On The Trail Of Irish Art (2024)

DECEMBER MIGHT seem a strange time for a trip to Ireland, with the days short and the other tourists gone. For me it was a pilgrimage of sorts. What better place to reflect upon the dying of the light than in a land where the light of civilization was kept alive during the epoch that schoolteachers fondly refer to as the Dark Ages?

It is surprisingly easy to follow in the path of Celtic art, to see the important pagan and early Christian artifacts and remains which can tell us so much. The Book of Kells, the most splendid illuminated manuscript in the western world, is on display in Dublin. The sites of the monasteries of Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise, whose High Crosses stand like sentinels of deep religious conviction, are within an easy drive of Dublin, as is Newgrange, the prehistoric long grave where, nearly 5,000 years ago, the mysteries of light were celebrated in some ritual the exact nature of which is lost.

The story of Irish art begins at Newgrange, the most impressive of 30 tombs built in 3,000 B.C. by some nameless people who inhabited a few square miles of land in a bend in the River Boyne. At Newgrange, less than an hour's drive north of Dublin, the great themes are clearly set forth: light and ornament.


Newgrange was constructed so that at solstice, the shortest day of the year, the dawn's light would penetrate the top of the tomb shaft and illuminate the back wall 62 feet away. Nowadays people sign up months in advance to be among the 20 visitors allowed to squeeze down the narrow tomb passage on Dec. 22, only to go away downcast if, instead of sun, the day begins with an Irish drizzle.

I had gone to Newgrange earlier in the month, and a guide and I had the site to ourselves. The surface carving--the spirals, the zigzags, the concentric circles--are on the boulder guarding the tomb passage, on the lintel above the entrance, on walls and roof inside. One theory is that the circle designs represent the sun, a reasonable enough guess. Surely these whirling patterns had some very potent meaning beyond mere decoration, perhaps as magic to summon good forces or ward off bad ones.

During the excavation at Newgrange, this primieval graffiti was even discovered on the back of a boulder facing away from the passage, as though meant only for the connoisseurship of whatever gods the Newgrange builders prayed to.

The curvilinear design, this intricate coil that is first seen at Newgrange, is the fine obsession that threads through Irish art. I would see it every place I went, played out in endless variations. At the National Museum in Dublin, seemingly every object is touched by spirals and interlacings, from the brooches of ancient Celtic warriors to the bejeweled reliquaries of Irish abbots. In one corner of the museum is a pre-Christian standing stone from County Tyrone, brought in from the fields, its surface enveloped in gyrating lines.

The Celts, who came to Ireland from Europe in the 3rd century B.C., evolved their own version of the line, pagan and wild. During the Christian conversion of the Celts in the 5th century A.D., one of the glorious rip-offs of art history took place. Just as they had merged solstice with the celebration of Christmas, the Christians took hold of the coiled line, as if it were something alive, and wrapped it around the symbol of the cross.

At first, Christian carvers incised ornate crosses directly on stone, but later they carved the stone itself into the shape of a cross. The High Crosses of the 8th and 9th centuries, 10 to 12 feet high, had become picture books in stone, instructing the faithful with scenes from the Bible. The ever-present turning and twisting spirals embroider the areas between the pictures on these crosses, like some unstoppable vine.


Clonmacnoise, one of the earliest monasteries, lies on a slope with a lovely view of the Shannon River. A quiet and remote place even today, it is in the center of the country, two hours from Dublin. The great monasteries flourished in isolation while Europe crumbled, and Clonmacnoise had peace for 300 years after its founding in the 6th century.

But beginning in the 9th century, the history of Clonmacnoise reads like a multiple mugging. It was sacked in turn by Vikings, Normans, the English and the Irish themselves. The result is picturesque ruins, most of them from the 11th and 12th centuries, including a round tower where the monks sought refuge from raiders. The original monastery foundations have vanished in a bog without a trace. Yet here Celtic carving survives in great quantity and beauty. There are a High Cross from 815, showing the Crucifixion on one face and the Resurrection on the other, and two dozen tomb slabs and standing stones carved with the magical curling line. A very resilient line, I thought, as I picked my way through the ruins.

