name, it was found not at the Hill of Tara but on or near the beach around Bettystown on the coast of County Meath. The name by which it became known was chosen by its first commercial owner, the jeweller George Waterhouse, as a marketing ploy for selling copies during the height of the 19th century Celtic Revival. For this reason, some art historians describe it with inverted commas as the "Tara" brooch.

Its decoration and ornamentation and is so detailed and minute that in parts it can only be fully seen using magnification, leading to one 19th century critic writing that it was "more like the work of fairies than of human beings".[2] Art historians see only the contemporary Hunterston Brooch (c. 700 AD) as of equal in craftsmanship and design. The archaeologist Niamh Whitfield called it "the most ornate and intricate piece of medieval jewellery ever found in Ireland",[3] while the NMI describes it as representing "the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement".[4] It was acquired by the Royal Irish Academy from Waterhouse in 1868, and transferred to the archaeology branch of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology (NMI), Dublin in 1890, where it remains. It was cleaned in the late 20th century by the British Museum.


Detail of a 6th century mosaic of Justinian I, Basilica of San Vitale
Sketch of a figure wearing a brooch. From an Irish High cross

Ornate zoomorphic brooches made from precious metals were status symbols and insignias of rank in Early Medieval Ireland. Whereas gold torcs were used by Celtic Iron Age chieftains to indicate rank, by the 7th century Irish kings had adopted the late Roman Empire use of brooches to fulfil this purpose. The tradition also continued in the Byzantine empire; wcontemporary mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale show the 6th century emperor Justinian wearing an imperial brooch on a purple cloak.[5] The Tara brooch was likely made for a high king or high ranking cleric, who would have worn it at least on ceremonial occasions.[5] From depictions in illuminated manuscripts it is known that they were generally worn over purple dye cloaks (brats in Gaelic)[6] and placed just below the right shoulder.[n 2][5] Positioning the brooch below the right shoulder was another tradition that originated from the Romans, whose military placed it there so as to keep their cloak on the left and not impede access to their sword.[6]

Because pseudo-penannular brooches are fully closed, the traditional method of fastening them by passing the pin through the gap and then rotating to a 90 degree angle.[8] The Tara Brooch's head is too small for cloth to have been pushed through it.[2] Instead it was fastened by pushing the pin shaft through the cloth, which was likely fastened horizontally behind the head, and secured by stitches running through loops on the borders. It was further securing by wrapping the chain around the pin.[9][10]


Hunterston Brooch front view
The Hunterston Brooch, silver mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. c. 700 AD

Zoomorphic penannular brooches were introduced to Ireland in the 5th century by craftsmen working in Roman Britain. By the mid-69th century Irish examples are already more elaborate with a bases of silver rather than bronze, more decorated pin-heads, a wider variety of inlay material such as red gold, amber, enamel, millefiori and plain glass, while the terminals became larger and focal points for decoration.[1]

Monogram from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 715–720

The brooch is usually dated by art historians to the late-7th or early 8th century, with a general range of 710-750 AD often given, although the archeologist and leading expert Niamh Whitfield gives or very early 8th century.[11] The dating is view is based on both technical analysis and stylistic comparisons, in particular to its many similarities to the Lindisfarne Gospels produced in Northumberland at the turn of the 8th century,[n 3][12][13] which became widely popular with commissioners at least until the mid 9th-century.[14] Common design elements between the two brooches and the manuscript include their curvilinear patterns, rendering of the animal interlace and their ornate rows of birds.[15] Archeologists now believe that the workshops behind these three objects were in contact, sharing technique and design ideas. However a key difference between the Tara and Hunterston Brooch is that the latter, based on its later phase runic inscriptions, seems to have been in use and above ground for centuries after the Tara was buried for safe-keeping.[14]

The Irish style later drew influence from Anglo-Saxon formats and the chip carving and inlay methods of Germanic polychrome jewelry.[16][17] In addition, by the 7th century, Irish missionaries had become exposed to Central European and Mediterranean cultures.[6] Whitfield has noted that Ireland was then relatively outwards looking and cosmopolitan –compared to the later middle ages– and that "it is not surprising that it should have produced jewels which reflected European fashions".[13]


The Tara Brooch is widely considered the most elaborately constructed and decorated Celtic brooch, comparable but exceeding in breath of ornamentation to the 8th century Ardagh and 8th or 9th century Derrynaflan chalices, a fact used to date it to the 8th or 9th centuries.[18] However it is older than both, and one of the earliest Insular metalwork pieces to depict animals in filigreed gold wires, in the zoomorphic style that became widespread in Irish art until the late 12th century.[19]

General view of the front side

Like the Hunterston Brooch, it is of the pseudo-penannular type in that it is fully circular but does not have a gap between its terminals through which the pin could pass.[20] It is bilaterally symmetrical[21] with a basic structure consisting of the circular hook forming the upper part of the brooch, the semi-circular, linked and matching terminals closing below, a long pin used to fasten it to the owner's cloth, and a string that was likely added to provide additional support in keeping the brooch in place. Although its core is in silver, its surface is so highly decorated with gold that the sliver is barely visible.[22]

It is unusual in its dimensions compared to other Celtic brooches: the hoop has a typically diameter of 8.7 cm (3.4 in) but the pin is unusually long at 32 cm (13 in).

