As a rule of thumb, I have always tried to steer clear of contemporary politics on this blog. I generally have little to add and no real desire to do so. Recent commentary however, along with ludicrous posters, attempted obfuscation, deliberate misinformation and outright attempts at scaremongering on the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum by minority fringe groups, pseudo-academic research bodies and pretend charities doubling as lobby groups, have compelled me, along with others it seems, to make an exception. In doing so, I take a certain measure of consolation in the fact that I am not really engaging in petty political rhetoric. Marriage Equality for same sex couples is a human and civil rights issue, transcending mere politics.
While I am quietly confident that the proposed referendum question will be passed, there nevertheless remains the rather unpleasant business of having to put up with thinly veiled prejudice masquerading as opposing opinion from certain people who claim to be compassionate Christians. Amid the stifling stench of sanctimonious self-entitlement and the ever increasing magnus opus gei rhetoric emanating from oratorial orifices in recent days, it has become abundantly clear – that my country needs me. I hereby give notice that I am returning the favour and thus commend unto you the following historical perspective towards the issues of the day.
The earliest historical evidence for Christianity in this island (the writings of St. Patrick) contain some very interesting parallels to current events. Before he was ever elevated to patron saint and symbol of All-Ireland religious orthodoxy & authority, the Historical Patrick was someone with real Christian empathy and concern. He was someone who championed and defended Irish people who were being denied recognition and equality – by other Christians. He was someone who repeatedly suffered from religious stigma and prejudice attached to homosexuality. There were deliberate efforts – from fellow Christians – to harness contemporary cultural homophobia and force him into social and political exclusion. Last, but not least, he also happens to be the earliest historically attested person within Ireland to have engaged in ‘same sex’ child adoption.
View from Skellig Michael – Image: regienbb / flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Rumours abound that this Thanksgiving weekend in the States will see the release of the first teaser trailer/preview of the new Star Wars (7) film – scenes for which were shot on the early medieval monastic island of Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry. In anticipation, here’s a little something on the early history and archaeology of Skellig Michael itself – and why its perhaps appropriate that ‘an unearthly corner of planet earth, left behind on an island far, far away’ continues to be (re)used as the setting for a re-booted mythical blockbuster. Or something.
What better place to depict an ancient, mystical, martial asceticism in a galaxy far, far away than an actual ancient, eremitic, settlement dripping with stone-cold monastic austerity, located at what was for centuries the very ends of the earth, seven miles off the very tip of a western Irish peninsula?
Image: Internet Archive Book Images / “The archaeology and prehistoric annals of Scotland” (1851) / Flickr (Public Domain)
Christmas has come early here at Vox Hib HQ with the very welcome and long awaited launch of the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms, aka Saints in Scottish Place-Names…
This website is the result of a project, ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names’, funded by a Research Project Grant from The Leverhulme Trust (2010-13), and undertaken by staff in the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities (Celtic & Gaelic, and HATII).Professor Thomas Owen Clancy (Principal Investigator) Dr Rachel Butter and Gilbert Márkus (Researchers) & Matthew Barr (Systems Developer)The database that has been assembled presents the fruits of our research. It contains over 5000 places, 13,000 place-names, and some 750 saints potentially commemorated in these names.
I love me an auld folklore mystery. Especially when it involves the folklore of the west coast of Ireland. Throw in the possibility that it may contain enshrined elements of past ritual activity associated with surviving archaeology and I’m all yours. So when DrBeachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog recently sent notice of a fantastic nugget of folklore concerning an 1830s Bathing Mystery at Lahinch (Co. Clare) which was classified by stuffy antiquarians as a ‘Pagan Observance on the West Coast of Ireland’… needless to say, he had me at ‘WTF’.
For the main event and details you should read the original post by DrB, which involves anonymous nineteenth century correspondence, a presidential address to the Folklore Society and the mysterious and scandalous bathing habits of the local population of nineteenth century Lahinch. These appear to have involved naked males, wooden implements of mass destruction, ceremonial procession, obscured rituals shielded from profane eyes and wild pagan delight along the lines of the Wicker Man afterwards. What are you still doing here? Read it.
“A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything until the bathing ceremony was completed, and everyone, particularly the women, seemed anxious to keep out of the line of procession, while the ceremony was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. As soon as it was over, all the rabble rout, both male and female, of the village flocked about the performers, and for some time kept up loud shouts.”
Old times, old manners, old books, old wine…. ‘The Armagh’ – Image: Jonathan Caves / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A fascinating historical tidbit of early medieval myth and ritual in the news today concerning the (long-expected) retirement of the current Archbishop of Armagh and the official appointment of his successor.
‘Archbishop Eamon Martin… today becomes Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland and Coarb Phadraic.’
For those unfamiliar with the historical and modern ecclesiastical landscape of Ireland, the holder of the office of the Armagh archbishopric is considered the ecclesiastical head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. An archiepiscopacy since the twelfth century church reform, it replaced an older insular system where the abbots, or leaders, of the Armagh church were long considered the coarbae (‘heir/successor’) of St. Patrick and the de facto leaders of the medieval Irish church – a status and authority which can be traced back to the seventh century AD.
Folklore has a profound and unsettling impact on the imaginative perception of landscape, identity, time and the past. Folk memory is often manifested as an intrusive and violent breach from an older repressed, ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ state that transgresses the development of cultural order.