Monasterboice is north of Dublin, not far from Newgrange, and I went there to see Muiredach's Cross, named after a 9th-century abbot.


Some of the Irish High Crosses are worn by the weather over the years, but this one is in excellent condition, and its narrative is exceptionally vigorous and confident. The Last Judgment is depicted with special relish. Beneath Christ's left hand, a grotesque demon kicks a sinner to damnation with such a wallop of his oversized foot that the poor soul seems about to fly out of the frame of the carving.

Another detail shows Christ arrested by Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, but here there has been a cast change and the villains appear to be vikings, dressed in the breeches that were their fashion, brandishing swords at a Christ who looks for all the world like an Irish monk. The Vikings, who worked hard on their tough-guy image, would doubtless have been flattered by the portrayal.

At Kells, a town about a half-hour's drive from Monasterboice, stands the South Cross. The ornamental carving on this cross is lush and exuberant, nearly swamping the pictorial carvings of Bible scenes. The South Cross is a kind of equivalent in stone of the Book of Kells, which is believed to have been completed in the monastery that once stood here. The exact origins of the book are shrouded in myth. It may have been begun under the patronage of St. Columba in the monastery at Iona on the coast of Scotland, but then spirited to Kells after the Viking attacked Iona in 840. Later, it seems to have been stolen, buried in sod, and finally recovered in one of those "miracle" finds which so inspire secular historians.


The Book of Kells once existed as one piece, but its caretakers have divided it into sections. This year part of it is touring in a "Treasures of Early Irish Art" exhibit, due back in Ireland from Europe in September, and the other part is in the library of Trinity College. On my visit to the library, the book lay open to the frontispiece of St. Matthew's Gospel. December proved a choice time for coming to Ireland for the very pragmatic reason that, once again, I was virtually alone with one of the country's monuments, the security guards being my only company.

Under a dimly lit display case the page was a gentle glow of color, and I happily lost myself trying to unravel the impossibly curled and interlocked design, and following the swooping riddle of intertwined animal forms--even St. Matthew's hair is plaited into a fanciful pattern of curlicues. I left the room feeling more humble than when I entered.

At this point in the trip, I was beginning to dream in spirals. Even the back of the Irish one-pound note is adorned with a facsimile of an illuminated manuscript. I decided to drive to Sligo and Donegal, on the cloud-swept northwest coast, to see some standing stones there and to enjoy the rugged scenery.


Sligo is Yeats country. I drove north past Ben Bulben, the flat-topped mountain that fired Yeats' imagination and at the foot of which the poet is buried. Ben Bulben is also where, in the 6th century, St. Columba defeated the last pagan king in a quarrel over ownership of the Book of Kells. Columba must have been a busy saint, because another legend has him banishing the faeries responsible for the fog in Glencolumbkille, a valley village on the westernmost point of the Donegal peninsula that was my destination.

Donegal is in the heart of Gaelic-speaking Ireland, mountainous and distant. I felt as if I were traveling into a Celtic twilight where riddles are not solved but only multiply. For one thing, the name of the village is spelled differently on each of half a dozen road signs ("Glean Cholm Cille" was my favorite variation) as if the English and Gaelic languages were actively warring.

Glencolumbkille has a profusion of early Christian standing stones, but you have to know where to look for them--some are hidden behind walls in the fields, others stand out in the open at the side of the road. I drove up a winding road to the top of a hill looking down on the valley and the rolling surf of the Atlantic, and searched for the better part of an hour before I finally found a small megalithic tomb behind a barn. "They used to tell me as a child it was built by the Firbolg people," one of the natives told me. "They were said to be a race of giants."


It was doubtless a standard explanation served up to charm the tourists, but I suppose there is ample justification for it, given the heritage of the land. In ancient Ireland, the pagan kings allowed free passage for poets from one territory to another--the birth of blarney, I suspect.

It now was mid-afternoon, and I had to hurry back to Sligo before darkness closed in on the country roads. I thought about how poetry is dead, or nearly so, and how art is now something whose significance we question and scratch after. Nowadays we want to know the meaning behind art, and this is one difference between our age and the past. The 8th-century sculptors and artisans worked from absolute conviction. No one had to ask.

On The Trail Of Irish Art (2024)
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