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.
I note news today of the formal signing of contracts on behalf of the Irish government and the relevant company concerning the rollout and implementation of a new National Postcode System. This will involve the adoption of a 7-character code in alpha numeric format for every individual address in the country – which will presumably, in time, replace the need to know or include the local townland or area name of an address.
“Ireland has inherited a rich tapestry of geographical names dating from all periods of the last two millennia at least. The whole country, including Northern Ireland, is divided into some 67,000 administrative units, in an historical, hierarchical structure of four provinces, 32 counties, 327 baronies, 2,428 civil parishes and some 60,462 townlands, all bearing their own names.
The vast majority of the place names of Ireland have their origin in the Irish language, particularly the names of the administrative units and those of major geographical features. Most of these names were coined before the 17th century and a significant number are at least a thousand years older. Literary and historical sources in Irish from the 8th century onwards contain many thousands of place names, many of which can be identified with present-day names”
Image: National Library of Ireland / Flickr Commons (NLI Ref: P_WP_3910)
For the day that’s in it, I bring glorious tidings of a recently unveiled fantastic new historical & archaeological resource, wrapped up with a festive angle for good measure. Dúchas.ie is a new website of an incredible project (work in progress) which holds the long-awaited & venerable task of digitizing the National Folklore Collection of Ireland – ‘one of the largest folklore collections in the world’ – and ultimately making it available online for all. In the last two weeks, it has released its first fruits, 80% (c. 64,000 individual items) of handwritten folklore material from four counties in the Schools’ Folklore Collection (Dublin, Donegal, Mayo and Waterford) all beautifully digitized, readable, and zoomable on a clean, clear interface.
Which brings us (finally!) to the matter at hand. In the light of all the above considerations – what does the historical Patrick actually say about his origins in his own writings? As previously noted, Patrick uses the term ‘Britanniis’ a total of three times. One of those examples is not entirely specific as to his origins, although it does infer the location of his clerical background in later life, and the location where his family apparently pleaded with him not to leave – just prior to his setting off for Ireland. I include here anyway:
A recent exchange in the letters page of the Irish Times concerning the historical (St) Patrick’s origins has compelled me to wade into the mire of modern-day Patriciana. Quapropter olim cogitaui scribere, sed et usque nunc haesitaui…
The exchange originated between Rev. Marcus Losack, a pilgrimage leader and spiritual guide, and Dr Elva Johnston of the School of History & Archives, UCD, Dublin. Rev. Losack, who has been promoting a book on the subject for a while now, took exception to a letter by Dr. Johnston in which she noted flaws within his recent rehashing of an old argument – Patrick being a Breton, from Brittany – as opposed to the historically attested view of his being a Romano-Briton.
‘Ooh La La’
The response by Rev Losack is a tour de force in historical misinterpretation, misappropriation and selective ‘reasoning’. In it, he expresses (in an impressively accomplished display of vaudevillian histrionics) a misplaced ‘sense of dismay and disappointment at the tone of Dr Johnston’s letter’ and castigates her as taking an ‘extremist position’ by ‘refusing to countenance any alternative theory’. He asserts that such a view ‘reflects a certain academic arrogance and authoritarianism which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject’. After then implying that the Royal Irish Academy’s current rendition of a key linguistic term is influential enough to lend favour in some way towards a quasi-national (dare I suggest, illuminati inspired?) academic plot designed to hide the original meaning – he then finishes by channelling the words of that world-renowned heroic denizen of historical accuracy & wisdom, Dan Brown, towards the possibility of the ‘experts in Dublin’ being in error.
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…
A Long Tail – Image: Rafael Peñaloza/Flickr Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Last night I was reminded, via the Twitter Machine, of a great two-parter written by Christiaan Corlett – this time last year – entitled ‘Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo’ (See Part 1 here and Part 2 here). St. Marcan’s Lough is the location of a medieval ecclesiastical site, now almost gone, on the shores of Clew Bay, Co. Mayo. Remains of possibly two churches and a leacht recorded in the 19th & 20th centuries, no longer survive. An altar and holy well (Tober Marcan) show some sign of partial preservation and a cairn/pilgrim station located on the loughs foreshore is still exposed at low tide. A Childrens Burial Ground is depicted in the vicinity along with a crannóg/platform within the Lough itself.
There is considerable Lughnasadh type folklore and traditions associated with the site, with a particular emphasis on cattle being driven in the waters of the lough, originally a freshwater lake (during the first week of August – as a curative or preventative protection/charm) in and around the cairn/monument and holy well. Corletts articles goes into great detail on this and he draws parallels with other similar traditions and accounts of horse/cattle rituals at other suspected Lughnasadh sites in the country.
Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5. 7 + 224 pp.
There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.