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 that sounds like the start of 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.

A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

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Image: Author

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

* * *

Following on from last years folk horror flavoured adventure on the Slopes of Rathcroghan, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the weekend that’s in it to present you with another. The time: a few years ago. The place: an apparently nondescript rural graveyard somewhere in Middle Ireland. The unwitting (mis)adventurer: yours truly.

* * *

It was the first day of a week of archaeo-field survey and I was supposed to be in the far west of Ireland following in the footsteps of a seventh century bishop, seeking out some of the earliest historically attested Christian sites associated with the cult of St. Patrick. Yet, here I was, walking down a grass rutted country lane, searching for a gate that led toward a half-forgotten graveyard. The location wasn’t even on my official list of sites to visit, but I had been nearby and decided to stop off for a quick poke around. During a previous desktop survey, I had noted several interesting archaeo aspects about the place:

  • A late medieval church ruin
  • A much earlier medieval looking curvilinear shaped graveyard
  • A couple of suspiciously prehistoric looking standing stones in hinterlands
  • An abandoned holy well – and most of all –
  • A strange looking natural feature on a nearby drumlin that my eyes had been drawn to whilst looking at aerial photography.

Truth be told, it was actually a combination of all the above occurring within a placename containing the Old Irish word túaim; i.e. ‘a mound, bank, knap, tump, or hillock’, but more frequently, in placename terms, ‘a mound, tomb, grave or sepulchre‘ (in the sense of Latin tumulus).

This alone would have made anyone’s archaeological antennae stand up on end. But what really sealed the deal for me was the small matter of there being no record whatsoever of anything resembling a prehistoric mound or tomb in the vicinity.

Coupled with that, somewhere in this particular area, my seventh century bishop had made reference to an early church site. Alas, the full (Hiberno-Latin) placename is now illegible in the only surviving manuscript and as a result has never been identified with any certainty. Later medieval vernacular sources do include an Irish placename for the same area however, also unidentified, yet containing a similar letter or two with that of the first example. More importantly, the Irish placename is qualified by the word Sídh.

(Image: Author)

In onomastic terms this descriptor is generally associated with Sídh Mounds, aka Fairy Mounds. Denuded prehistoric tombs, cairns, mounds or tumuli, often situated on lumps, bumps and hills – many of which were later re-imagined and depicted in Irish myth and folklore as being the underground homes of supernatural beings or fairies known as the Áes Síde.

To have all this whirling around together in one place in an almost perfect archaeological, historical, onomastic storm? To be faced with the prospect of a forgotten prehistoric Tumulus, Síde Mound, or Ferta adjacent an early medieval church site? Perhaps even, the very reason for its initial establishment, reflecting Early Irish Christian agency, engagement and renegotiation with an ancestral past? How could anyone resist?

Long story short, that is how I came to be walking down a lane in the nowhere middle of Middle Ireland. On the off chance of catching a whispered echo of long silenced folk memory. Trespassing across time and space. Waking the dead. Looking for the ghost of a grave in an already ancient graveyard. A ‘túaim’ with a view.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Disney To Enforce Star Wars Copyright of Skellig Michael For Next Ten Years

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Image: TechnoHippyBiker / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Skellig Michael, the early medieval monastic island and UNESCO World Heritage Site off the Co. Kerry coast has been experiencing a surge in popularity and interest after having been used as a key location for two of the three installments of the new Star Wars Trilogy i.e. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (released December 2015) and the, as yet untitled, Episode VIII (Expected release: 2017).

As expected, this months opening of the regular Skellig Michael tourist season is being highly anticipated by locals and tourism authorities seeking to capitalize on the films association  – although fears that normal access may be curtailed by recent storm damage to some of the visitor paths has certainly dampened some expectations.

In a startling move, however, it now seems that the operators of the Star Wars movie franchise (The Walt Disney Company) have invoked – and are to begin enforcing – digital copyright of ‘Skellig Michael’ itself.

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Waking the Dead on the Slopes of Cruachu

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(Image: Author)

For the day that’s in it, here’s a little folk horror flavoured archeo-echtrai which happened to me a few years ago during a visit to Cruachu (aka Cruachán, aka Rathcroghan), a location dripping in early medieval dindsenchas. Its a ritual complex of barrows, mounds, avenues and enclosures –  a prehistoric palimpsest of generations of ‘the dead’ carved into a ‘living’ landscape and overlaid with early medieval meaning. Think late prehistoric burial, assembly, inauguration, oenach festivals, mass meetings, power performances, legitimacy, declarations, legal decisions, disputes, drinking, carousing, games, fighting – all on a regional scale – and anything else that may have caught their fancy at any given time.

Cruachu and its hinterlands loom large in early medieval myth, mayhem and pseudo-folk memory. It occupies a prime position as one of the so called ‘royal’ sites of early medieval Ireland. A western version of Tara, and Emhain Macha. It appears as a key symbolic location in early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Echtra Nerai (The Strange Adventure of Nera) – the latter having samhain and the mounds of the dead as a key backdrop to portrayed events.

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Through the Grass, Darkly: Irish Folk Horror

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Image: Author

Folklore has a profound and unsettling impact on the imaginative perception of landscape, identity, time and the past. Folk memory is often manifested as an intrusive and violent breach from an older repressed, ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ state that transgresses the development of cultural order.

Extract: Fiend in the Furrows Blog

Feral Fields

Despite being an early medievalist and a big film fan, I have never had much interest in horror/fantasy genres in general. I prefer ‘the real stuff’ – far more terrifying. But folk horror is different. Its something that has always been loitering in the shadows of my peripheral vision – as a child, as an adult, as a consumer of culture, as an archaeologist & historian – despite only being consciously labelled as such in my head in the last few years.

I grew up in 1980s Ireland – bleak and cloudy in more ways than one – reading and watching stuff which is now considered classic staples of the genre.  New housing estate on the edge of urban sprawl. Invasive concrete arteries slowly spreading into moody rural hinterlands. Feral fields and hedgerows only a short bike ride away.

I raided wood pallets from industrial factories for Halloween bonfires one day – picked blackberries, collected frog spawn and built tree houses the next. Cycled along unfinished motorways past castle ruins and burial mounds. Explored ‘haunted’ country lanes in twilight, peopling stumps, bumps and ditches with youthful abandon.  It was one big halfway house of a childhood. Halfway between then and now, here and there. Through the grass, darkly. Half afraid to put away childish things.

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Bealtaine: Mind the Gap

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Image: Fiona MacGinty / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Here’s a little something for May 1st. Blame all the ‘celtic’ bealtaine stuff that is 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. Bealtaine vanilla.

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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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