The Tara Brooch is an elaborate piece of ancient Irish jewelry dating back to around 700 AD. It is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
Composed mostly of silver and embellished with delicate, interlacing, gold, filigree patterns, it is widely recognized as a symbol of Ireland.
Celtic brooches are available from many fine jewelers and Irish gift shops throughout the world, with craftsmen finding inspiration from the original Tara brooch. Today I thought I would explain the history behind this wonderful Celtic piece.
Discovered in 1850, this legendary brooch was created for a medieval chieftain to balance his seamless cloak on his manly shoulders. The weapon-like long pin of the brooch was strong enough to bore through layers of rough cloth. The high quality of workmanship reinforced this chieftain’s head of clan status.
The original brooch is said to have been found by a poor Irish woman in August 1850 on the beach at Bettystown, County Meath. She supposedly claimed she found it in a box buried in the sand. An ancient wooden box surviving under shifting sands for centuries may seem like a tall story. Many believe the woman found the box inland, but moved it to the beach to avoid ownership claims by the land holder.
Another version of the story claims the beautiful piece was found by two little boys playing on Bettystown beach. Their mother brought it to an iron dealer, who wasn’t even slightly tempted to purchase it. She proceeded to a watchmaker who purchased the ancient brooch for the vast sum of eighteen pence. I wonder if she ever realized how little she was paid for her find. The watchmaker used his skills to clean up the piece, and then traveled to Dublin where he hoped to find a buyer. Waterhouse Jewellers paid him twelve pounds for the pin.
Although named after the famous seat of the Irish High Kings, the brooch actually has no true connection to the Hill of Tara. George Waterhouse, a creator of Celtic revival jewelry, hoped the name would appeal to women, stimulating a demand for replicas of the intricately ornate brooch. His marketing ploy worked, and to this very day this famous piece of jewelry inspires craftsmen throughout the world.
Although originally a masculine design, the Tara Brooch was quickly favored by Irish women. In the early years of the 20th century feather boas and furs were the fashion choice of New York and London ladies. Irish women, however, preferred to pin their serge suits with intricate brooches encrusted with precious stones, inspired by Celtic myth and the Tara Brooch. Even Queen Victoria herself sent orders for the precious pin to be sent to Windsor Castle for her personal inspection.
Inghiniidhe na hEireann (The Daughters of Ireland) chose a Tara Brooch as a membership symbol. To them it represented a purely Irish identity, so they proudly donned their badge of choice. In 1914 they merged with Cumann na mBan, and their Tara Brooch symbol was replaced by a more militant emblem of a rifle entwined with the letters ‘CnamB’. Perhaps they failed to recognize the more subtle insignia of the brooch, evocative of a medieval sword.
In the 1870’s the brooch was acquired by what now is The National Museum of Ireland, and there it remains on display, for all the world to see. Whether found on the beach, the famous Hill of Tara or under some stone wall, by an old woman or her two boys, the Irish people are eternally grateful for the discovery of this national treasure.
And finally a few words of advice for anyone thinking there may be more brooches and ancient jewels just waiting to be found on the Emerald Isle. Metal detecting is illegal in Ireland. This step was taken to preserve Ireland’s historical heritage, and to ensure only those with archaeological expertise and an appropriate license excavate our ancient sites.
And so, when you wear a Celtic brooch, wear it confidently and with pride. Your taste in fashion and style would be pleasing to Ireland’s ancient warrior kings.
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom