The Archaeology of Mammies

Sitting in a high chair in the kitchen as a raw infant. My mother trying to get me to focus so she could gently spoon some mashed potato into me. Trying to distract me by pointing up at a high shelf where the fancy crockery was. To a larger-than-life garishly-coloured monstrosity of a milk-jug in the shape of an Olde English Town Crier. White rolled wig. Big crooked nose. Mouth open wide and and in mid roar.

Maybe there was someone else there, or maybe she had the radio on – but for some reason she let out a large loud belly laugh, right in the middle of a mouthful. Startled and not knowing or expecting this, I thought it was coming from the Milk-Jug Monster and promptly burst into tears.

That was the end of the Milk Jug. Except its still at the back of the ‘good cabinet’.

Continue reading

Winter Solstice In Ireland, They Said…

 

Be Grand, They Said…

 

c0m82hjwiaar3sd

Image: Annie West

 

Made for me this very day, by the wonderful and illuminating Annie West who specializes in Historical Irish Funnies.  I have it on good authority that in a previous life, she was responsible for all those feckin cats in the Book of Kells.

Happy Solstice.

A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

wp-1476715864681.jpg

Image: Author

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

* * *

Following on from last years folk horror flavoured adventure on the Slopes of Rathcroghan, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the weekend that’s in it to present you with another. The time: a few years ago. The place: an apparently nondescript rural graveyard somewhere in Middle Ireland. The unwitting (mis)adventurer: yours truly.

* * *

It was the first day of a week of archaeo-field survey and I was supposed to be in the far west of Ireland following in the footsteps of a seventh century bishop, seeking out some of the earliest historically attested Christian sites associated with the cult of St. Patrick. Yet, here I was, walking down a grass rutted country lane, searching for a gate that led toward a half-forgotten graveyard. The location wasn’t even on my official list of sites to visit, but I had been nearby and decided to stop off for a quick poke around. During a previous desktop survey, I had noted several interesting archaeo aspects about the place:

  • A late medieval church ruin
  • A much earlier medieval looking curvilinear shaped graveyard
  • A couple of suspiciously prehistoric looking standing stones in hinterlands
  • An abandoned holy well – and most of all –
  • A strange looking natural feature on a nearby drumlin that my eyes had been drawn to whilst looking at aerial photography.

Truth be told, it was actually a combination of all the above occurring within a placename containing the Old Irish word túaim; i.e. ‘a mound, bank, knap, tump, or hillock’, but more frequently, in placename terms, ‘a mound, tomb, grave or sepulchre‘ (in the sense of Latin tumulus).

This alone would have made anyone’s archaeological antennae stand up on end. But what really sealed the deal for me was the small matter of there being no record whatsoever of anything resembling a prehistoric mound or tomb in the vicinity.

Coupled with that, somewhere in this particular area, my seventh century bishop had made reference to an early church site. Alas, the full (Hiberno-Latin) placename is now illegible in the only surviving manuscript and as a result has never been identified with any certainty. Later medieval vernacular sources do include an Irish placename for the same area however, also unidentified, yet containing a similar letter or two with that of the first example. More importantly, the Irish placename is qualified by the word Sídh.

(Image: Author)

In onomastic terms this descriptor is generally associated with Sídh Mounds, aka Fairy Mounds. Denuded prehistoric tombs, cairns, mounds or tumuli, often situated on lumps, bumps and hills – many of which were later re-imagined and depicted in Irish myth and folklore as being the underground homes of supernatural beings or fairies known as the Áes Síde.

To have all this whirling around together in one place in an almost perfect archaeological, historical, onomastic storm? To be faced with the prospect of a forgotten prehistoric Tumulus, Síde Mound, or Ferta adjacent an early medieval church site? Perhaps even, the very reason for its initial establishment, reflecting Early Irish Christian agency, engagement and renegotiation with an ancestral past? How could anyone resist?

Long story short, that is how I came to be walking down a lane in the nowhere middle of Middle Ireland. On the off chance of catching a whispered echo of long silenced folk memory. Trespassing across time and space. Waking the dead. Looking for the ghost of a grave in an already ancient graveyard. A ‘túaim’ with a view.

What could possibly go wrong?

Continue reading

Waking the Dead on the Slopes of Cruachu

image

(Image: Author)

For the day that’s in it, here’s a little folk horror flavoured archeo-echtrai which happened to me a few years ago during a visit to Cruachu (aka Cruachán, aka Rathcroghan), a location dripping in early medieval dindsenchas. Its a ritual complex of barrows, mounds, avenues and enclosures –  a prehistoric palimpsest of generations of ‘the dead’ carved into a ‘living’ landscape and overlaid with early medieval meaning. Think late prehistoric burial, assembly, inauguration, oenach festivals, mass meetings, power performances, legitimacy, declarations, legal decisions, disputes, drinking, carousing, games, fighting – all on a regional scale – and anything else that may have caught their fancy at any given time.

Cruachu and its hinterlands loom large in early medieval myth, mayhem and pseudo-folk memory. It occupies a prime position as one of the so called ‘royal’ sites of early medieval Ireland. A western version of Tara, and Emhain Macha. It appears as a key symbolic location in early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Echtra Nerai (The Strange Adventure of Nera) – the latter having samhain and the mounds of the dead as a key backdrop to portrayed events.

Continue reading

St. Patrick and #MarriageEquality: A Modern Day Homily from the Fifth Century

wpid-img_20140914_175157_antonio_kryptonite.jpgPreface

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.

Continue reading

Through the Grass, Darkly: Irish Folk Horror

img_20161026_104040_processed

Image: Author

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.

Extract: Fiend in the Furrows Blog

Feral Fields

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.

Continue reading

Bealtaine: Mind the Gap

v
14780093236_d93e31a8c0_k.jpg

Image: Jan Mennens / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Continue reading

1014 and all that

0

Image: seriykotik1970/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf on 23rd April 1014 AD. You would have to have been hiding under a rock in deepest darkest Antarctica to have missed out on the plethora of associated festivities, events and commemorations that have been taking place in Ireland over the last few weeks. As an early medievalist, it was quite refreshing to see so much attention and interest in the media and public gaze. Some highlights include the wonderful TCDs ‘Emporer of the Irish’ Exhibition, History Hubs excellent video series on the background and legacy of the battle, the Irish Times heritage supplement on the subjects involved, the Contarf 1014 Exhibition in the National Museum and the TG4 documentary ‘Cluain Tarbh’ (still available on their online player).

Amongst all the the historical interpretation, contextualization, national & local promotion initiatives, educational endeavors, harnessing of tourism potential and – lets be honest – some blatant attempts to cash in on some sexed up horny Viking action; there has been little attention on an underlying historical consequence that (although unrealized at the time) would go on to have far reaching ramifications. And so, as we come to the end of the main commemoration, I thought I would throw my two cent into the larger Boruhaha.

Continue reading