All Quiet on the Western Front: An Archaeology of Inishark, Co. Galway

Afer a few days on a deserted western Island, it usually goes a bit wickerman...

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.

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Lia Fáilure : On the Recent Desecration of an Ancient Rude Monument at Tara

‘…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.

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EMAP- Greatest Hits Vol 1: Now Thats What I Call Archaeology

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‘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.

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‘Tlachta Be The Day’: Excavations at Tlachta, Co. Meath

Aerial View: Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Co. Meath (Bing Maps)

Here’s one to watch: today marks the beginning of a three week archaeological exploration of the late prehistoric multivallate enclosure site at Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Athboy, Co. Meath. The project is led by Dr. Steve Davis of UCD School of Archaeology and Cathy Moore (in addition to a cast of ‘thousands’) and is funded by the Royal Irish Academy, Meath Co. Council, the OPW and the Heritage Council. Steve has been conducting geophysical and computer aerial surveys of the site in recent years and the current project is the result of some very exciting and tantalizing indications arising from same.

Tlachta, considered to be an extremely high status ceremonial enclosure site, is mysterious in terms of its original function and purpose. It loomed large in the medieval political scene and plays a recurring role in myth, legend and dindsenchas (Place Name Lore) – including a dubious, but nevertheless intriguing association with ‘druids’ and Halloween (Samhain). These archaeological investigations are an historic first for the site and hold the prospect of finally answering some of the many questions we have concerning its origin, activity and probable augmentation over time.

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‘A Benevolent Interest in Ancient Monuments’: U2 Spyplanes, Alien Governments & Irish Archaeology

Above: Eoin O’Duffy, James Dillon, Mr McDermot and William Thomas Cosgrave, 10th September 1933 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Came across the following speech made in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in 1962. In colloquial terms, it is what is known as ‘a colourful contribution to Dáil proceedings’. They certainly don’t make, or write them, like this anymore. I don’t know which is more impressive, the  prescience of Mr. Dillon for the nations archaeological heritage, or the (archaeological?) digs he gets in at political opponents and mandarins

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Bealtaine: A Twist On Fire Starting?

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Image: Fiona MacGinty / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Its a bit late (for the day that was in it) but here’s a little something based on May 1st. Blame all the ‘celtic’ bealtaine stuff that was flying around the net today.

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 1.0.

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1014 and all that

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Image: seriykotik1970/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf on 23rd April 1014 AD. You would have to have been hiding under a rock in deepest darkest Antarctica to have missed out on the plethora of associated festivities, events and commemorations that have been taking place in Ireland over the last few weeks. As an early medievalist, it was quite refreshing to see so much attention and interest in the media and public gaze. Some highlights include the wonderful TCDs ‘Emporer of the Irish’ Exhibition, History Hubs excellent video series on the background and legacy of the battle, the Irish Times heritage supplement on the subjects involved, the Contarf 1014 Exhibition in the National Museum and the TG4 documentary ‘Cluain Tarbh’ (still available on their online player).

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.

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#BlogArch 4: Which Direction? The Enemies Gate Is Down

Image: Keoni Cabral / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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“What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?”

Hurriedly scraping through a rapidly closing gate this month for the last #blogarch question from Doug’s Archaeology, with barely enough time to reach back and grab my fedora before it closes…

The last question is:

Where are we going with blogging or would you it like to go?  Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.

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High King in the Cathedral: Body of Brian Boru Uncovered?

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Plaque commemorating burial of Brian Boru, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. (Image: Giorgio.Melina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Here’s some archaeological background regarding ongoing concerns over the mortal remains of Brian Boru – probably one of the most famous people in Irish history, who came close to being the first (and last) ‘High King’ of Ireland in the early eleventh century AD. Brian was killed just as his forces gained victory over his opponents at the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD. Upon his death, the body of Brian Boru was subsequently conveyed to Armagh and interred in a stone/marble ‘coffin’ at, or near, what is now the cathedral’s exterior west wall of the north transept.

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The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [3]

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Nephin dwarfs Croagh Patrick in County Mayo – Image: Mayo.Me / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

<— Continued from Part Two

Show Me The Money

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.

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