Bel(l)taine, aka May Day, aka the beginning of summer. Popularly held by many to be ‘Celtic’ and ‘Pagan’ and a whole lot of other stuff that it wasn’t and isn’t. Its earliest historical attestation comes from Early Medieval Ireland and up to quite recently, long held folklore traditions and customs continued in several parts of the country (as I write, the smell of smoke is drifting in the window from a nearby May Day bonfire).
The most common components of such traditions and associated folklore (and the ones which appear in the earliest references) involve fire, animal welfare/protection (especially cattle) in the hope of good yields to come – all hinting at the seasonal attributes and patterns involved in medieval economies involving transhumance. There are of course many other traditions, but these are later manifestations in subsequent centuries. For the moment, I will stick with the basic version: Vanilla Bealtaine 1.0.
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”
A Long Tail – Image: Rafael Peñaloza/Flickr Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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.
‘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).
One of many interesting facets of Patrician history and hagiography is the role that the saint has played in the creation and maintenance of both religious and cultural identities throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. Due to the enigmatic nature of his writings and the wholesale absence of ‘fixed’ historical & geographical points within them; Patrick has always been seen as an everyman figure for anyone who wishes to claim him.
Various religious identities in Ireland and Scotland have, at one stage or another, claimed legitimacy and descent from a church allegedly founded by him (Some still do!). Irish emigration in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries used him as a vehicle for the expression of both ethnic and martial identity abroad. Irish independence in the twentieth century and more recently, increasing devolution within the United Kingdom has resulted in even more cultural avenues that occasionally seek to reach out and connect with him across the centuries.
Allowing for over-simplification, its easy to see why: Patrick was a (fifth century) Briton, most likely from an area bordering modern-day Scotland; who grew up speaking a form of early Welsh (Brythonic); who then spent considerable time in Ireland, speaking Irish, and writing to fellow Christians elsewhere in Latin. To any modern-day audiences seeking to view him in such a light; the historical Patrick offers up the very epitome of an early medieval multicultural mongrel. 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 →