School books told us plenty about Egypt, Greece and Rome, but they said almost nothing of the hermit-saints and seers, the goldsmiths and the kings who, in olden days, ruled the westernmost rim of the world.

They were no petty people, the men of ancient Ireland. Eight thousand years before Columbus they set out in small boats and found a virgin land. They wore collars of gold before the birth of Tutankhamun in the 12th century B.C. The holy books they copied in the 7th and 8th centuries on tiny treeless islands, in stone huts helped save Christianity between the Middle Ages and the fall of Rome.

Ireland was ruled once by 150 kings. Their kingdoms all are fallen (the Vikings helped destroy them). They left us only legends - and the few precious objects that are now in New york at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Treasures of Early Irish Art 1500 B.C. 1500 A.D." is a wondrous exhibit. But it is not large.

Ireland's early history was never written down, but only rhymed and sung. She still gives us poets (Joyce and Shaw and Yeats), but much has been forgotten. Her Stone Age tombs are empty, her old goddesses are ghosts, her wooden art has rotted, her iron art is rusted.Only a very few of Ireland's early treasures, those made of noble metals, of silver, bronze and gold, have survived her mists and violence. Almost that have are included in this slow.

They begin to tell a story. We think we know its endings - the noise and smoke of war, the hasty burying of gold, the sighting of the long ships the saving of the book, the slaughter of the monks. These intricate and precious things also let us guess at how "Irish art began.

We cartoon Stone Age hunters as hairy brutes with clubs, but Ireland's first inhabitants were inventors and explorers. The sea that is the land's edge had always been a barrier, until their little boats made of the bridge, a bridge.

Ireland is an island about as big as Maine, about as far north as Alaska. Orchids grow there wild, but like Ireland's other plants most of them are tiny. Her days are long in summer, shot in winter. The exaggerated cycle of her seasons - and the miniaturized intricacies of the countless growing things that somehow co-exist on each square foot of her lanscape - have, from the beginning, been reflected in her art.

The settlers, descended from cave bear killers and mammoth hunters, who were Ireland's first inhabitants, already understood animals, the sea. Millenia would pass before their children learned to clear the forests, how to map the heavens, to make crops grow.

But 2500 B.C., settled now and numerous, the Irish were erecting enormous standing stones. A million sacks of earth were hauled away, by hand, in the building of the tomb called Newgrange in County Meath. Its subterranean chamber is aligned, as Stonehenge is, to the midsummer sun.

Engraved on the huge roof stones of Newgrange, are curving lines and spirals that predict the constant mention, the endless interweavings, of all old Irish art.

The earliest object shown is a small sun disc of gold. When it was mined and made about 2000 B.C., the bronze age had begun. It was a golden age for Ireland. Ireland had copper, and until the age of iron made bronze obsolete. Irish copper was as valuable, and as widely traded, as oil is today.

Even then the Irish wore around their necks heavy collars, rings or spirals, made of solid gold. No one knows precisely why those "tores" were worn. Perhaps those spiral rings symbolize a bonding, a fidelity to timelessness, as do wedding rings today.

While copper made the Irish prosper, the Celts of Central Europe grew as rich from salt. From the salt miners they controlled in what is now upper Austria, the Celtic tribes moved out and conquered much of Europe. Rome was sacked by Celts in 390 B.C. They too wore gold collars, but their weapons were of iron. They were driven west and north, across the seas to Ireland, as Europe fell to Rome, and to the tribes of Germany, in the first century B.C.

It is difficult to know where old Irish art leaves off and Celtic art begins. Instead we see a merging in the ancient tores and trumpets, the sword hilts and the crowns, included in this show. The twisting spirals are still present, as they have been since Newgrange, but the metalwork is finer and the detailing is denser. The interwoven twisting lines grow ever more elaborate until they take over whole pages of the Books of Kells and Durrow, the illuminated bibles that are among the masterworks of early Irish art.

In the Middle Ages, when it was already ancient, wise men saw the pages of the Book of kells as the work of angels.But it had no come from heaven, nor from some fire city. The Book of Keels was made in some stone hut on the Isle of Iona by Irish hermit-monks, part Christian and part pagan. Not all of them could read.

until it became Christian, Ireland had no written language. So precious was the written word that the wrathful St. Columbia, who loved not only Jesus but the oak trees of the Druids, raised himself an army and stew 3,000 Christian for the right to keep a copy of the Bible he had made. The book, which had been lent him, was owned by St. Finnian, who wanted the copy, too. The High King agreed, ruling: "To every cow her calf; to every book its transcript." St. Columba lost his temper. He won "The Battle of the Book," but he did not win the war. He was exiled to Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, in May 563.

the sailor minks of Ireland, who sailed as their Stone Age fathers had as far as they could go, prospered on their islands, copying their books, until the Vikings came in 793. Their "countless sea-vomitings of ships," one saddened monk observed, "made spoil land and sword-land and conquered land" of Ireland. "They rent her shrines and her reliquaries and her books." It is something of a miracle that the Book of Kells survived.

The history of art, like history in general, is biased by the word. We value most the works to which we can attach artists' names and documents. We honor Columbus, not the early sailors who first went to sea, as we remember St. Columbia and not the nameless painters who made the Book of Kells. The Irish exhibition, which will travel to San Francisco. Pittsburgh, Boston and Philadelphia after closing in New York on Jan. 15, reminds us of how much we have lost.