The brooch was made in many pieces, with much of the decoration on small "trays" or panels which were then fixed into place. Given it's complex geometry, including concentric and ancillary circles and various rectangular inserts (or trays), it is likely to have been planned or sketched in advance using a compass on parchment. This is all the more likely as it contains series of consistently detailed imagery condensed into a very small area.[19][8]


Inserted panels on the top left hand of the reverse

The head (or "hoop", or "ring") is formed from cast and gilt silver and decorated on both sides using techniques, forms and patterns from the La Tène style.[3] The brooch's basic form is highly geometric and composed from two concentric circles making up the outline of the pin-head, and a number of other and differently sized circular decorative panels and rounded studs lining the arms of the pin head. The head is open on its top half, while the lower half is made of two fused terminals, and is thus solid and closed (ie pseudo-penannular), although its design does suggest an opening.[18][23]

The front contains twenty-eight sunken panels soldered to gold sheets, and held in place by "jewellers' stitches" (minute bands of silver wire). Eighteen panels retain their gilt filigree; the others are either corroded or broke-off since the brooch was rediscovered in 1850.[2] Further decorations include cast depictions of animal (mostly thin bodied fish) and abstract motifs, which are separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber.[24][25]

Cartouche at the top of the head (reverse view)

Unusually the reverse, which would have been positioned against the wearer's garment and thus hidden, is equally decorated. Its design elements include rows of chip-carved interlace animals and birds terminating in trumpet spirals in the Ultimate La Tène style.[2]

The freezes on either of the head contains four chip-carved roundels. Other La Tène elements include the patterns around the center of the head and terminals, which are sliver and a dark red at the terminals but lined with gold at the head.[2]


Glass studs on the terminals of the front side

Like all celtic brooches, the overall design of the terminals is derived from a pattern represent the heads of two beast biting at either a gap in the head (penannular type) or a metal bar suggesting a gap (pseudo-penannular type brooches).[1] The terminals on the Tara Brooch are formed around two trapezoids rendered in the La Tène style, set against a silver and niello background.[26] The joining of the head and terminals on each side is marked by a single large dome shaped stud.[21]

The meeting of the terminals on the front side contains three large and thin panels intended to represent the gap in open brooches. The panels are richly ornamented with filigree and a row of three studs.[27] The gold, black and red terminals on the reverse contain further La Tène designs including a freeze of four roundels. The hoop and terminals are joined by silver grilled glass studs in red and blue that adapt contemporary Germanic garnet cloisonné techniques, and in part resemble those on the Moylough Belt-Shrine and Ardagh Chalice, although the combination of red and blue glass is unusual for the period.[2]

Pin and chain[edit]

Glass-eyed serpent on the front of the pin-head

The movable pin is attached to the head at the upper-end by a long central oval panel containing a gilded serpent with glass eyes. It is hinged to two ancillary panels with paired animal heads at the ends, and two human faces formed from purple glass.[18][28]

A long silver and plaited chain is attached to the hook by a swivel made from plaited wire. Although damaged in areas, it contains a number of animal heads (including wolves and dragons) and two small cast glass human heads.[4][29] Mostly likely the chain was wrapped around pieces of the garment to hold the brooch more securely. Other theories including it functioned as a safety chain least it be dropped, or that the brooch was once part of a pair and that chain linked together.[28]


1881 sketch of the brooch

The brooch was almost fully intact when discovered, but has sustained substantial losses since.[22]

It is missing some elements of its decoration. Ten of the front compartments (or panels) are empty, while one stud is missing and two more lack filigree. A further two studs from the back are also missing. Comparison with 19th century photographs show that when found, only one panel of decoration was missing, and that a number of the losses occurred at different times after its rediscovery and before it entered the collection of the Royal Irish Academy (who transferred their collection of antiquities to the National Museum in 1890).[30][31] Two wood-engraving made in 1852 show it "in near perfect condition" with the now missing filigree, studs, and additional interlace designs.[32]


The beach at Bettystown

Although the brooch is named after the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and a necropolis, it has no connection to either Tara or the High Kings of Ireland. Although there are a number of conflicting accounts,[33] the brooch was supposedly found in August 1850 on the beach at Bettystown, near Laytown, in County Meath, not far from Drogheda and some 50 km (30 mi) north of Dublin and about 25 kilometers from Tara. The finder, a peasant woman (or her two sons), claimed to have found it in a container buried in the sand, though it is likely that it was found inland, by a river and she said it was found at the beach to avoid a legal claim by the landowner.

