Ireland’s stunning churches, monasteries and ancient manuscripts all feature a dizzying array of Celtic motifs, including elegant knot symbols, round towers, and stately Celtic crosses.
We’ve seen them on headstones, beautifying the facade of built-so-long-ago-it-hurts-to-think-about-it places like Newgrange and some of us are rocking necklaces, rings, bracelets and T-shirts with, until now, unknown symbols. What we need is an expert. And that’s exactly what we have.
Guest blogger Ciara O’Brien of Irish Celtic Jewels has agreed to talk us through the most enduring Celtic symbols still found in Ireland today, and of course, where you can find them.
The Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin)
Ok, we hear lots about the Book of Kells and we know it’s about as pretty as a book can ever get. What else can you tell us?
The book was designed by Irish monks to illustrate the four Gospels of the New Testament, and contains a multitude of priceless examples of Celtic symbolism. Many colours are incorporated into the book, all derived from natural pigments. Intricate knot work, known as Celtic interlace, is one of the most recognizable and fascinating motifs and the latticework style flows endlessly into itself, symbolising eternity.
Sounds, and indeed, looks smashing. Also, we heard mention of ‘gold’ being used in some of the artwork. Surely not?!
Each folio of the Book of Kells was hand-painted with painstaking care, “illuminated” with shining gold, and then stitched together by skilled medieval crafters. Today, Celtic knot work remains an important cultural motif of the Irish. Hypnotic and mysterious, it now appears on many pieces of Celtic jewelry and Celtic tattoos.
Well helloooooooo handsome! This place looks stunning. Right by the River Shannon, too, eh? But the lovely, crumbly buildings, what exactly are they?
That would be County Offaly’s picturesque Clonmacnoise monastery. Those ‘crumbly buildings’ are ruins that date back to the sixth century, and this location is the home of many very pretty – and poignant – examples of Celtic symbolism. Visitors to the spot can try and bottle the atmosphere of peace and serenity that surrounds the monastery’s cathedral, round towers, churches and churchyards.
It does strike one as a rather serene slice of the earth. Anything significant there for a budding historian?
Clonmacnoise is the resting place of ancient Celtic grave slabs, including the Cross of the Scriptures. This Celtic Cross grave slab features a distinctive central ring, which is believed to symbolise the sun; before the Irish were converted to Christianity, the Pagans worshipped the power of the Sun God at their ancient Samhain festival. This ring may have been used in Christian grave slabs to entice more pagans to the Christian faith. Indeed, this particular cross features the crucifixion of Christ in the center of the ring. This famous sandstone Celtic Cross also includes carvings of various Biblical scenes, as well as a prayer for the people who originally erected the cross.
Now, we know a little about Glendalough. St Kevin fighting some strange monster, setting up Glendalough as somewhere for thought and contemplation. What more can you tell us?
Well, while a selection of rugged and meaningful Celtic Crosses dot the landscape at Glendalough, the monastery’s sole Round Tower is one of the many symbols of strength throughout Ireland. These high towers were built as bell towers, in order to ring bells that would summon pilgrims to hallowed ground. They were also used to hide valuables (and people) from pillaging Vikings. Today they have become powerful symbols of Irish history, culture, and pride.
White Island – strangely enough, not all that white?
Indeed it isn’t – well observed! White Island is located in County Fermanagh, Northern Island, and the waters of Castle Archdale Bay surround its lush greenery (yes, greenery!), sandy shores, and ancient church ruins.
Anything of note inside the church?
Inside the church, 9th-century quartzite carvings depict eight figures (reputedly used to tell a story about Saint Patrick’s lauded healing skills), one of which is known as a Sheela. In Celtic mythology, the Sheela, or Sheela-na-Gig, is believed to represent one of the three faces of the Great Goddess (virgin, mother, crone); the Sheela is the Crone, and she appears naked, and fearfully ugly, as she displays her body with shocking boldness and confidence.
Hmmm, not exactly a romantic gal, is she?
Actually, many believe that this Crone was used to deter Irish females from giving in to the lustful, wicked aspects of their own nature; she was used as a warning. However, others perceive the Sheela as a symbol of fertility. Historians will probably always quibble about the true meaning of this unusual and unforgettable Celtic symbol.
Read more of Ciara’s thoughts on all things Celtic and weddings, including wedding rings and Celtic engagement rings, on the blog for Irish Celtic Jewels: an online jewelry store.