Despite being an early medievalist and a big film fan, I have never had much interest in horror/fantasy genres in general. I prefer ‘the real stuff’ – far more terrifying. But folk horror is different. Its something that has always been loitering in the shadows of my peripheral vision – as a child, as an adult, as a consumer of culture, as an archaeologist & historian – despite only being consciously labelled as such in my head in the last few years.
I grew up in 1980s Ireland – bleak and cloudy in more ways than one – reading and watching stuff which is now considered classic staples of the genre. New housing estate on the edge of urban sprawl. Invasive concrete arteries slowly spreading into moody rural hinterlands. Feral fields and hedgerows only a short bike ride away.
I raided wood pallets from industrial factories for Halloween bonfires one day – picked blackberries, collected frog spawn and built tree houses the next. Cycled along unfinished motorways past castle ruins and burial mounds. Explored ‘haunted’ country lanes in twilight, peopling stumps, bumps and ditches with youthful abandon. It was one big halfway house of a childhood. Halfway between then and now, here and there. Through the grass, darkly. Half afraid to put away childish things.
Skull of one of the only indigenous islanders left: sheep (Image: Author)
I’m just back from two weeks excavations on the deserted island of Inishark, Co. Galway, situated just west of Inishbofin – one of the most westerly outposts of Ireland. Next parish: Newfoundland. Since 2010 I have been privileged to be a team member of an annual archaeological and historical survey of the island as part of the Cultural landscapes of the Irish Coast Project (CLIC) led by Professor Ian Kuijt, Note Dame University. This years archaeological excavations were directed by Franc Myles, one of the most experienced (and funniest) field archaeologists in Ireland.
Inishark (Inís Airc) was once home to several hundred people at the height of its settlement during the 19th and early 20th century – which had sadly dwindled to just 24 islanders when it was finally evacuated on the 20th October 1960. Like many other islands, the famine and successive bouts of economic depression, poverty and emigration took its toll on the native population. It never had electricity, modern communication or running water and unlike many others, was completely isolated for weeks on end during bad weather and winds.
Despite the hardy nature of the islanders themselves – some of the best boat people in the country (they had to be – nine miles out in the North Atlantic Ocean) – their basic living conditions and lack of emergency medical attention were such that they were eventually resettled on the mainland. Their story, and that of the island is perhaps best known to Irish audiences from the fantastic TG4 documentary from a few years back – Inis Airc: Bás Oileáin – (Inishark: Death of an Island).
Today, 50+ years after evacuation, the entire island is a relict landscape of a once vibrant community – now abandoned and ever so slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Field walls and stone houses stand in various states of dereliction; the lumps and bumps of lazy beds, turf racks and kelp kilns bear silent witness to the islanders self-sufficiency. Stones peeking out of the earth tell tales of eking a living from the earth. A frozen landscape, fossilized in time and space – slowly sinking beneath the weight of its own sad echos and the ever-present natural erosion from the merciless Atlantic Ocean.
‘Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations’.
A few days ago saw the official launch of what can only be described as the archaeo-bible for the next generation (and beyond) for scholars of Early Medieval Ireland. Essentially, it contains the most up to date survey, run-down and compilation of everything we thought we knew, everything we have learned, and everything we think we now know, arising from archaeological excavations (1930 to the present). This is the latest offering from the Early Medieval Archaeology Project and is the product of several years of dedicated work and research.
Aerial View: Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Co. Meath (Bing Maps)
Here’s one to watch: today marks the beginning of a three week archaeological exploration of the late prehistoric multivallate enclosure site at Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Athboy, Co. Meath. The project is led by Dr. Steve Davis of UCD School of Archaeology and Cathy Moore (in addition to a cast of ‘thousands’) and is funded by the Royal Irish Academy, Meath Co. Council, the OPW and the Heritage Council. Steve has been conducting geophysical and computer aerial surveys of the site in recent years and the current project is the result of some very exciting and tantalizing indications arising from same.
Tlachta, considered to be an extremely high status ceremonial enclosure site, is mysterious in terms of its original function and purpose. It loomed large in the medieval political scene and plays a recurring role in myth, legend and dindsenchas (Place Name Lore) – including a dubious, but nevertheless intriguing association with ‘druids’ and Halloween (Samhain). These archaeological investigations are an historic first for the site and hold the prospect of finally answering some of the many questions we have concerning its origin, activity and probable augmentation over time.
Bel(l)taine, aka May Day, aka the beginning of summer. Popularly held by many to be ‘Celtic’ and ‘Pagan’ and a whole lot of other stuff that it wasn’t and isn’t. Its earliest historical attestation comes from Early Medieval Ireland and up to quite recently, long held folklore traditions and customs continued in several parts of the country (as I write, the smell of smoke is drifting in the window from a nearby May Day bonfire).
The most common components of such traditions and associated folklore (and the ones which appear in the earliest references) involve fire, animal welfare/protection (especially cattle) in the hope of good yields to come – all hinting at the seasonal attributes and patterns involved in medieval economies involving transhumance. There are of course many other traditions, but these are later manifestations in subsequent centuries. For the moment, I will stick with the basic version: Vanilla Bealtaine 1.0.