As well as contributing traditions that have been adapted into modern religious holidays, the Celts had a profound impact on Irish art. The Celtic knot is still one of the symbols most strongly associated with the country of Ireland, and the Book of Kells, with its interlacing patterns influenced by Celtic design, has become a national treasure. Here are the best places to experience Irish Celtic design for yourself.
Without a doubt, the best place in Ireland today to experience Irish Celtic design is at the National Museum of Ireland’s archeology wing on Dublin’s Kildare Street. Permanent exhibitions here house the country’s most important Celtic artefacts, such as the Iron Age gold collar known as the Broighter Collar, the bronze horn discovered at the former lake of Loughnashade, and the exquisitely delicate Broighter Boat. The National Musuem’s bog bodies exhibition also relates to the Irish Celts, as the bodies found are believed to have been kings sacrificed as part of a Celtic ritual.
Trinity College’s Old Library now houses the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book dating from around the year 800 AD, that is regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure. The book is part of a tradition now known as Insular art, which resulted from the blending of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon styles. The interlacing patterns and complex knots that adorn the book’s pages are borrowed from traditional Celtic designs. The Book of Durrow, an even earlier example of an Insular illuminated manuscript that heavily features curvilinear patterning and Celtic spirals, is also on display at Trinity.
The Dingle peninsula’s Irish name Corca Dhuibhne means ‘seed or tribe of Duibhne’, a name taken from a Celtic goddess, and this area has a large collection of Ogham stones, adorned with Ireland’s oldest form of writing. (Ogham is also sometimes referred to as ‘the Celtic tree alphabet’, since the names of a number of trees are ascribed to individual letters.) It makes sense, then, that Dingle should have its own Celtic and Prehistoric Museum, with a collection that includes tools, jewellery and an array of other artefacts from the Celtic era, as well as Ireland’s only intact woolly mammoth skull.
Ireland’s Early Medieval high crosses are thought to be descended from pagan Celtic wooden memorials. Many feature Celtic knots as part of their embellishment, and most take a ringed Celtic shape. Further examples of Insular art, the crosses still standing are among Ireland’s most important surviving monuments. The western Ossory group of high crosses, thought to be among the earliest examples in Ireland, are not in any gallery or museum – instead they have to be observed in their natural surroundings. One can be found in County Kilkenny at Killamery village, the site of a famous 7th century monastery and the location where the 9th-century Killamery brooch was found (now on display at the National Museum of Ireland).