On Your Own, With No Direction Home: (St) Patrick’s Journey Across Ireland

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Image: Emmet Ó hInnéirghe (Used with Permission)

Introduction

It’s Thursday. It’s March 17th. If you’re a regular, you know what that means. To celebrate the day that’s in it and in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I hereby present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a forensic examination of a lesser spotted feature within the writings of the historical Patrick himself. This year, I thought I’d take a look at what appears to be a fleeting throwaway line from the Confessio concerning Patrick’s escape from captivity and subsequent two hundred mile journey across Ireland to an unknown port.

I have actually touched on it before, ever so slightly. Previously, I wrote a short audio book for Abarta Heritage on Patrick’s six years in captivity; and towards the end of the section dealing with the young Patrick’s decision to make a break for freedom, I concluded with the following line:

If there was one thing that Patrick would have known after six years under Irish skies – it was the direction home. Towards the rising sun.

Aside the fact that it reads like an over-dramatic hollywood-esque voice-over (it sounds much better in the book, honestly!), its both over-exaggerated and simplified. For one thing, the sun doesn’t rise or set directly east/west, except for the equinoxes. In Patrick’s time as a slave in western Ireland on the shores of Killala Bay, it actually would have risen North East over the sea from his perspective during the summer months. Nevertheless, it was my little way of acknowledging a single line in the text of the Confessio and suggesting that there may be more than meets the eye to it.

The particular line centres on the youthful Patrick’s decision to leave his captor and head 200 miles across Ireland to a waiting ship/port – without knowing anybody or where he was going. Why is it important and worthy of examination? Well, I would suggest that it carries several implications. Celestial symbolism and biblical frameworks aside, Patrick did escape from captivity and he must have crossed Ireland somehow and I think a closer look hints at just how he may have done so. In addition, it opens up several other aspects:

a) its a further inference (other than his own words) to his youthful captivity being on the western Irish coast – something which continues to be questioned by certain sectors, despite modern Patrician scholarship being widely agreed on the matter

b) it forms a crucial event horizon (quite literally) in Patrick’s later theological framework and motivation for his mission

c) it potentially offers an indication of how he may have come to be there in the first place – as in, the manner in which he was transported to Ireland from Western Roman Britain.

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Never Mind the Bullocks: There’s Something About St. Brigit

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Image: amandabhslater / photo on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another year, another February 1st. Another Imbolc, another St. Brigit’s Day. Another chance to revel in the avalanche of online ‘Celtic’ codswallop and pagan goddess gobbledygook. Such misunderstood musings are well-intentioned, harmless, and if truth be told, not a bad way at all to view the world. An idealized version of the distant past seen through an attractive prism of feminine attributes, influence and power. One could definitely do worse.

Of course, historically speaking, such views do not have a leg to stand on, let alone a sunbeam to hang a cloak off. There is even a certain irony in the fact that successive generations, in seeking to adopt, (re)create and promote a symbolic saintly/pagan figure of pseudo-history, have actually helped to obscure some of the very real and historically important attributes of the same.

It’s not so much that Brigit occupies an incredibly early position within Irish history and Early Irish Christianity itself; it is the fact that she represents the earliest surviving insular Irish hagiography, period. Almost a generation before Patrician hagiographers were sharpening their quills, a saintly Brigit was already being utilized for nothing less than all Ireland ecclesiastical primacy.

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Star Wars: Archaeology of the Jedi

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Image: Abarta Audioguides / Copyright (Used with permission)

*Warning* Although there is no major plot spoilers included, there is some discussion of the characters and location of a particular scene in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the film and are sensitive towards knowing anything more about it, feel free to take the hint.

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Long term readers will surely be aware of my ongoing interest in the use of Skellig Michael as a location for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Having now watched it twice since it opened (very enjoyable, back to old form, fan pleasing etc) I would like to record some initial thoughts on the cinematic depiction of the island, including to my mind, some echos of early Irish Christian iconography as well as the use of actual medieval archaeology to portray the fictional archaeology of the Jedi. In a small way, it is an attempt to direct attention for anyone interested towards what they were actually seeing on the screen. After all, its not everyday that millions of people around the world are exposed to a little bit of Early Medieval Ireland.

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All We Need Is…Radiocarbon: Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland

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(Image: Robert M Chapple)

For those who may not be aware, I wish to draw your attention to a hugely impressive and important new resource from Robert M Chapple. Not content with his wonderful Catalogue of Radiocarbon Determinations & Dendrochronology Dates, Robert has just released Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland – a sleek visualization interface which displays Irish radiocarbon dates on an interactive map of Ireland.

