‘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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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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St. Attracta’s Well: A Postcard From Early Medieval Ireland

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Wakeman’s 1895 sketch of St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher (Copyright Sligo County Library)

Seeing as today the feast day of a certain Irish St. Attracta, here’s a little something about her from Tírechán’s Collectanea which contains the earliest contemporary reference to her cult, a church site dedicated to her and a particular piece of geological info that amazingly still exists today…

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A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 1]

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Clonmacnoise commemorated… Fuerty, Roscommon (Image: Author)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, a short article in the Irish Times caught my eye. Entitled ‘Historic’ ordination of deacons in Sligo, it was a brief notice concerning newly ordained permanent deacons in the modern Irish diocese of Elphin. Two comments were of particular interest to me:

Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones described the occasion as “truly joyous” and historic, pointing out that it was almost 1,500 years “almost back to the time of St Patrick himself” since a similar ordination had taken place in the diocese.

Newly ordained William Gacquin said the last recorded reference to a deacon in diocesan records was when one baptised St Ciaran in the parish of Fuerty, Co Roscommon, in the sixth century.

(McDonagh, M. Irish Times, December 10, 2012)
 

Such comments provide a fascinating example of the extent to which early Irish hagiography is still influencing modern ecclesiastical identity and ‘history’. Whilst no doubt wishing to stress the historical nature  of the proceedings, the referencing of the above episode in such a manner relies on an uncritical acceptance of antiquarian translations of later medieval Lives of St. Patrick. Divorced from its original setting, the episode is not only portrayed by modern-day ecclesiastics as historical fact, but also attempts to equate the modern-day concept of a permanent deacon with that of the early medieval ecclesiastical grade. In doing so, it not only fails to appreciate the original ecclesiastical milieu in which it was written; but inadvertently underplays the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon. Continue reading