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?
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.
Christmas has come early here at Vox Hib HQ with the very welcome and long awaited launch of the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms, aka Saints in Scottish Place-Names…This website is the result of a project, ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names’, funded by a Research Project Grant from The Leverhulme Trust (2010-13), and undertaken by staff in the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities (Celtic & Gaelic, and HATII). Professor Thomas Owen Clancy (Principal Investigator)
Dr Rachel Butter and Gilbert Márkus (Researchers) & Matthew Barr (Systems Developer) The database that has been assembled presents the fruits of our research. It contains over 5000 places, 13,000 place-names, and some 750 saints potentially commemorated in these names.
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
You know all those social media accounts/pages that ”specialize” in sharing old photographs? The ones who don’t attribute or credit the very photos they trade in, and in doing so, remove any possibility of verifying the accuracy of their (usually incorrect) clickbait captions – not to mention the original photographer, institution or archive holding same – thereby contributing nothing tangible to follow for those members of the public that may actually be interested in following up out of historical interest?
You know, the ones whose actions fly in the face of the very principles of historical appreciation, accuracy and attribution whilst harnessing the nostalgic interest and blind faith of sheepish followers who can be depended on for mindlessly retweeting/sharing, liking and favouriting the photos they take from somewhere else – thereby creating a viral feed for their own account/page/web traffic at the cynical expense of genuine historical institutions, archives and collections whose sterling efforts at digitizing their collections for the benefit of wider public interest (of which we were reminded, only today) comes at a time when most are chronically underfunded and facing further cuts and possible closures?
Yeah, those ones.
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.
Believe it or not, this is my fiftieth post. In order to mark the occasion, here’s something which may appear a little left field – inspired by a fascinating upcoming conference on the subject of Irish & British #folkhorror:
So the annual pilgrimage/pattern day involving thousands of people climbing Croagh Patrick – has come and gone. Great weather for it and lots of excellent pictures on social media of the festivities. Before the day was even out however, I had occasion to take notice of a related article on the Irish Times website which was ostensibly reporting some highlights of the Archbishop of Tuam’s modern day ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The last few paragraphs contain some interesting ‘historical’ nuggets:
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.
‘…cast out from my presence this dog, who barks at your face and at me…’
Tírechán, Collectanea 8 (5), (7th Century AD)
For the second time in recent years the Lia Fáil standing stone situated on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, has been vandalized once again. In 2012 it was battered with a heavy blunt instrument. This time it had several layers of paint poured over its surface. Once again, another soul-destroying example of rising indifference and casual apathy by some towards national monuments & cultural heritage in Ireland.
What is particularly depressing is the abject juvenile maliciousness of the act. One can almost understand the underlying reasons behind the rise in thefts and looting of historic artefacts, monuments and sites in recent years – unadulterated criminal greed, a complete lack of civic responsibility and a misguided belief that an illicit ‘profit’ can be made. Despite the asinine arseholery of such gobshites, at least they were after something, no matter how boneheaded, distasteful and illegal.
Sheer vandalism for the sake of vandalism is another thing entirely.