With this fantastic tool, it is now possible to search, select, exclude, define, zoom down, separate and review details of 8288 radiocarbon and 313 dendro dates from Ireland within a geographical framework. Yes, you heard correctly. 8288. 313. Such data carries great potential for anyone interested in Irish archaeology – from professionals and researchers to students and interested members of the public – enabling both a macro and micro (radiocarbon) snapshot of the island. And its ongoing.

As a brief example, I was just playing around with it a few minutes ago and I zoomed down to an area for which I would have presumed to be fairly familiar with known archaeological information. There I found a ref to an old burial, something I had certainly read about years ago, but which had only recently come back with a C14 date. The horizon? Right slap bang in the middle of a period I’m most interested in. Score.

You can access the new Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland Dataviewer on Roberts blog in embedded form, along with a detailed introduction to the tools and interface (which I highly recommend reading first).

Or you can view it in stand alone form on the tableau public server.

My congratulations and deep deep thanks to Robert and his many helpers and partners in crime who helped produce this fantastic new resource. I have a feeling it will fast become a staple for professionals, post graduates and researchers alike, among many others. Radio, what’s new? Go use it. Rinse. Repeat.

‘Traditional’ Irish Marriage(s) in Early Medieval Ireland

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Monasterboice High Cross & Round Tower (Image: Author)

Contrary to the impression often given by modern religious zealots who advocate a return to ‘traditional Irish values’ in matters of sexual and moral behavior, early Irish society was unequivocal in it’s recognition of, and support for, multiple marriage and divorce.
(Ó Cróinín, 1995, 127)
In the longest established of the western churches outside the Roman Empire and in a society in which Christian Latin culture flourished in a remarkable way, the norms of Christian marriage were not, paradoxically, accepted in society generally (we shall see later that there were exceptions) throughout the middle ages…
 …it is surely interesting that the Christian Irish lawyers, most of whom were clerics, should appear to consider marriage within a theoretical framework different from that of the contemporary church and should frame their practical rulings accordingly. 
(Ó Corráin, 1985, 5)

Following on from the last historical perspective on the unparallelled irony in modern religious opposition to the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum, I have one final addendum, so to speak, stemming from an interesting claim on national radio by an honourable member of the above ( in conjunction with numerous others references within media to the ‘institution’ of marriage and ‘tradition’ ‘since time immemorial’):

Early Medieval Irish society was complex, fluid, dynamic and messy. We can see this in its archaeology and literature. We see it in the fragmentary extracts of early Irish law texts whose codification and survival is largely a result of early ecclesiastical interest and effort. In a highly stratified, unequal and patriarchal society, Early Irish Laws provide us not only with some of the socio-economic concerns that necessitated and demanded legal definition, but also the cognitive terms underpinning such subjects.

It’s use and choice of language provide us with glimpses in how they conceived and understood certain concepts, parameters, and classifications. Idealized legal notions of how things should work (Canon Law)  alongside more realistic expectations and provisions (Vernacular Law)  of how things actually did.

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

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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.

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An Archaeology of Star Wars: A Long Time Ago On An Island Far Far Away

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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?

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‘When all about you are losing theirs’: The Provenance & Sale of Early Irish Archaeological Artefacts

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Tandragee man, Armagh Cathedral (COI) – Image: Eelco / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A week too late unfortunately, but I recently became aware of yet another soul destroying sale of important Irish archaeological artefacts – right here in Dublin.  On Novemeber 8th last, in their ‘History and Literature’ auction, Whyte’s Auctioneers included  two ‘Iron Age stone heads’ for sale, amongst other Irish archaeological items. The stone sculptures could be early medieval in date, particularly the one associated with Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, although the other one bears strong similarities to several other insular stone figures, now housed in Armagh cathedral, including the famous Tanderagee Stone Figure. Whether Late Prehistoric, or Early Christian, such artefacts provide extremely rare evidence of monumentalized ritual sculpture from a very early period of Irish history/prehistory (although, without proper context, they can tell us precious little else about our ancestors).

The provenance of one of them is given as In the ownership of a family at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary for c. 100 years. A hundred years ago: 1912. If they know this, they should have a good idea where it was “found”.

The provenance of the other is given as From a 300 year old house, Claregalway, Co. Galway. 

These artefacts are scattered all over the country, in churches, in ruined abbeys, castles, houses, walls, side of the road etc. What is to stop people chiselling away at what surrounds them and then carry them off? Decency and a sense of heritage usually does. But, if people see there is money to be made on these artefacts, they may not last much longer in situ in the countryside.

‘Selling cultural heritage’, Pultes Scotorum Blog

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‘All the Rabble Rout’: Swimming With Saints at Lahinch, Co. Clare

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Image: Andrew Miller / Flickr / (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.”

Laurence Gomme, Presidential address to the Folklore Society, 1892

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