Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity when he converted Ireland to Christianity. Now those three leaves are one of the most widely recognized symbols of Ireland. But our beloved shamrock isn’t the only symbol for Ireland. Many are much older. Before Patrick, Ireland had a very rich spiritual life, and it gave us many beautiful designs and motifs that are popular on Irish jewelry and gifts today.
Newgrange passage tomb in the Boyne Valley, County Meath offers a stunning view into the art and beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland. It is one of three mounds close together that are older than the pyramids in Egypt. Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth date back to the fourth millennium BC. The three sites are collectively known as Brú na Bóinne. They are elaborately decorated with intricate spirals and designs. While it is impossible to say with complete certainty what the meaning of the spirals and swirls carved in these ancient structures mean, experts believe they represent the pagan Triple Goddess worshipped by the Celts. The site is now understood to be more than just a passage tomb. The design is based on astronomy, and on the morning of the Winter Solstice, the rising sun hits an opening above the entrance to Newgrange and illuminates the interior of the temple.
Celtic Design beyond Brú na Bóinne
The intriguing carvings left by our Celtic ancestors were not limited to those most famous stones at Brú na Bóinne. Other examples have been discovered around the country. The Turoe Stone outside Loughrea in County Galway is a standing, granite boulder with similar carvings. Experts estimate it dates back to between 100 BC and 100 AD, significantly later than the Brú na Bóinne sites. Clearly, the swirling designs were not a passing fad. The Castlestrange Stone in County Roscommon is very similar to the Turoe Stone, and dates back to the same period. It is also a standing, granite boulder carved with compelling spiral motifs.
It is fascinating to ponder the links with the number three. It’s held deep religious significance in Ireland since before recorded history. We see the triple spirals and three-pointed designs in ancient carvings, and then along came St. Patrick with his three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity. Today, Irish jewelry design is all about motifs based on the number three – triple spirals, shamrocks, and trinity knots. The intricate designs of curving lines are known as the Le Téne style. It is the artistic hallmark of the Bronze and Iron Age Celts.
The Celts loved gold. While we call the eras when they thrived the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, our ancestors were masters of creating gold jewelry. It was much easier to etch those detailed designs into gold than bronze or iron, after all. Bronze and Iron Age gold jewelry has been discovered all over Ireland, so arguably our love for gorgeous bits of jewelry has always been part of who we are.