When you are shopping for Irish gifts, especially Irish jewelry, you can’t help but notice the enchanting swirling designs on Celtic pieces. You might wonder what these beautiful spiral designs are all about and when in Ireland’s history they were developed. The swirling spirals have a timeless, infinite look about them, which is fitting because they have been an important symbol since before Christianity arrived on these shores. They are older than Stonehenge, and older than even the pyramids of Egypt.
The most famous example of the spiral patterns so popular on Celtic jewelry and other Irish gifts is Newgrange, one of a series of ancient structures in County Meath. Newgrange dates back to about 3,200 BC. The Newgrange structure’s biggest claim to fame is what happens on the winter solstice. An opening above the entrance lets the sun’s light enter the inside chamber, and when the sun rises on the winter solstice, the light illuminates the entire passage. The inside and outside of the structure are decorated in spirals and similar patterns. Most remarkable are the large stones at the entrance featuring the triple spiral design seen on so many different Irish gifts from jewelry to kitchenware.
Newgrange and the adjacent sites that make up the Brú na Bóinne site near the Boyne River are not the only places to find the beautiful spirals that inspire so much Celtic jewelry today. Loughcrew is another spot in the same county featuring a passage tomb. In County Sligo, there are two more. Carrowkeel and Carrowmore date to the same period, have similar structures and also include passage tombs. Researchers now think these were more than simply graves, and probably were also temples. Whatever their use, they show amazing engineering and artistic skill.
Ireland’s surviving artwork from that era is not restricted to stone carvings, however. We’ve apparently always loved jewelry, and different kinds of personal ornaments have been found in these passage graves and at other sites dating back to the Neolithic era. Beads and pendants were found at Carrowkeel, proving that necklaces are a really, really traditional Celtic accessory. Neolithic shell necklaces were also found on male skeletons at Knockmaree in County Dublin.
None of these discoveries came with any indication of what the symbols used meant. We can make educated guesses and investigate different theories, but in the end the spiral designs will always be a bit of a mystery. But who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? The swirling spirals on today’s Irish jewelry speak to us more deeply than any scholarly article or textbook could. We might not know exactly what they represented to the people who first carved them, but we know that to us, they represent a profound connection to this little island and its people that goes back to the dawn of time. And when we are searching for the right bit of jewelry for a loved one who is Irish, gifts with these Neolithic style symbols also reflect our connection to each other.