Visual Ireland – Ancient Art


Do you have any possessions – a phone, a bag, a piece of furniture etc. – that you’ve personalised? 


Throughout human history, decorating our property (or ourselves) has been a way to enrich our identity, to make our mark in the world. We often decorate objects with symbols that represent our character or our beliefs, as a way of advertising who we are.

What visual symbols would you most associate with Ireland?

Here are three examples: 


Can you think of any others?

What visual symbols do you think would most typically represent your country?


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Here are four time periods from history: 

  1. Neolithic Age (4000-2500 BC)
  2. Bronze Age (2500-500 BC)
  3. Iron Age (500 BC – 400 AD)
  4. Medieval Age (800 – 1169 AD)

Do you know any famous artefacts or monuments from each time period in the history of your country?


Let’s look at some famous artefacts from Irish art history that each tell us something about the character and beliefs of Irish people at that time.

Could you match the artefacts to the pictures? Read the descriptions to help you. 

  1. Megalithic Stone, 3000 BC
  2. Gleninsheen Collar, 700 BC
  3. Loughnashade Horn, 100 BC
  4. Tara Brooch, 750 AD
  5. Ardagh Chalice (Cup), 800 AD
  6. Balinderry Sword, 850 AD
  7. Book of Kells, 9th Century
  8. Durrow Cross, 10th Century


  1. MEGALITHIC STONE ART. The history of Irish art starts around 3200 BC, in the Neolithic period, with stone carvings at the Newgrange passage tomb in County Meath. ‘Megalithic’ art refers to the use of large stones as an artistic medium. Newgrange has the largest concentration of Megalithic art in Europe. This art is an entirely abstract form of multiple-spirals. Some believe that much of the artwork was created in a drug-induced state!
  2. THE GLENINSHEEN GORGET or collar is an example of Irish metalwork from the Bronze Age. It is a technical and artistic achievement at the height of gold-working in Europe at that time and shows the highly developed skills of Irish craftsmen. It would have been worn around the neck by a wealthy or powerful man. It was found hidden between some rocks in County Clare in 1932.
  3. THE LOUGHNASHADE HORN was found in a bog (the former lake of Loughnashade) close to the important Iron Age royal home of the Ulster Kings in County Armagh. It is a finely-made object of bronze. Classical writers have left accounts of the terrifying effect which the Celts achieved by blowing such war trumpets before battle. It is likely that the Loughnashade trumpet was used in this way and also on ceremonial and ritual occasions. It still works as an instrument. 
  4. THE TARA BROOCH is an example of Irish metalwork from the Early Medieval period. It is 18 cm long and composed primarily of silver, with intricate abstract decoration. The design and techniques, and the materials of gold, silver, copper, amber and glass are all of high quality. It contains no religious symbolism and was made for a wealthy person, probably male, wanting an expression of high status. The brooch was found on a beach in County Meath by a woman and her two sons.  
  5. THE ARDAGH CHALICE is one of the finest known works of Celtic art. The chalice is a large, two-handled silver cup, decorated with gold, bronze, brass, lead and enamel and was assembled from 354 separate pieces. The names of Jesus’ twelve apostles are written around the bowl, along with animals, birds and geometric shapes. It was found by two boys digging in a potato field near a rath or fairy ring.
  6. THE BALLINDERRY SWORD is an iron Viking weapon that was found in a bog on the site of a crannog, a traditional type of lake house, in County Westmeath. It dates from around the 9th century and probably belonged to a rich farmer or local ruler. The sword is made from a mix of silver and iron and has the name HILTIPREHT, which connects it to a Norwegian craftsman. It shows that the Irish adopted Viking weapons to fight against the Vikings. 
  7. THE BOOK OF KELLS contains six hundred and eighty pages from the four Gospels of the New Testament in the Bible. It was written in Latin by monks in an Irish monastery over a period of thirty years and is the most elaborate book of its kind to survive from the Middle Ages. It is a masterwork of Western writing and design, and is widely considered as Ireland’s finest national treasure. It can be seen in Trinity College, Dublin.
  8. A HIGH CROSS or standing cross is a free-standing Christian cross made of stone and often richly decorated. Some believe that the ring on the Celtic cross represents the sun-god Invictus and that the Christian monks combined the sun-god idea with the Christian cross to appeal to Irish pagans. A more practical theory is that the sculptors used the ring design as a solution to the vulnerability of crosses to breaking in the harsh Irish weather.

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  1. H
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. A
  6. F
  7. E
  8. G


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Ireland’s artistic ‘golden age’ was in the Celtic or early Christian period, roughly from the 6th to 9th centuries AD.

Ireland has been invaded by different people during its long history, but the ‘golden age’ happened partly because Ireland wasn’t invaded by who?


The answer is the Romans!

Ireland’s geographical remoteness helped prevent colonization by Rome, which did happen in Britain and in most of the rest of Europe. During the height of the Roman empire in the first few centuries after Christ, Ireland continued the uninterrupted development of Celtic art and crafts. These weren’t displaced by Greco-Roman art, as happened across much of Europe, nor were they destroyed in the ensuing Dark Ages (c.400-800 AD) in Europe when Roman power was replaced by barbarian anarchy.

The series of exceptional items of precious metalwork made during this period is one of the great achievements of Irish art. The Celtic high cross sculptures represent Ireland’s major sculptural contribution to the history of art.

Who did invade Ireland in 1169 causing a long artistic decline from this ‘golden age?

The answer is the Normans (and then the English)!

The invasion and settlement of Ireland by first Norman and then English forces, and the domination of Ireland for many, many centuries by these settlers, isolated Irish culture from the influences of the European Renaissance in the 14th to 17th centuries. From the 12th century to the modern period, Ireland produced no major contributions to European visual art to equal its earlier achievements.

It was not until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that Irish visual artists began to become internationally important again.. 

Has your country had a ‘golden age’ of art? What factors allowed it to happen? Are artefacts and monuments from history very important in your country?

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