Tara Brooch

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tara Brooch
Materialsilver, gold, glass, enamel, amber, copper
Sizediameter: 8.7 cm (3.4 in), length: 32 cm (13 in)
Weight224.36 g (7.914 oz)[1]
Createdlate-7th or early-8th century
Discovered1850 (reportedly)
Present locationNational Museum of Ireland, Dublin
IdentificationNMI, R. 4015
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, with a head formed from a circular ring that is intricately decorated on both sides. Its upper half is hollow while the lower half is solid with fused terminals. The brooch was constructed from numerous individually made pieces. Its' front and reverse sides are equally decorated; each holds around 50 inserted cast panels packed with filigree. The borders and terminals contain multiple panels holding multi-coloured studs, interlace patterns, filigree and Celtic spirals. The Tara brooch is widely considered the most complex and ornate of its kind, and would have been commissioned as a fastener for the cloak of a high ranking cleric or as ceremonial insignia of high office for a High King of Ireland.

The brooch was hidden on the east coast of Ireland sometime during the 11th or 12th century, most likely to protect it from Viking or Norman invaders. It was not discovered until around 1850 but the find-spot and circumstances are unknown. Despite its title, 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, many art historians describe it with inverted commas as the "Tara" brooch.[3]

Its decoration and ornamentation 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".[4] Art historians see only the contemporary Hunterston Brooch (c. 700 AD) as an equal in craftsmanship and design. The archaeologist Niamh Whitfield called it "the most ornate and intricate piece of medieval jewellery ever found in Ireland",[5] while the NMI describes it as representing "the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement".[6] It was acquired by the Royal Irish Academy in 1868, and transferred to the National Museum of Ireland in 1890 where it remains on permanent display.


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

Gilt and silver zoomorphic brooches were status symbols in Early Medieval Ireland. Gold torcs were built by Iron Age Irish chieftains to indicate rank, and by the 7th century Irish kings adopted the late Roman Empire use of brooches to fulfill this purpose. The tradition continued into early medieval Byzantine empire; mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale the emperor Justinian (b. 1482) wearing a brooch on an imperial purple cloak.[7]

The Tara brooch was likely made for a High King of Ireland or high ranking dignitary or cleric, probably from the Kingdom of Brega, a branch of the Uí Néills, who ruled over the area in the early Medieval period. The owner would have worn it on ceremonial occasions.[7][8] Depictions in illuminated manuscripts indicate that they were generally worn over purple dye cloaks (brats in Gaelic)[9] and placed just below the right shoulder.[n 2][7] 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.[9]

Fully-sealed brooches were fashioned by rotating the pin within the gap by 90 degrees.[11] Penannular broochs, such as the Tara Brooch, were too small to have been pushed through cloth.[4] Instead, they were likely fixed in place by pushing the pin-shaft through the cloth, and fastened horizontally behind the head with stitches running through loops on the borders, and further secured by wrapping the chain around the pin.[12][13]


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

Penannular brooches appear in Ireland from the 5th century, presumably made by craftsmen working in Roman Britain traditions. Surviving Irish brooches became more elaborate than Anglo-Saxon examples from the mid-9th century. The extant Irish examples have silver rather than bronze bases, as well as more decorated pinheads, a wider variety of inlay material such as red gold, amber, enamel, millefiori and glass, and larger terminals which had become the focal point for decoration.[2]

Goldsmithing was a prominent craft in prehistoric Irish society. Through 7th century trade and missionary contacts with Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Lombardic cultures, Irish craftsmen developed a sophistication in goldwork, and adopted a style sometimes referred to by historians as "Hiberno-Saxon" or "late Celtic".[14]

The Tara brooch is commonly dated to the late–7th or early-8th century, with a majority of archaeologists estimating it to the very early 8th century.[14] Most datings are based on technical analysis and stylistic comparisons, in particular to its many similarities to the Hunterston Brooch, produced in either Ireland or western Scotland at the turn of the 8th century, and the Lindisfarne Gospels produced in Northumberland in the early 8th century.[n 3][15][16][17] In the late 19th century, the antiquarian Margaret Stokes was the first to observe that the use of trumpet spirals places it at least at the end of the so-called "Golden Age" of Insular art, given that the design had fallen out of use by 1050.[18]

Monogram from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 715–720

Common elements between the Hunterston and Tara brooches and the Lindisfarne Gospels include curvilinear patterns and renderings of animal and birds in interlace.[19] Archeologists believe that the workshops behind these objects were in contact and sharing techniques and design ideas.[17]

The Irish style drew influence from Anglo-Saxon formats and the chip carving and inlay methods of Germanic polychrome jewelry.[20][21] In addition, by the 7th century, Irish missionaries had become exposed to Central European and Mediterranean cultures.[9] Whitfield has noted that Ireland was then relatively outward 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".[16]


General view of the front side

The Tara Brooch is widely considered the most elaborately constructed and decorated surviving Insular object, with metalwork that exceeds in richness of ornamentation both the 8th century Ardagh and early 9th century Derrynaflan chalices [22] It is older than both, and one of the earliest Insular metalwork pieces to depict animals in the zoomorphic style that became widespread in Irish art between the 8th and late 12th centuries.[23] It is larger than most other Celtic brooches: the hoop is unusually large with a maximum diameter of 8.7 cm (3.4 in) while the pin is relatively long at 32 cm (13 in).

