The Coolnashanton Trumpet is part of our Early Christian Heritage Section. Its significance is explored by Richard Warner.
This bronze-bound, wooden trumpet was dredged, in 1959, from the bed of the River Erne and was found amongst the dredgings that had been dropped on the edge of the townland of Coolnashanton, opposite Cleenish. It owed its survival to its long immersion in the river mud, and thankfully it was well enough preserved to have retained its shape and its binding strips and is now, after conservation in the 1960s, almost perfect. It is made of yew, is almost straight (which is why it should be called a trumpet rather than a horn) and has a bronze mouthpiece. On one of the binding strips is a geometric pattern that we call a ‘triangular fret’. We find just that pattern in the border of a fully illustrated page in a Psalter, written and illustrated in about the 9th century at the monastery in Canterbury, in Kent. The illustration shows King David playing a sort of harp, and surrounded by musicians. Two of those musicians are playing trumpets identical to the Coolnashanton trumpet in every detail. There were close contacts between kings, churches and artists in England, Ireland and Scotland at this time, and although the Psalter is certainly Saxon its art shows much Irish influence. So whether our trumpet was Irish or English is immaterial – we know that identical trumpets were being played by musicians entertaining kings and bishops in Fermanagh and in Kent.
Sometime after the 9th century AD someone dropped this valuable musical instrument into one of the two main channels of the River Erne, flowing north along the eastern side of Cleenish island. It might be that the person was crossing the Erne on his way to or from the monastery on Cleenish, which was, according to tradition, founded in the 6th century, but according to the contemporary annals of Ulster was founded in AD 1100. Two stone crosses on the island signal the importance of the place in the 12th century. Whether the owner of the trumpet also perished we shall never know, but if he was a musician, as seems very likely, he would have been sorely missed. Music played a very important part in Early Medieval (Early Christian) society, particularly amongst the noble and clerical classes. It was important for entertainment – for instance at feasts – and for important events, for warfare, for religious ritual and much else. A musician was a person of status.