A Thig Ná Tit Orm: The Last Picture Show

Part three of an archaeo misadventures trilogy. Part one is here. Part two is here.

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A deserted country lane in deepest darkest Roscommon.

The brooding crest of a drumlin ridge overlooking seven early medieval ringfort enclosures.

An ancient cup-marked standing stone, tapering upwards in hushed red hued glory, still fulfilling its original function. A prehistoric boundary marker. Thus far shall thou go and no further.

Me. A few years ago. On the trail of a 7thC Irish Bishop and his textual landscapes. The earliest contemporary historical reference to an early medieval Irish lios or lis – denoting ‘the space about a dwellinghouse or houses enclosed by a bank or rampart; a ringfort, or circular earthwork’. When he had first written it down, 1300 years ago, he had helpfully qualified it as ‘ardd senlis’, i.e. a placename which suggested an early medieval enclosure, probably situated on an ard, or height, and already considered sen, or ‘old’ in his day.

Hence the reason for my being there. On the crest of a drumlin ridge. In a townland littered with seven early medieval enclosures. Looking out towards two of them in a field beyond a field situated on its highest point.

Standing awkwardly on the grassy bank at the side of the country road, I took the picture above – electing to exclude the barbed wire and electrified fence I was carefully leaning over, with its repeated ‘Please Fuck off Keep Out’ Signs strung out along the property line.

Thus far did I go. And no further.

I trudged back along the country road to a more friendly looking gate on the other side of the lane. No barbed wire. Tied only with string. Half sagging from its neglected hinges. A recent ‘Land For Sale’ sign hanging off it.

I had done my homework beforehand. Pouring over desktop maps and aerial photographs, I had come up with alternative targets in the event of the above. This gate overlooked the opposite side of the drumlin, and the almost imperceptible remains of a ‘ghost road’ – a grassed over boreen on one side of the field – leading down towards a sleepy river valley. Hidden somewhere down there in white-thorny overgrowth was a medieval church ruin.

“I’m interested in this land for sale”, I thought to myself. And vaulted the gate.

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History Ireland Magazine and the Ancient Order of Shitebernians

Image: julochka / flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Have you heard the one about the Irish Historian who spent years highlighting unhistorical racist bigotry of Irish American leprechaun types – only to be labelled as such by said leprechauns? In an Irish magazine? It could only happen, as they say, in (History) Ireland.

The current (Sept/Oct 2017) issue of History Ireland (Ireland’s Only History Magazine) carries a letter calling an Irish Historian a nondescript bigot, while also attempting (in what can only be described as a paean to an Ann and Barry level of historical illiteracy) to belittle the historian’s professionalism, ability and credibility.

The ‘letter’ (the contents of which are largely taken from a previous blog post from March 2017, written by a member of an ‘ancient’ sectarian homophobic organization originally modeled on the Orange Order in the 19thC and, ironically, one that actual modern Irish people point and laugh at) takes issue with the cold historical facts surrounding the widespread misue of the ‘Irish Slaves Meme’.

Predominantly a puss infected affliction from Irish-Americana, the racist bile of the ‘Irish Slaves Meme’ has, in recent years, spread like a malignant tumor on social media, fueled in no small part by the hijacking of actual Irish history by racists, white supremacists and neo-nazis who use it to intentionally belittle, reduce and dehumanize the actual horrors of chattel slavery and the lived experience of millions of black people in America.

Almost everyone with a pulse and an internet connection on Irish social media will already be well aware of all this – thanks to the herculean efforts of one individual. Liam Hogan.

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Dublin Set To Gain Primacy of All Ireland Following Brexit

Image: leppre / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Of the many potentially complicated effects of Brexit on Irish affairs to have been given an airing over the last few days, the implications for the historical leadership of the Irish Catholic Church is probably one which has received the least attention. Yet, it may well be one of the first to manifest itself in the short to medium term.

After having survived the twelfth century church reform, a reformation, a counter reformation and even modern Irish independence itself, it now seems likely that one of the more arcane results of Brexit on Ireland will be the transfer of ecclesiastical primacy of the island from Armagh to Dublin city. Ironically, the motivation for the move has rather more to do with modern day EU legislation concerning religious freedoms, than centuries of tradition and precedent.

