Navigatio Hiberionacum: A Modern Day Immram in Ireland

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I have taken my little talent – a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were – out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, (a sea) on which so far no boat has ventured…

Muirchú, Prologus, Life of Patrick, (7thC)

There’s something deliciously ‘early medieval’ about rowing wooden boats. No matter how much modern gear you happen to pack inside, there’s nothing ‘modern’ about the act of rowing itself. Of propelling a craft through the water by sheer power of human strength alone. Of pushing backwards from your legs a sweeping oar and seeing it catch and glide through the water, feeling a little surge forward in tandem with the others. Of riding into and cresting waves on the open sea. Of slinking through flat rivers. Of sitting in the bow, bobbing up and down, face forward to the horizon with hands on each side, feeling the wood hum and vibrate.

Wooden boats are most alive when they are moving. No really. You can hear them breathing, whalelike, an excited gurgling sound underneath, like a cistern, as water bubbles flow down the hull in transit. You can literally feel its synchronized heartbeat between the reach and return of the oars twisting and sliding between two thole pins – hard and soft wooden arteries – producing a dull ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’. A leathery wooden pulse pumping through the boat. The work of human hands.

It can, at times, get strangely hypnotic. Especially when on the board chatter had died down and people have settled into a good rhythm. The cox has little need to correct or instruct and the only thing left – is the open sea, the repetitive wooden heartbeat and ones own thoughts. My archaeo-imagination being what it is, I am usually transported back in time, to early medieval Ireland – not that hard when one is traversing the eastern Irish coastline in a clinker built craft, passing entire counties and landmarks once viewed in the same manner by seafarers from the north and still enshrined – despite anglicization – with Old Norse placenames.

Or perhaps, even further back, to Sixth and Seventh Century Ireland, when little boats and big seas occupied Early Christian literary imaginations as well as daily realities. Immrama. Navigatio. Peregrinatio. Exiles for God, adrift in the sea, seeking a retreat from the world. Romantic figures like Columba. Adómnan. Brendan. Island hermitages like Iona. Lindisfarne. Inishbofin.

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‘On Eagles Wings’ – Croagh Patrick: The Mount Sinai of Early Medieval Ireland

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“The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'”
Exodus 19:23

Sometime during the seventh decade of the seventh century AD (c.670s) an Irishman approached the mountain in modern day Co. Mayo known as Croagh Patrick. He was an ecclesiastical academic type, something of a ‘a wise man’ or ‘sapiens’ in the early Irish Christian tradition.  Although he had been fostered and trained in a monastery in Co. Meath, on the east coast of Ireland, he was in fact, a local – originally hailing from the north coast of modern day County Mayo, around the western shore of Kilalla Bay.

It was probably not his first time seeing the mountain. He would surely have heard stories about it in his earlier youth; maybe caught glimpses of it at times and certainly would have been aware of its imposing presence in the landscape. Indeed, almost as soon as he crossed the River Shannon, traveling from Leinster, he would have caught sight of it several times in the distance.

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The man probably traveled out along the lowland plain of modern day Murrisk, between the mountain and the southern shore of Clew bay, along the same route that the modern day road takes today. He would have passed an early church site at Umhall, now known as Cloonpatrick graveyard at Oughaval. He would have passed a few standing stones and the remains of prehistoric stone alignments on his way. He would passed the future site of Murrisk Abbey, then just a coastal bluff sticking out into the sea. He would have passed the future site of the modern day car park at the foot of ‘the Reek’ as it is now called. And he would have kept on going.

He was looking for something in the landscape. Something conspicuously imposing and already ancient. A few miles up the road, at a point where the highest stream from the mountain summit flows down into Clew Bay – linking the summit and the foot of the mountain – he apparently found what he was looking for. A late prehistoric stone cairn or ring barrow mound – part of, or adjacent, an older communal burial place still in use – reflecting an even older dynastic, or territorial boundary.

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Saints & Scholars: Tweeting Saints in Medieval Irish Martyrologies

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Image: Author

The Irish martyrologies are an incredibly important historical source – textual witnesses to many things: Saints cults, both famous and obscure, both female and male; individual church sites, ecclesiastical foundations, hermitages, and any number of halfway houses in between; personal names; place names; regional names; dynastic names. They provides several stratified snapshots of a competing and free flowing ecclesiastical landscape of loyalties, allegiances, bias, memory and commemoration. A measure of importance for those communities and dynasties doing the ‘celebrating’, as much as those being ‘celebrated’.

For those who may not be aware, Dr. Elva Johnston, one of the foremost authorities on Early Medieval Ireland and Early Irish Christianity, has been tweeting daily Saints from Early Irish Martyrologies for some months now. Essentially, the Martyrology of Óengus (Félire Óengusso) and the Martyrology of Gorman. She has also been storyifing them for posterity.

Aside from having a handy reference of feast days, the whole enterprise is a wonderful 21st Century experimental clone of Early Medieval Irish Scribal activity. Ironically, the medium of Twitter lends itself naturally to what monks and scribes were essentially doing within manuscripts over a thousand years ago i.e. small notes, highlights, marginalia glosses, annal entries, short commentaries…

Every day, Dr. Johnston tweets the relevant feast day/saint(s) included in the Martyrologies, and often other experts and scholars chime in with short notes, etymological elements and/or historical tidbits. If you have ever wanted to know what it may have felt to be a medieval scribe, or a student gazing over their shoulder as they wrote, this is the perfect opportunity to follow along. In real time. Day by day. Month by month.

Basically, putting the original #MedievalTwitter into… ehh… #MedievalTwitter.

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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 Audioguides 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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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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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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The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [2]

Continued from Part One.

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So what could have the historical Patrick meant when he said that he paid out ‘the price of fifteen men/persons’? And what could that potentially tell us about early Irish Christian communities in fifth century Ireland?

Here’s the original passage again:

Uos autem experti estis quantum ego erogaui illis qui iudicabant per omnes regiones quos ego frequentius uisitabam. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Non me paenitet nec satis est mihi: adhuc impendo et superimpendam; potens est Dominus ut det mihi postmodum ut meipsum impendar pro animabus uestris.

“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend  and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful  and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”

Confessio 53 (My Trans.)

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Review: Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy

Columba Life & Legacy

Cover: Shaun Gallagher / The Columba Press

Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5.  7 + 224 pp.

Introduction

There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.

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