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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.