Bug-Eyed Beads are a Girl’s Best Friend

Photo of decorated blue glass beadsAfter enjoying a couple art fairs this summer and listening to banter among browsers, I can’t help but wonder what the shopping experience was like during the annual tribal assembly, or óenach. As mentioned in my Lughnasadh post, the óenach was an early harvest festival and gathering – much like our modern county fairs – where trade was conducted and master craftsmen hawked their wares. Imagine, if you will, two women – the wives of regional kings – strolling among the stalls, eyeing this year’s harvest of brooches and a fine catch of glass beads:

                “Will ye look at this one here. It looks like a maze! All the fine detail and the color. Is it gold, Fergus?”

                “Dinna bother him, Deidre. Ye’ll spoil his work!”

                Fergus glanced up from his molds to catch Maeve’s eye. As a smith of precious metals and a craftsman of kings, his work required a keen eye and a steady hand, but he was never too busy for the ladies. “That there is gold filigree made of wires soldered together. The backing plate is also gold, but the one on the brooch next to it is silver.”

                “And how do you make the color?” Deidre couldn’t take her eyes off the deep blue and green inlays.

                “That’s done in enamel.”


                Fergus was in his element. “It’s a powder, see, but when it’s heated, it fuses in place like glass. Used to be all we could get was reds, but this year I managed to trade for blue, green, and yellow.”

                Maeve ran a finger over the rich garnet studs of another brooch. “And this stone?”

                “That there is cast glass. To see more of that, ye’ll have to visit Diarmid across the way there.” His face fell as the women’s attention was drawn to the young glassmaker. Fergus quickly found his voice again but stumbled to get the words out. He reached for one of his own molds and nearly dropped it in his haste. “Much of my own work involves casting, ye see. To create this brooch over here, I first make a model in wax. Then the wax is dipped in a bath of fine clay so that it gets into every nook and cranny – to capture all the details. Then the whole thing is encased in clay and dried. When it’s baked, the wax melts and is poured out. What’s left is a clay mold like this one. The brooch is formed by pouring liquid gold, bronze, or silver into the mold.”

                Maeve eyed the coarse thing with skepticism. “How d’ye get the brooch out of the mold?”

                Fergus sighed. “That’s the sad bit. The mold must be broken and can never be used again.” His face brightened a little as his back arched with pride. “Each brooch is unique, ye see,” he said, rocking on the balls of his feet.

                Deirdre gave him an appreciative smile. “We hope to talk our husbands into one,” she told him in a conspiratorial whisper.

                “We’ll be back, Fergus,” Maeve said, linking her arm in Deirdre’s and leading her off to the glassmaker’s stall. “Ye have three brooches to yer name, lass – not to mention any number of fine pins Fergus has made. Wouldn’t ye rather have one of these beauties?” The sweep of her arm took in several strands of polychrome beads. “I fancy these.” She pointed to a necklace of clear glass beads decorated with spirals of yellow. “Och, but look at this one!” She picked up a single bead on display for a closer look. Ten alternating cables of white and blue had been fused into one exquisite bead.

                Deirdre laughed. “I like this one.” She pointed to another. “It has eyes.” The blue bead was capped in blue and white cables at each end, and around its middle protruded a row of yellow dots of glass. “No matter which way it turns, it’s always looking at you.”

                Maeve sniggered and cast a wicked glance over her shoulder. “Sort of like Fergus, there.”




Hencken, H. (1950-1). Lagore Crannog: an Irish royal residence of the 7th to 10th centuries AD.

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 53, 1-247.

Ryan, M. (1993). Metal craftsmanship in early Ireland. Dublin: Country House.

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