It was sold to a dealer and then to the Dublin jeweller, G. & S. Waterhouse, who were already producing Celtic Revival jewellery and who renamed it the "Tara Brooch" to increase its public appeal.[34][35] Whitfield describes the firm's owner, George Waterhouse, as "in the habit of attaching romantic and high-sounding names to brooches of which they sold replicas".[33]

The circumstances of its finding meant that no contemporary archeological survey was made of the find-spot. However, late 20th century excavations of the area by the beach found a large burial site that was in use from the pre-historic to the Early medieval period. This has led to speculation that it was buried as part of a hoard, but as of yet no other objects have been found. Equally the date and reasons for its burial are unknown, mostly likely it was placed in the earth to hid it from Viking or Norman invaders, or following a defeat at battle.[3] A 12th century codex, the Book of Leinster, contains a section titled "The siege of Howth" which mentions a precious brooch buried after a defeat, leading some art historians to speculated that a similar fate befell the Tara Brooch.[3]

19th century reception[edit]

Celtic Revival jewellery had become fashionable in the 1840s.[36] Waterhouse used the Tara Brooch as the centre of display of his replicas Celtic brooches in his Dublin shop, also exhibiting it at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as the 1853 Dublin exhibition. His Tara replicas were smaller by about a third and far dimplier in design than the origional.[35] Waterhouse invented the brooch's name, choosing to link it to the site associated with the High Kings of Ireland "fully aware that this would feed the Irish middle-class fantasy of being descended from them".[37] The Dublin exhibition was visited by Queen Victoria who had an interest in the Hill of Tara, liked these Celtic brooches and purchased a number facsimile of the booch, although she did not know that it had actually been found in Bettystown.[35][38] Prince Albert had already bought two similar pieces for her when the two of them visited Dublin in 1849.

In 1868, the brooch was sold to the Royal Irish Academy. By the 1870s, "Tara brooch" had become a generic term for Celtic Revival brooches, some of which were by then being made by Indian workshops for export to Europe.[39][40]


  1. ^ Penannular translates from Latin as "almost (paene) circular (annular)". In these brooches the hoop contains a gap to allow the pin to pass through it for fastening.[1]
  2. ^ At the time, women would have worn brooches more centrally and lower, at the breast.[7]
  3. ^ The Hunterston Brooch is similarly dated to this period based its own similarities to the Lindisfarne Gospels.[12]


  1. ^ a b c Whitfield (2001), p. 228
  2. ^ a b c d e f Moss (2014), p. 416
  3. ^ a b c d Whitfield (2001), p. 211
  4. ^ a b "Tara Brooch". National Museum of Ireland. Retrieved 22 March 2022
  5. ^ a b c Whitfield (2001), pp. 227–228
  6. ^ a b c Whitfield (2004), p. 70
  7. ^ Whitfield (2001), p. 221
  8. ^ a b Moss (2014), p. 411
  9. ^ Whitfield (2001), pp. 229–230
  10. ^ Moss (2014), pp. 416–417
  11. ^ Whitfield (2009), p. 235
  12. ^ a b Ryan (2011), p. 51
  13. ^ a b Whitfield (2001), p. 216
  14. ^ a b Ryan (2011), p. 52
  15. ^ Backhouse (1981), p. 66
  16. ^ O'Toole, Fintan. "A history of Ireland in 100 objects: Tara Brooch, eighth century". The Irish Times, 3 September 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2022
  17. ^ Whitfield (2004), p. 77
  18. ^ a b c Edwards (2006), p. 141
  19. ^ a b De Paor (1977), p. 103
  20. ^ Ryan (2011), p. 48
  21. ^ a b Whitfield (1993), p. 118
  22. ^ a b Moss (2014), p. 217
  23. ^ Stevick (1998), p. 6
  24. ^ Somerville (1993), pp. 70, 71, 74
  25. ^ Ryan (2011), p. 52
  26. ^ De Paor (1977), pp. 137–138
  27. ^ Whitfield (2001), p. 229
  28. ^ a b De Paor (1977), p. 137
  29. ^ Farley; Hunter (2015), p. 187
  30. ^ Whitfield (1976), p. 10
  31. ^ Whitfield (1976), p. 5
  32. ^ Whitfield (1974), p. 139
  33. ^ a b Whitfield (1974), p. 120
  34. ^ Farley; Hunter (2015), p. 244
  35. ^ a b c Harrison, Bernice. "Design Moment: Tara Brooch, 8th century". The Irish Times, 16 March 2019. Retrieved 22 March 2022
  36. ^ Briggs (2017), pp. 82–83
  37. ^ Gere; Rudoe (2010), p. 444; British Museum: Waterhouse replica of the Tara Brooch
  38. ^ Carew, Mairead. "British Jewish leaders searched for the Ark of the Covenant at Tara". IrishCentral, 7 February 2017. Retrieved 8 May 2022
  39. ^ Gere; Rudoe (2010), p. 455
  40. ^ Farley; Hunter (2015), pp. 244–245


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