The brooch of the pseudo-penannular type, in that the hoop is fully circular but does not have a gap between its terminals through which a fastening pin could pass.[24] It is bilaterally symmetrical[25] with a basic structure of a circular hook, semi-circular and linked terminals, a long pin, and a string likely used for additional support to keep it in place against the wearers cloth.[26] Although its core made of silver, its surface is so highly gilded and decorated that the silver is barely visible.[27]

It is composed of many individually formed pieces, with most of its filigree decorations inserted into small trays. Eighteen of these inserts survive, out of a total of twenty-eight trays.[23][25]

The brooch's complex geometry includes concentric and ancillary circles, rectangular inserts, and an outline likely planned with sketches made with a compass on parchment. This is all the more likely, given the high number of detailed and complex patterns condensed into very small spaces.[11][23]


Panels on the reverse decorated with trumpet spirals and filigree

The head (or "hoop" or "ring") is made from cast and gilt silver and is decorated on both sides using techniques and patterns influenced by the Iron Age La Tène style.[5] The head consists of two large concentric circles, around 28 decorative panels, and a series of rounded studs lining both arms. The head is open on its top half, while the lower half is made of two fused terminals, and is thus solid and closed (i.e. pseudo-penannular), although its design does suggest an opening.[22][28]

The front is lined with twenty-eight sunken panels soldered onto gold sheets. The panels are held in place by the then new technique of "jewellers' stitches" (also known as "bead settings" or "milli-graining"),[29] that is intricate and complex filigree patterns formed by minute bands of silver wire.[30] Eighteen panels retain their gilt filigree; the others are either corroded or have been broken-off since the brooch was rediscovered in 1850.[4]

Other decorative elements include cast depictions of animal (mostly thin-bodied fish) and abstract motifs, which are separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber.[31][32]

Cartouche at the top of the head (reverse view)

The reverse is equally decorated, which is unusual given that it would have been hidden against the wearer's garment. Its decorations include rows of chip-carved interlace animals and birds, terminating in trumpet spirals.[4]

The friezes on the head contain chip-carved roundels (circular discs). Other La Tène elements include the patterns around the center of the head and terminals, which are silver and a dark red at the terminals but lined with gold at the head.[4]


Glass studs on the terminals of the front side

The three large and thin panels on the front-side of the terminals are intended to represent the gap in open brooches. They are richly ornamented with filigree and a row of three studs.[33] The reverse is coloured in gold, black and red and contains further La Tène designs including a frieze of four roundels. The hoop and terminals are joined by silver grilled glass studs in red and blue that adopt contemporary Germanic garnet cloisonné techniques, and in part resemble those on the 8th-century Moylough Belt-Shrine and Ardagh Chalice (8 and 9th-centuries). The combination of red and blue glass is unusual for the period.[4]

The reverse contains two trapezoids in the La Tène style, set against a silver and niello background.[34] On each side, the bridge between the head and terminals contains a single large dome shaped stud.[25] The two terminals and their bridge resemble the heads of two beasts biting at either other.[2]

Pin and chain[edit]

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

The pin is attached to the upper-end of the head by a long oval and gilded panel shaped as a serpent with glass eyes. It is hinged to two ancillary panels with paired animal heads (which may be wolves or dragons) at the ends, and two human faces formed from purple glass.[22][26][35]

The plaited chain is made of sliver and plaited wire, and is attached to the hook by a swivel.[26] Most likely, it was wrapped around pieces of the garment to hold the brooch more securely. Other theories suggest it was used as a safety chain to prevent it being dropped, or that the brooch was once part of a pair linked together by the chain.[26]


1881 illustration

The brooch was almost fully intact when discovered but has sustained substantial losses since.[27] Ten of the front inserts and three studs are now missing, while two more have lost their filigree. Comparison with mid-19th century photographs show that when found, the brooch was missing only a single panel.[36][37]

The earliest surviving reproductions are two 1852 wood engravings which show it, according to Whitfield, "in near perfect condition" with the majority of the now missing filigree, studs, and inserted interlace designs intact.[38][n 4]


The beach at Bettystown

Although named after the Hill of Tara (seat and necropolis of the High Kings of Ireland), the brooch bears no connected to Tara. The brooch was found in c. 1850 on the beach at Bettystown, near Laytown, in County Meath, not far from Drogheda and about 25 kilometers from Tara.[40] The finder, the son of a local peasant woman, is said 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.[40] Said container was seemingly found at the mouth of the river Boyne close to an excavating site. [41]