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St. Patrick: The Man From Nowhere

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St. Patrick’s Window, Tuam Cathedral. Image: Andreas Borchert (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Introduction

If there’s one aspect of the Historical Patrick that really gets certain people agitated, its the academic issue of his ‘episcopal’ status. St. Patrick is not only a national icon, saintly superhero and patron saint – he is also a figure of much personal devotion.  For many Irish people, he represents a very important tenant of the early reception of their faith and the very foundation of their national ecclesiastical identity. To this day, Irish church hierarchies still maintain that their religious authority and legitimacy stretches right back to his very personage. To question such a long and entrenched tradition naturally runs the risk of offending modern religious sensibilities. One doesn’t do so lightly.

Nevertheless, its remains important to. For several reasons.

Firstly, because we can. Not so very long ago, such an endevour would have been seen as utterly scandalous and I would probably have been denounced from an altar, hosed down with holy water and/or run out of the country, for even daring to.

Secondly, because we should. Academically separating the original historical Patrick from the later mythical ‘Saint’ Patrick serves to clarify the historical context and importance of both the man himself and the later literary culture, dynasties and ecclesiastical federations who championed and embellished his cult, whilst simultaneously preserving his actual writings. Ironically, their efforts now enable professional heretics such as myself the opportunity to work with such wonderful source material.

Thirdly, because we must. Over the next year or so, ahead of the papal visit in 2018, we will surely be treated to increased ecclesiastical propaganda and PR spin concerning the early history of Irish Christianity and Rome – from those who naturally have a vested interest in maintaining certain narratives. St. Patrick will have a starring role. Much of it will be badly written, poorly researched and historically inaccurate. Almost all of it will be a travesty of the Historical Patrick’s own words, theology, actions and experiences.

And so, for the day that’s in it, I thought I would take a forensic look at the evidence of the Historical Patrick’s own words concerning his own episcopal status.

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17 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Historical (St) Patrick

Image: Author

St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us again. To celebrate, here’s an flagrantly shameless click-baity 17 point listicle (I like to think of it as a ‘histicle’) on aspects of the historical (St) Patrick which are not widely known or usually discussed in modern media. His two surviving documents (and their respective manuscript versions) can be read in a variety of languages here.

1 – Recorded Irish History Starts With Patrick

Before being grossly inflated to within an inch of his hagiographical life by early medieval authors, the man we call ‘Patrick’ was an actual historical person. He lived sometime in the late 4th/early 5thC AD. Copies of two documents written by him survive. They are the earliest known texts known to have been written within Ireland. As such, recorded Irish ‘history’ (the study of the written word) starts with Patrick. There’s absolutely nothing earlier. Nor indeed, anything after him, for more than a century. The very fact that his writings managed to survive at all is pretty feckin’ amazing.

2 – Growing Up, Patrick Was A Spoiled Little Shit

St. Patrick didn’t call himself ‘Patrick’. Or ‘Saint’. He identified himself as ‘Patricius. His father was both a deacon and a type of Roman Town Councillor. His grandfather was a priest. His family’s villa estate had servants. In modern day parlance, Patrick was a totally spoiled little shit. With a maid. Despite the families ecclesiastical connections, he didn’t have a very religious upbringing at all. He says himself that he didn’t pay much attention to priests in general. Too busy gallivanting and drinking Frappuccinos probably. There’s a good chance his father only took on the role of ecclesiastical deacon in order to help mitigate the families imperial tax liabilities. ‘Tax avoidance, your honour. Not evasion. That money was just resting in my account’.

3 –  Rude Britannia

Many people, past and present, have laid several modern nationalist claims on Patrick’s ethnicity; despite the fact that Patrick clearly identified himself and his family as being Britons from the island of Britain. This means he would have considered himself British (in the late antiquity sense of the word). His native language would have been Brythonic. Despite this language being the precursor of Welsh, he would not have considered himself as such. He couldn’t have. A coherent welsh identity didn’t yet exist.  They still had all their own vowels for fecks sake. His (unidentified) home town was, in all likelihood, somewhere in North West Britain, not far from the Hadrians Wall frontier zone. Despite living near the (modern day) Scottish border, he did not identify with the inhabitants there either. In fact, he expresses a particular hatred for the insular peoples of Scotland, i.e. ‘The Picts’, essentially calling them worthless, unworthy, blood thirsty, evil thieving bastards. Seriously. He couldn’t stand them blue arsed pagan feckers.

