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?
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
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.
Last night I was reminded, via the Twitter Machine, of a great two-parter written by Christiaan Corlett – this time last year – entitled ‘Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo’ (See Part 1 here and Part 2 here). St. Marcan’s Lough is the location of a medieval ecclesiastical site, now almost gone, on the shores of Clew Bay, Co. Mayo. Remains of possibly two churches and a leacht recorded in the 19th & 20th centuries, no longer survive. An altar and holy well (Tober Marcan) show some sign of partial preservation and a cairn/pilgrim station located on the loughs foreshore is still exposed at low tide. A Childrens Burial Ground is depicted in the vicinity along with a crannóg/platform within the Lough itself.
There is considerable Lughnasadh type folklore and traditions associated with the site, with a particular emphasis on cattle being driven in the waters of the lough, originally a freshwater lake (during the first week of August – as a curative or preventative protection/charm) in and around the cairn/monument and holy well. Corletts articles goes into great detail on this and he draws parallels with other similar traditions and accounts of horse/cattle rituals at other suspected Lughnasadh sites in the country.
Another week… and another theft of medieval archaeology. This time, a 15th century cusped ogee-headed window from the east wall of a medieval church ruin on Church Island, Garadice Lough, Co. Leitrim; in addition to a facing stone from a Bawn gun loop from Crane Island in the same lake.
Its beginning to look like some sort of ‘medieval’ crime wave at this stage. One wonders what further bad news is in store for us around the country as national monuments staff go about their regular checks of isolated national monuments. The islands on Garadice Lough are close enough to the lakeshore and are on a popular boating/tourist route. Needless to say, the thefts would have entailed a vehicle, boat and several people. Once again, a deliberate and orchestrated theft of Irish archaeological & national heritage from everyone in the country. Continue reading
Some worrying news: the recent theft of a medieval stone font from the ruins of Rathmore Church, Co. Meath. The fifteenth century font (RMP ME024-017004-) is elaborately carved and takes the form of an octagonal shaft, c.2ft high, with figurative panels on each surface. It seems to have gone missing from Rathmore Church between April 16th and May 10th.
There has been a spate of thefts of medieval artefacts from Irish churches in recent times, but this marks an alarming new direction. Previous thefts involved metal artefacts/reliquaries and were presumably targeted for their metal content value; a rising trend across many parts of Europe given the ongoing economic stagnation and sharp increase in metal prices. The Rathmore theft is different. Being of stone, it does not carry an underlying ‘scrap’ value; and so presumably it has been deliberately targeted for other reasons (artistic, religious, financial). Continue reading
A long-awaited and very exciting resource: the new online database ‘Ogham in 3D’ from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is coming shortly. Its already online with a small selection (50+) of individual stones. The site is going to offer 3D scans of Irish Ogham stones, alongside their associated historical, etymological and archaeological data; ‘bringing all of the available information together in a single searchable archive’.
In other words, a GOLDMINE for researchers. Really. You have no idea how disparate a lot of this information has previously been.
Ogham stones are crucial to understanding the development of Early Irish Christianity. Not only are the inscriptions the earliest recorded efforts at replicating the aural sounds of primitive Irish; but as formulaic monumental inscriptions involving named ancestral figures, they are quite possibly the earliest archaeological evidence for Insular Irish Christianity itself. Continue reading
(Continued from Part 1)
My last post examined a recent reference to early medieval hagiographical material by modern ecclesiastical figures. Divorced from its original setting and ecclesiastical milieu, the episode in question ended up losing much of its intended meaning by being ‘lost in translation’ on many levels. A particular irony was that, in attempting to emphasize the historical nature of a recent ordination, the uncritical use of hagiography as ‘history’ inadvertently served to underplay the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.
So what we can say or surmise from the seventh century reference to Fuerty by Tírechán? Continue reading