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The Bronze Age: Musical Horns and Instruments from Ireland's past

Updated on May 2, 2014
Ancient Music Ireland playing Irish prehistoric music
Ancient Music Ireland playing Irish prehistoric music | Source

Bronze Age Musical Instruments of Ireland

In 1986 an Irish Galway based music composer, named Simon O’Dwyer began to explore the musical properties of prehistoric music instruments. This subsequently led to the establishment of Ancient Music Ireland whose initial goal was to reproduce and successfully play cast bronze musical horns from the late Bronze Age. This was to be the first production of such musical instruments in over 3000 years.

It was in the 1990’s that that Ancient Music Ireland set about learning how to play these instruments. For the first time it was acknowledged that these horns could be played individually or together to produce a variety of different notes, sounds and tones. Later other instruments were also revived and played such as wooden pipes, bone whistles and war trumpas.

Ireland has a large collection of prehistoric, Bronze Age musical horns which are now believed to be from the Middle to Late Bronze Age. Approximately from 1100 BC to 700Bc. One such find is a musical instrument from 800BC which was during late Bronze Age. It is a bronze musical horn, known as the Lissroe Horn.

Selection of Bronze Age Artefacts
Selection of Bronze Age Artefacts

Description of the Lissroe Horn

The Lissroe Horn is a curved, cast-bronze horn, whose length is 450mm. At the narrow end there are four conical bosses while at the wider end there are six studs, corresponding in appearance with those at the other end. There are also pinholes throughout the body of the horn which are due to corrosion.

Overall the horn is in good condition, the length in a straight line from the mouthpiece to the sound piece is 300mm. It has a diameter of 40mm and the sound piece itself is 100mm long.

The Lissroe horn is a Class 2, end blow horn. Professor John M. Coles created two distinct groupings for these prehistoric horns. Interestingly most of these type of musical horns have been found in Ireland, except for two isolated examples that were discovered in Britain. Therefore Class 1 horns seem to be found in the North-East of Ireland, whereas Class 2 horns are generally found in the South-west of Ireland. The Class 1 group seem to be smaller, lighter and have less design work than the Class 2 group. Why they are almost exclusive to Ireland still remains unknown.

Ancient Music Ireland

Bronze Age Horn
Bronze Age Horn
Bronze Age Horn
Bronze Age Horn

The Bronze Age in Co. Kerry

Research performed by the KerryCountyMuseum indicates that the initial evidence for people living in Co. Kerry dates back to 5000BC. The earliest archaeological findings come from Ferriter’s Cove which is on the DinglePeninsula in the county.

Farming in Kerry became a nationwide way of life between 4000 and 2500B.C.

Subsequently it was from 2500B.C. to 500B.C. that so many magnificent Bronze Age artefacts were produced.

It is thought that a new race of people travelled to Ireland in about 2000BC. There is scant evidence to suggest that there was a large influx of people at this time; but rather that a small number of new settlers arrived and that the native people of Ireland adopted their way of life.

Before long a very prosperous bronze production industry grew up in Ireland. There was an abundance of copper deposits here at this time and when copper was mixed with tin it produced bronze. As bronze was much stronger it was more practical and much more effective to use for making tools such as axe heads, flat spear heads and daggers.

In Co. Kerry too this became a prosperous new industry. Tin was imported from Cornwall to RossIsland near Killarney, Co. Kerry. Likewise the copper produced here would have been exported to England via this route.

Mining for copper was a very complex activity that initially involved recognising the presence of copper in the rock-face. Then very hot fires were lit on this rock surface. The next step was to heat water and to throw it over the fires; then people had to use cobble hammers and wedges to extract the copper ore.

Information available on other Bronze Age Horns

The Derrynane Horn is believed to be from the same period as the Lissroe Horn and is also a Class 2 Horn. It is actually the image used as the logo for the Kerry Archaeological Society.[i] This Class 2 Horn is kept in the National Museum of Ireland and is described in their Catalogue as follows:

The Derrynane horn was found by itself. It is classified as being a C-shaped horn with the mouthpiece at the side rather than the top of the instrument. This opening is situated at approximately one third of the way along the side of the horn. The top end of the artefact is sealed and at this point it is ridged and shaped in a semi circle. At the wider end there are six coned shaped ridges and four round holes. Between the mouthpiece and the top of the horn there is looped ring and there is also another one at the very tip. It is 88.0cm long.

Drawing of Irish Bronze Age Musical Horn
Drawing of Irish Bronze Age Musical Horn

The Dunmanway Horn

Another fine example of a musical horn from the same period is a horn which was found in Dunmanway, Co. Cork. Like the Derrynane Horn it is a side blown horn. It is described as being a larger, light weighted horn. It is also not in good enough condition to be played but when comparing it with other similar Class 2 instruments it is most likely to emit an E tone sound. It is also decorated at the wider end with six raised cones and there are four holes at the very end also. It is currently displayed in a BritishMuseum.

Ancient Irish Music described

Bronze Age Trumpa being played
Bronze Age Trumpa being played

The purpose of the Bronze Musical Horns

Over the decades there have been many different theories put forward about the purpose of the Bronze Age Musical Horns. Initially it was believed that these types of horns may have been an integral part of signalling war. However now that these instruments have been so masterfully played there is more knowledge about the mesmerizing sounds that they can make. When played correctly musical horn’s can be heard to make an almost eerie haunting sound which is deep and mystical.

The late Bronze Age was a period of increased opulence where gold and bronze were being traded and there were large manufacturing operations in evidence. Therefore the horns could have been part of religious ceremonies to praise their gods and/or they could also have been used as part of elaborate burial ceremonies.

Consequently or in addition to religious ceremonies these musical instruments could have been used as part of leisure activities as an entertainment interval at feasting occasions. Also it has been speculated that there were many small chieftains ruling kingdoms in prehistoric Ireland and that each horn could have been used to emit their own unique tune to signify a particular Chieftain.

Or as many horns have often been found together it is also possible that these were belonging to groups of people who played music together for entertainment or payment.

In conclusion whatever the purpose of the Bronze Age Horn’s, it has certainly shone a new light on the characteristics of the people who made and used them. It took a huge amount of skill and perseverance to make such a crafted instrument. Also the melancholy, sometimes majestic music that they can produce must surely have come from a race of people who appreciated the finer things in life.


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    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you too, hearing the instruments being played is great, nice to know what they were listening to three thousand years ago!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      Very interesting, and thanks for including the videos so we could hear them, too.

    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      You are welcome.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      5 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting indeed and thank you for sharing.



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