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.
If Patrick indeed managed to establish himself in such a manner – as a publicly recognized high status figure (and related Christian ‘kindred’) within insular Irish society – then he could have opened up an entirely different revenue stream quite apart from the previously mentioned gifts, offerings and even perhaps, any potential seed funding or external support from British Christian supporters.
As we have seen, in the later law tracts, a noble was entitled to receive his rightful portion of his clients shares and profits. As a Christian leader/Bishop Patrick would have likely expected occasional offerings from his more wealthy converts. As a ‘lord’ over ‘base clients’ however, he would have possibly been in a position to act as an initial seed funder himself – lending funds/goods/agricultural stock (on a favorable basis) to fledgling Christian clients in return for future shares/dividends/surplus. This in turn could have provided a regular ‘revenue stream’ to fund the expense of his larger missionary efforts.
Quid pro quo – the more converts/clients brought in, the more revenue increases; the higher the increase in revenue, the higher the amounts he had to spend; the more he spent, the more converts/clients he could bring in. Its essentially business marketing/localization 101 – early medieval Irish style. A self sustaining system, reliant on the flow of ‘funds’ from one level to the next.
So what could have the historical Patrick meant when he said that he paid out ‘the price of fifteen men/persons’? And what could that potentially tell us about early Irish Christian communities in fifth century Ireland?
“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”
March 17th is almost upon us – and so time enough to indulge in another exploration of the historical (St) Patrick’s own words in honour of the man himself. In keeping with recently established blog tradition, this year I thought that I would take a forensic look at one particular portion of his text where he discusses issues involving payments, protections and expenditure – on his part – towards that of native authorities. In particular, at his famous referencing of his own ‘price’ of ‘fifteen men/persons’ (Confessio 53).
By doing so, I hope not only to illustrate how his mission may have come under suspicion from fifth century British Christians, but also highlight implications which may point towards his possible modi operandi within insular Irish society. If correct, these same aspects may also provide a fragmentary insight into the economic and social organisation/makeup of some of the earliest Christian communities in Late Iron Age/Early Medieval Ireland.
Cover: Jarlath Hayes/Garry Jordan (Four Courts Press)
Int. Lecture Hall – Day
It was just another wet day in a wet week (in a wetter Ireland) but I remember it well. Crowded lecture hall filling up with babbling undergraduates. Messy desks, discarded papers and empty coffee cups from the previous lecture (the type of subject that produces students with hungover frowns and disaffected scarves). The white noise of several hundred history students shoving their way in – past those exiting – talking over each other whilst looking for pens and refill pads down the bottom of soggy bags. The smell of wet canvas runners. The smell of socks just beginning to turn a dryer shade of kale.
I was one of them. It was probably my own feet.
We sat there, idly watching the lecturer set up for the class, part of a general introduction to Medieval Europe. The topic was the Conversion of Ireland. Or something. Up came a pretty awful stereotypical picture of the national saint in bright green and then a single sentence: ‘Would the real St. Patrick please stand up?’ People started to take notice. Some even wrote it down, blindly. What followed over the next 40 minutes or so was the stuff of movies of what university should be like, but rarely is.
NMS-0B5BB1: Roman finger ring (PAS/Norfolk County Council CC-BY-SA)
I was very taken with the news yesterday of the recent recovery of a Roman silver disc near Swaffham, Norfolk. The disc (0.46 g, 11 mm) has been interpreted as a bezel and is thought to have been part of a finger ring. It also features ‘a diademed head engraved in intaglio’ with a ‘retrograde and somewhat garbled legend ANTONI VIVAS IN DEO’.
“The formula VIVAS IN DEO is a Christian one, the translation of this inscription being ‘Antonius, may you live in God‘. The fact that the letters are retrograde and engraved in intaglio would have made the bezel suited for use as a signet.”
Such an inscription dates the ring to sometime in the mid-late fourth/possibly early fifth century AD, making it a member of known, but relatively rare British examples of a personal object carrying overt Christian association. The formulaic vivas in deo on such rings has been previously interpreted as perhaps indicating gifts associated with Christian conversion or milestones in life.
Wakeman’s 1895 sketch of St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher (Copyright Sligo County Library)
Seeing as today the feast day of a certain Irish St. Attracta, here’s a little something about her from Tírechán’s Collectanea which contains the earliest contemporary reference to her cult, a church site dedicated to her and a particular piece of geological info that amazingly still exists today…