Today, gold Claddagh rings and Celtic crosses are such iconic Irish gifts, we see them as symbols of the country. Children around the world enjoy stories of Irish leprechauns zealously guarding their pots of gold. But did you know that Ireland’s love of gold jewelry dates back to ancient times? The oldest Irish gold jewelry currently known is from the Early Bronze Age, 2400 to 1800 BC.
Ancient gold has been found buried in hoards all over Ireland. It’s been discovered in fields and bogs by farmers, turf cutters, builders and others. So we have real proof that our ancestors loved to wear glorious gold jewelry. But many questions remain unanswered. We aren’t sure where this gold came from or how people here learned to make such stunning pieces of jewelry. We don’t know if it was worn regularly or only for special occasions. It could be decorative, or it might have had religious or social significance that we can only guess at now. What we do know for sure is that the ancient Irish had excellent skills as goldsmiths and that the echoes of their designs are still seen in Celtic jewelry and other Irish gifts millennia later.
What We Know about Bronze Age Gold
Many details will probably never be fully explained because the information was lost over the centuries, we can draw some conclusions from the pieces we have. The National Museum of Ireland holds a collection of Early and Late Bronze Age jewelry titled ‘Ór: Ireland’s Gold’. The neck pieces include lunulas, torcs and collars. They feature intricate, detailed engraved patters and designs, some of which have influenced the decoration of jewelry and other Irish gifts from ancient times through to the present. Dress fasteners found in gold hordes give us some practical insight into what our ancestors wore. The design a small flat plate on either end of a thinner middle section, so we can infer that this was a sort of early button and their clothes had holes that these little disks fit through to hold them closed.
The gold Celtic jewelry that has been discovered is made primarily from sheets of gold. One really fascinating detail is that with all the gold jewelry that has been found over the generations, none of it appears to be rudimentary. There is no sign of people developing goldsmithing skills, so experts suspect that some group of people from elsewhere introduced the craft to Ireland. Irish goldsmiths would have then learned from experts and quickly become very skillful. Today’s Irish gifts show that this is still home to man amazingly talented goldsmiths and jewelers.
But where did the gold come from? While some might have come from whatever group brought goldsmithing to Ireland, some was mined here. Co. Wicklow and Co. Tyrone once had gold, but it is not clear to experts if that is where our ancestors mined gold or if there were other sources.