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.
A week too late unfortunately, but I recently became aware of yet another soul destroying sale of important Irish archaeological artefacts – right here in Dublin. On Novemeber 8th last, in their ‘History and Literature’ auction, Whyte’s Auctioneers included two ‘Iron Age stone heads’ for sale, amongst other Irish archaeological items. The stone sculptures could be early medieval in date, particularly the one associated with Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, although the other one bears strong similarities to several other insular stone figures, now housed in Armagh cathedral, including the famous Tanderagee Stone Figure. Whether Late Prehistoric, or Early Christian, such artefacts provide extremely rare evidence of monumentalized ritual sculpture from a very early period of Irish history/prehistory (although, without proper context, they can tell us precious little else about our ancestors).
The provenance of one of them is given as In the ownership of a family at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary for c. 100 years. A hundred years ago: 1912. If they know this, they should have a good idea where it was “found”.
The provenance of the other is given as From a 300 year old house, Claregalway, Co. Galway.
These artefacts are scattered all over the country, in churches, in ruined abbeys, castles, houses, walls, side of the road etc. What is to stop people chiselling away at what surrounds them and then carry them off? Decency and a sense of heritage usually does. But, if people see there is money to be made on these artefacts, they may not last much longer in situ in the countryside.
Old times, old manners, old books, old wine…. ‘The Armagh’ – Image: Jonathan Caves / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A fascinating historical tidbit of early medieval myth and ritual in the news today concerning the (long-expected) retirement of the current Archbishop of Armagh and the official appointment of his successor.
‘Archbishop Eamon Martin… today becomes Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland and Coarb Phadraic.’
For those unfamiliar with the historical and modern ecclesiastical landscape of Ireland, the holder of the office of the Armagh archbishopric is considered the ecclesiastical head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. An archiepiscopacy since the twelfth century church reform, it replaced an older insular system where the abbots, or leaders, of the Armagh church were long considered the coarbae (‘heir/successor’) of St. Patrick and the de facto leaders of the medieval Irish church – a status and authority which can be traced back to the seventh century AD.
Which brings us (finally!) to the matter at hand. In the light of all the above considerations – what does the historical Patrick actually say about his origins in his own writings? As previously noted, Patrick uses the term ‘Britanniis’ a total of three times. One of those examples is not entirely specific as to his origins, although it does infer the location of his clerical background in later life, and the location where his family apparently pleaded with him not to leave – just prior to his setting off for Ireland. I include here anyway:
The major news of the last day or so has been the surprise papal resignation announcement. Almost immediately, historic medieval precedents were being touted and referenced. The coming weeks will no doubt see a media surge of interest in medieval aspects of the modern-day Papacy/Vatican; and one of the more fanciful avenues will surely be the so-called ‘Prophecies of St. Malachy’. Allegedly penned by the twelfth century Irish reforming Bishop of Armagh, they purport to list over a hundred future popes with the current Pope occupying the second last position. The implication then, is that the coming Pope will be the last one.
St. Malachy, Brussels MS.II, 1167 (after Leclercq, 1959, 323)
As you can imagine, much ink and electronic typeface has already been spent on the subject, with a large majority of it occupying the very lowest level of armchair pseudo-historical quasi-mystical bovine excretia. In honour of the coming onslaught of idiotic internet babble concerning the Irish Malachy and his ‘prophecies’; I thought it would be appropriate to have a quick look at the figure of Malachy and what he actually represents in terms of Irish medieval history and archaeology. Continue reading →
If the horse/kingship motif can be detected in some of the earliest patrician hagiography depicting the foundation of Armagh; then the ecclesiastical centre itself also provides us with firm archaeological evidence of its survival and continuity throughout the later medieval period. Two strange medieval stone carvings are known from the area of the cathedral/church, both of which depict a human figure with horses ears. Thought to be a medieval sculptural representation of earlier Irish literature involving kingship figures, the stone sculptures have also been interpreted as an ecclesiastical re-working of insular tales modeled on the classical mythology of King Midas. Continue reading →
No horses allowed! (Image: wallygrom / flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)
This last week has seen much media attention and online mirth concerning the discovery of horse meat in certain high street beef products on sale throughout Ireland and the UK. For a good round-up of the initial reports, see Slugger O’Toole’s post here which contains the following quote from the Chief Executive of FSAI:
“In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horsemeat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger…”
The concept of a deep-seated cultural and/or religious abhorrence of horse meat within modern Ireland and Britain struck me as extremely interesting. The disgust expressed in some quarters over the thought of inadvertently ingesting the same reminded me of certain historical and archaeological parallels within our shared cultural legacy.
As far back as the early medieval period, there are indications that both insular and European ecclesiastical authorities not only disapproved of the practice, but actively engaged in efforts to dissuade others from partaking of the same. So apparently successful was this early Christian disparagement, that todays cultural condemnation could perhaps be argued as not only being derived from an early medieval repugnance towards horseflesh consumption; but perhaps even, an underlying revulsion to what it may have represented to early Christian mindsets. Continue reading →