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Hear the story of Saint Patrick. In his own words.

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Some time ago, I was kindly invited by Abarta Heritage to write a little something on the ‘Historical Patrick”. I jumped at the chance.

Abarta is the leading Irish company specializing in Irish digital audio guides, heritage interpretation and visitor service solutions to communities, cultural sites and institutions. It also happens to be owned and run by archaeologists. There’s something special about heritage material produced by people who have researched, excavated, visited, surveyed and physically held such subject matter in their own hands. It’s comes across in their approach and work. Detail and perspective. I’d like to think it might occasionally come across in mine.

The medium of audio is something which I have been interested in exploring for a while. I’m a podcast and radio fiend who inhales historical media. Abarta gave me the absolute freedom to do what I wanted. The brief was to come up with something engaging for people interested in learning more about the Historical Patrick – something which would explore the real life person underpinning his later saintly namesake.

We wanted to give an idea of his overall background within Ireland and Britain of the time, the landscape he would have witnessed and to give a flavour of what is known about the physical, social and cultural realities. We wanted to let his own story, his own words from his own hands, take centre stage whilst also retaining a wider academic framework informing the narrative. We wanted something which would reflect the rich details, issues and complexities involved in studying Patrick and his works alongside his importance and place in the development of later Irish identity and tradition.

The resulting audiobook, ‘Patrick; Six Years A Slave’, is available here.

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Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas

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Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.

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Early Medieval Ireland via The Modern Irish Mammy

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Image: Ireland definitive 6p postage stamp showing An Claidheamh Soluis / Irish government (Public Domain)

Its funny how certain smells, music, or even the utterances of certain words or phrases that one hasn’t experienced in years can suddenly stir half-forgotten memories, and simultaneously transport oneself back in time in an instant. I recently had occasion for doing exactly that, upon seeing the following tweet concerning an old County Carlow expression as recorded in the Irish National Folklore Collection …

Staring at my smartphone in the 21st Century, I could almost hear again the exasperated voice of my own long passed grandmother (herself a Carlow woman, and purveyor of many bastardized, corrupted Irish-English sayings) uttering the same towards various grandchildren – myself included – who were up to no good and acting the maggot in another room.

“Don’t make me have to get up off my seat and come in there again, or ‘I’ll mallafooster ye!”

And then on to my own mother, who had obviously picked up the same expressions and country terms growing up. A sudden flashback to a dark autumnal evening coming up to Halloween. My mother coming home with the ‘messages’ (shopping). The clothes line in the back garden, still full of the days washing, getting damp in the early night air. Her grumbling at the lack of ‘cop on’ of her delinquent children and rushing out to take them in as soon as possible.  A nine year old me, thinking this was a perfect time to play a trick. Sneaking around the shed, and jumping out at her from behind. Snarling like a monster. Her, in absolute fright, spinning around in automatic defense mode, fist flailing without a second thought. Me, punched in the face, gob-smacked, spread-eagled flat on the ground in seconds.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t EVER. DO that. AGAIN”, she said, already walking back into the kitchen for a bag of frozen peas. “Or I’ll really mallavogue ye!”

If this sounds like the start of a dreadful Irish childhood misery litt biography, then, my apologies. Its certainly not meant to. Nor is it meant to denigrate those who weren’t as lucky as I was. I can look back in humour at the linguistics, precisely because (accidental shiner aside) there wasn’t a hand laid on me growing up. But that certainly didn’t stop me from experiencing what many Irish people will attest to: the dramatic, cartoonish, deliberately-animated, blood-spattered expressions of medieval-esque ultra violence uttered by that most fearful of creatures which haunted an Irish youth:

An Angry Irish Mammy. With a Wooden Spoon.

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Winter Solstice In Ireland, They Said…

 

Be Grand, They Said…

 

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Image: Annie West

 

Made for me this very day, by the wonderful and illuminating Annie West who specializes in Historical Irish Funnies.  I have it on good authority that in a previous life, she was responsible for all those feckin cats in the Book of Kells.

Happy Solstice.