The title was given by an early owner, the Dublin jeweller George Waterhouse, for marketing reasons, so that his reproductions would be more culturally resonant.[42] At the time, Waterhouse's main source of income was selling replicas of recently found Celtic Revival jewellery,[43][44] and according to Whitfield was "in the habit of attaching romantic and high-sounding names to brooches of which they sold replicas".[40]

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 in use from the pre-historic to the Early medieval period. This has led to speculation that the brooch 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 hide it from Viking or Norman invaders, or following a defeat at battle.[5] 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 speculate that a similar fate befell the Tara Brooch.[5]

19th century reception[edit]

Celtic Revival jewellery become fashionable in the 1840s.[45] Utilising this trend, Waterhouse later placed the Tara Brooch as the centerpiece of his replica Celtic brooches in his Dublin shop, and exhibited it at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853 in Dublin, and Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris. His Tara brooch replicas were smaller by about a third than the original and far simpler in design.[44] Waterhouse chose the brooch's name, deliberately but falsely linking 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".[46] He produced a number of replicas, which were generally smaller and less detailed than the original.[39]

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 of facsimiles of the brooch, although she did not know that it had actually been found in Bettystown.[44][47] 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.[48][49]


  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.[2]
  2. ^ At the time, women would have worn brooches more centrally and lower, at the breast.[10]
  3. ^ The Hunterston Brooch is similarly dated to this period based on its stylistic and technical similarities ato the Lindisfarne Gospels.[15]
  4. ^ A December 10th 1850 introduction to Petrie's RIA lecture mentions a "number of minute and careful drawings of various scrolls and devices of this most remarkable piece of ancient art", but none survive.[39]


  1. ^ Whitfield 2009, p. 236.
  2. ^ a b c Whitfield 2001, p. 228.
  3. ^ Stevick 1998, p. 15.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Moss 2014, p. 416.
  5. ^ a b c d Whitfield 2001, p. 211.
  6. ^ NMI 2022.
  7. ^ a b c Whitfield 2001, pp. 227–228.
  8. ^ Moss 2014, p. 415.
  9. ^ a b c Whitfield 2004, p. 70.
  10. ^ Whitfield 2001, p. 221.
  11. ^ a b Moss 2014, p. 411.
  12. ^ Whitfield 2001, pp. 229–230.
  13. ^ Moss 2014, pp. 416–417.
  14. ^ a b Whitfield 2009, p. 235.
  15. ^ a b Ryan 2011, p. 51.
  16. ^ a b Whitfield 2001, p. 216.
  17. ^ a b Ryan 2011, p. 52.
  18. ^ Stokes 1879, p. 452.
  19. ^ Backhouse 1981, p. 66.
  20. ^ O'Toole 2011.
  21. ^ Whitfield 2004, p. 77.
  22. ^ a b c Edwards 2006, p. 141.
  23. ^ a b c De Paor 1977, p. 103.
  24. ^ Ryan 2011, p. 48.
  25. ^ a b c Whitfield 1993, p. 118.
  26. ^ a b c d De Paor 1977, p. 137.
  27. ^ a b Moss 2014, p. 217.
  28. ^ Stevick 1998, p. 6.
  29. ^ Whitfield 2009, p. 238.
  30. ^ Moss 2014, p. 112.
  31. ^ Somerville 1993, pp. 70, 71, 74.
  32. ^ Ryan 2011, pp. 52–53.
  33. ^ Whitfield 2001, p. 229.
  34. ^ De Paor 1977, pp. 137–138.
  35. ^ Farley & Hunter 2015, p. 187.
  36. ^ Whitfield 1976, p. 10.
  37. ^ Whitfield 1976, p. 5.
  38. ^ Whitfield 1974, p. 139. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFWhitfield1974 (help)
  39. ^ a b Whitfield 1976, p. 13.
  40. ^ a b c Whitfield 1974, p. 120. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFWhitfield1974 (help)
  41. ^ Whitfield, Niamh (1974). "The Finding of the Tara Brooch". The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 104: 120–142 – via JSTOR.
  42. ^ McEvansoney, Philip. (2012) "The purchase of the ‘Tara’ brooch in 1868: Collecting Irish antiquities for Ireland." Journal of the History of Collections. V. 24 (March): Pages 77–88.
  43. ^ Farley & Hunter 2015, p. 244.
  44. ^ a b c Harrison 2019.
  45. ^ Briggs 2017, pp. 82–83.
  46. ^ Gere & Rudoe 2010, p. 444.
  47. ^ Carew 2017.
  48. ^ Gere & Rudoe 2010, p. 455.
  49. ^ Farley & Hunter 2015, pp. 244–245.


External links[edit]