Irish Metal Detectorists Want to ‘Rescue’ Ireland’s Buried Heritage. By Digging It Up Themselves.

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Image: Pindoc / Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In recent days several (bemused) archaeologists have received an unsolicited email advertising an event entitled: ‘Rescuing Irelands Buried Heritage before it vanishes forever’ – detailing a ‘Public Debate’ to be held at the Crowne Plaza Blanchardstown* on Tuesday 8th November 2016.

It turns out it is the latest attempt by Irish Metal Detectorists to promote their ‘harmless hobby’ and their long held ambition of overthrowing national legislation that protects Irish archaeological objects from being looted by people engaged in unregulated and inappropriate use of metal detectors.

Far better (and more patient) people than myself have written on this before. For in depth background and details regarding the present ‘campaign’, I recommend Stuart Rathbone‘s excellent ‘Sixty Three Thousand Euros or Twelve and a Half pence in old money’; the ever ready Paul Barford’s ‘Campaign For Metal Detecting Change in Irish Republic’ and The Heritage Journal’s ‘A shambolic, UK archaeologist-backed call for metal detecting to be legalised in Ireland’.

Unlike many other jurisdictions, metal detecting for archaeological objects in Ireland without a ministerial license is illegal. Digging for suspected archaeological objects, even without a metal detector, is illegal. Indeed, under Irish law (the envy of many archaeologists throughout the world) all archaeological finds belong to the nation – with the Irish State automatically being the legal owner of all archaeological objects.

Not the finder. Not the landowner. Certainly not an archaeologist. Nobody in Ireland can own, profit, buy or sell newly discovered archaeological artefacts. Its one of the things we do well as a country.

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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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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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‘All the Rabble Rout’: Swimming With Saints at Lahinch, Co. Clare

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Image: Andrew Miller / Flickr / (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I love me an auld folklore mystery. Especially when it involves the folklore of the west coast of Ireland. Throw in the possibility that it may contain enshrined elements of past ritual activity associated with surviving archaeology and I’m all yours. So when DrBeachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog recently sent notice of a fantastic nugget of folklore concerning an 1830s Bathing Mystery at Lahinch (Co. Clare) which was classified by stuffy antiquarians as a ‘Pagan Observance on the West Coast of Ireland’… needless to say, he had me at ‘WTF’.

For the main event and details you should read the original post by DrB, which involves anonymous nineteenth century correspondence, a presidential address to the Folklore Society and the mysterious and scandalous bathing habits of the local population of nineteenth century Lahinch. These appear to have involved naked males, wooden implements of mass destruction, ceremonial procession, obscured rituals shielded from profane eyes and wild pagan delight along the lines of the Wicker Man afterwards. What are you still doing here? Read it.

“A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything until the bathing ceremony was completed, and everyone, particularly the women, seemed anxious to keep out of the line of procession, while the ceremony was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. As soon as it was over, all the rabble rout, both male and female, of the village flocked about the performers, and for some time kept up loud shouts.”

Laurence Gomme, Presidential address to the Folklore Society, 1892

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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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On a Wing and De Paor: Saint Patrick’s World

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Cover: Jarlath Hayes/Garry Jordan (Four Courts Press)

Int. Lecture Hall – Day

It was just another wet day in a wet week (in a wetter Ireland) but I remember it well. Crowded lecture hall filling up with babbling undergraduates. Messy desks, discarded papers and empty coffee cups from the previous lecture (the type of subject that produces students with hungover frowns and disaffected scarves). The white noise of several hundred history students shoving their way in – past those exiting – talking over each other whilst looking for pens and refill pads down the bottom of soggy bags. The smell of wet canvas runners. The smell of socks just beginning to turn a dryer shade of kale.

I was one of them. It was probably my own feet.

We sat there, idly watching the lecturer set up for the class, part of a general introduction to Medieval Europe. The topic was the Conversion of Ireland. Or something. Up came a pretty awful stereotypical picture of the national saint in bright green and then a single sentence: ‘Would the real St. Patrick please stand up?’ People started to take notice. Some even wrote it down, blindly.  What followed over the next 40 minutes or so was the stuff of movies of what university should be like, but rarely is.

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In the Name of Progress: The Last Post

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Image: insert_token (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I note news today of the formal signing of contracts on behalf of the Irish government and the relevant company concerning the rollout and implementation of a new National Postcode System. This will involve the adoption of a 7-character code in alpha numeric format for every individual address in the country – which will presumably, in time, replace the need to know or include the local townland or area name of an address.

“Ireland has inherited a rich  tapestry of geographical names dating from all periods of the last two millennia at least. The whole country, including Northern Ireland, is divided into some 67,000 administrative units, in an historical, hierarchical structure of four provinces, 32 counties, 327 baronies, 2,428 civil parishes and some 60,462 townlands, all bearing their own names.

The vast majority of the place names of Ireland have their origin in the Irish language, particularly the names of the administrative units and those of major geographical features. Most of these names were coined before the 17th century and a significant number are at least a thousand years older. Literary and historical sources in Irish from the 8th century onwards contain many thousands of place names, many of which can be identified with present-day names”

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Blood from a Stone: some half drawn thoughts on Bullauns

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‘Blood from a stone’ (Image: Author)

A while back, I was sniffing around the site of an old medieval parish church in Kilnamanagh, Co. Roscommon (not much remains) when I caught sight of an old stone ‘stoup’, or font, placed into the surrounding graveyard wall. It’s not medieval, probably 18/19th cent, but it nevertheless reminded me of medieval bullaun stones; hemispherical cup-shaped depressions hollowed out of rocks and very much associated with medieval ecclesiastical sites and pilgrim routes.

The crucifix that had been placed inside was plastic and coated with metallic paint, probably a fragment from a temporary grave marker. Being there a while, the metal had obviously undergone some sort of rust/oxidation chemical process. As a result, the water within had turned a wonderful blood-red colour, resulting in a very evocative image.     Continue reading

Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 2]

(Continued from Part One…)

‘The Britains’ and the ‘Britons’ in Patricks Writings

In his writings Patrick makes it clear that as someone whose homeland was in ‘the Britains’, he not only considered himself a foreigner in Ireland, but also that the people he  lived among were, in turn, considered foreigners/strangers from a Roman perspective: inter barbaras itaque gentes habito proselitus et profuga, ‘I live among barbarian foreigners, as a stranger and exile’ (Epist 1); ubi nunc paruitas mea esse uidetur inter alienigenas, ‘It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was’ (Conf 1); denique seruus sum in Christo genti exterae, ‘Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people’ (Epist 10).

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