Vikings used drinking horns, but they weren’t the first, and they certainly weren’t the only. The Celts were also big into their horns, as we saw with the Hochdorf burial horns and the giant cauldron of mead. While those Celtic horns were found in modern-day Germany, these were found in Ireland, making them the perfect drinking horns to feature on St. Patrick’s Feast Day.
There are two things that are important to account for before we delve into ancient Irish drinking horns:
1) That biological material, including horn, deteriorates when it's buried for hundreds of years. That means it's very hard to find horns used by the very ancient Celts. For this reason, archeologists look to stone reliefs (like the Bullion Stone below) or metal caps and ends that might remain from horns in burial mounds.
2) The word, 'Celtic' is not a catch-all for the Irish people, even in antiquity. For one, Ireland has been home to a great number of various ethnic groups since long before humans kept track of history. The Airgialla, Fir Ol nEchmacht, Delbhna, Milesians, Fir Bolg, Érainn, Eóganachta, Mairtine, Conmaicne, Soghain, and Ulaid all ruled Ireland in their own times (or their own mythical times--that's a whole 'nother story). Some are Celtic. Some are were there before the Celts came.
The Celts are a Proto-Indo-European group of peoples that came from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe of Eastern Europe. They left that area, passed through the Balkans and into Germany, and their descendants finally settled in the British Isles. But they spread out as they moved. There's Celtic culture all over Europe. For this article, we're just talking about the descendants of those people on the island of Ireland, which we'll refer to as the Ancient Irish.
Drinking horns are mentioned many times in the Irish chronicles, most notably when Toirdealbach Ua Conchobair, the king of Connacht, gave the drinking horn of Brian Boruma to his nobles in 1151, and also when he left his own personal drinking horn to the church after his death.
We know the Celts of Scotland and Ireland have a rich history of drinking from horns from very early days, as evidenced by finds like the Buillion Stone dating to 900-950 which depicts a weary traveler taking a swig from his horn.
The most famous example of an Irish drinking horn surviving today is the Kavanagh Charter Horn. The horn traditionally used in ceremonies is associated with the Caomhnach kings of Leinster, and is as old as the 12th century, although it was modified in the 15th century. This horn is important historical evidence that drinking horns were symbols of royalty to the ancient Irish.
Another important find that helps us understand the relationship between the Irish and their drinking horns isn’t a complete horn at all – it’s just the tip.
The organic material that used to be attached to the Lismore drinking horn mount has disintegrated, but this bronze bird beak was left behind and is thought to be the end point of a drinking horn, which would have looked similar to the famous horns from Sutton Hoo or the one from Taplow, below.
While they may not look like much today, once these were the horns of kings and queens, chieftains, and other Iron and Bronze Age figures that may have very well have had a heavy hand in shaping the world as we know it.
So tonight, hold your horn close and drink like an ancient Irish king.