At least two centuries before the great boulders of Stonehenge were placed on a windswept Salisbury Plain, and over 500 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza rose from the deserts of Egypt, Neolithic architects in the Boyne Valley (Brú na Bóinne) were laying the foundations of one of the most studied structures of the ancient world.
An imposing earthen mound in County Meath (an Mhí), its original name has been lost to the jealous mists of history. But the legacy of middle age Cistercian farming practices provided the tag that it has today, Newgrange.
In its most elementary guise, Newgrange can be regarded as a passage tomb and an impressive illustration of Neolithic structural design. But on a more refined level, Newgrange is revealed as a highly-charged site of much debated pre-Christian spirituality, a sunlight trap on Winter Solstice, and as an exhibit of some of the finest examples of ancient Irish art; including intricate stone carvings of spirals known as the triskele or triskelion.
Given the connection between Newgrange and the Solstice, it is mused that the meaning of the triskelion is solar. But the artwork has assumed more widely celebrated connotations over the centuries, and is not only regarded as one of the most famous examples of ancient Irish art, but an iconic symbol of the Ireland the island.
It is important to remember that this comes from a culture that not only pre-dates Christianity in Ireland, but also the arrival of the Celts around 400 BC.
The pre-Christian triskelion, however, is not alone. From the fifth century BC until 100 AD, the La Tène culture of art swept post-Iron Age Europe, incorporating and developing much of the artistic nuances seen at places such Newgrange. The most famous examples of spiral-influenced La Tène art can be found at the Turoe Stone in County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe) and the Castlestrange stone in County Roscommon (Contae Ros Comáin).
By now Ireland was a highly-active ‘Celtic’ nation defined by its pagan religion and symbolic interrelation of society, ritual and art. And it was during this time of great cultural exchange that some of the most influential elements of shared Irish, Scottish and Welsh culture still evident today would emerge.
According to the legends of Irish mythology, a woman named Brigid, daughter of Dagda and a member of the pre-Celtic Tuatha Dé Danann, emerged to become the goddess of inspiration and poetry, hearth, healing and midwifery. Such was her importance that when Christianity eventually did come to Ireland c. 5th century AD, she was incorporated wholesale along with the majority of her prior aspects in the persona of St Brigit of Kildare; one of Celtic Christianity’s most celebrated saints even outside Ireland.
But it was in the north of the island that a Celtic, pre-Christian symbol emerged that would go on to have an even greater impact on the joint history of Ireland than that of Brigid. According to myth, the Red Hand of Ulster – tragically reviled by some - was originally the symbolic celebration of an early king of the province winning the rights to the crown from a rival. Not only had it nothing to do with Protestant ascendancy, but it was later used as a marker by the O’Neill (Uí Néill) clan who resisted Tudor and Elizabethan designs on Ireland.
But the Red Hand is not alone as a symbol of pre-Christian Ireland that has been erroneously co-opted to assume prescribed sectarian connotations. The Celtic harp (Clàrsach/Cláirseach/clàrsach Ghàidhealach)has long been associated with Irish nationalism but in reality it is not unique to that view nor even to Ireland being a prominent element in Welsh, Breton, and Scottish cultures also and is in fact another element of shared origins and cultural exchange. Even the most iconic of ‘Irish harps’, the National symbol of Ireland, the Trinity college Harp (Brian Boru’s Harp), is thought to have been hand-crafted in, or near, Argyll in western Scotland c. 14th or 15th century and bears the coat of arms of the O’Neills, whose stronghold during that period was in Ulster.
Likewise, the Celtic knot, to use a very loose, but suitably descriptive term, is often assumed to be a show of modern Irish nationalism, but has no true connection. Knots originated around 450 AD, and became central to pre-Christian Celtic design in Britain as well as across Europe. In Scotland, the artistic traditions of the Picts built upon the La Tène cultures to create sharp, angular knot patterns, while the Irish crafted smoother, more circular designs. But this is by no means a hard and fast rule, for as La Tène and later artworks spread, local artists borrowed and traded from other British tribes to create a fluid interchange of culture that created not only distinctly Irish styles, but was also part of a wider inclusive artistic heritage.
With the onset of Christianity, Irish artists manipulated existing artistic styles to incorporate the newly-arrived Christian symbolism. So far did the Irish interpret and mould Christian practices that by the early Dark Ages, Rome was forced to send papal delegates to Ireland to correct what had become an almost unrecognisable form of ‘Celtic Christianity’.
Into this environment of incorporation, trade and tribal interaction stepped a man that has gone on to embody the island of Ireland. Born a Roman in the area of modern Carlisle, Saint Patrick is now celebrated the world over as the most Irish of Irish. But with Saint Patrick begins a troubling legacy of religious intolerance, arguably born from a disregard for long established Druidic practice.
But Patrick is by no means the origin of the sectarian troubles of today. On the contrary, Patrick allows for Irish people the world over to find common ground behind symbols such as the triskelion, Ulster’s Red Hand, the knots and the harp, for these are all shared markers of Irishness, whether of four province descent, Scots or otherwise. This phenomenon can be identified in the modern celebration of St Patrick ’s Day. Seen less often as a Christian Saint’s feast day and increasingly as a secular holiday, March 17 brings people together the world over simply to celebrate being Irish or of Irish descent.
In this light, it is fair to propose that the problems of the modern day are disconnected from the most recognisable symbols of Irish culture. Most of the symbols in question pre-date the sectarianism that originated with the divide and conquer policies of post-Norman rule, and has only in relatively recent history been ascribed to such symbols.
But there is a wind of change. The recent attendance of Peter Robinson at a GAA match with current colleague and former foe, Martin McGuiness (Máirtín Mag Aonghusa), and the latter’s visit to Windsor Park for the first time since 1964, demonstrates how the divisive tools of history can be overcome with an advanced understanding of place, past and modern context. As Mr Robinson reflected, ‘I have consistently been saying that we have to get away from the ‘them and us’ politics. We have to be able to show respect for each other’s traditions so it’s good to be here.’
Our aim is not to dissuade people from using these symbols, nor to challenge the authenticity or integrity of the symbols themselves, but rather to demonstrate through an examination of their origins that the idea they are the sole preserve of any one ‘type’ of Irish, is in a word, erroneous. Just as Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson was able to enjoy and show his support for Irish sport in the form of Gaelic football (Peil Ghaelach), so should all of these symbols and more be enjoyed and celebrated by all Irishmen. They are ‘Irish’ symbols, incorporating elements borrowed from other cultures, and belong equally to all the inhabitants of this island as a celebration of the shared origins of its people.