Early Medieval Ireland via The Modern Irish Mammy

Ireland-stamp-1922-sword-of-light-6p.jpg

Image: Ireland definitive 6p postage stamp showing An Claidheamh Soluis / Irish government (Public Domain)

Its funny how certain smells, music, or even the utterances of certain words or phrases that one hasn’t experienced in years can suddenly stir half-forgotten memories, and simultaneously transport oneself back in time in an instant. I recently had occasion for doing exactly that, upon seeing the following tweet concerning an old County Carlow expression as recorded in the Irish National Folklore Collection …

Staring at my smartphone in the 21st Century, I could almost hear again the exasperated voice of my own long passed grandmother (herself a Carlow woman, and purveyor of many bastardized, corrupted Irish-English sayings) uttering the same towards various grandchildren – myself included – who were up to no good and acting the maggot in another room.

“Don’t make me have to get up off my seat and come in there again, or ‘I’ll mallafooster ye!”

And then on to my own mother, who had obviously picked up the same expressions and country terms growing up. A sudden flashback to a dark autumnal evening coming up to Halloween. My mother coming home with the ‘messages’ (shopping). The clothes line in the back garden, still full of the days washing, getting damp in the early night air. Her grumbling at the lack of ‘cop on’ of her delinquent children and rushing out to take them in as soon as possible.  A nine year old me, thinking this was a perfect time to play a trick. Sneaking around the shed, and jumping out at her from behind. Snarling like a monster. Her, in absolute fright, spinning around in automatic defense mode, fist flailing without a second thought. Me, punched in the face, gob-smacked, spread-eagled flat on the ground in seconds.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t EVER. DO that. AGAIN”, she said, already walking back into the kitchen for a bag of frozen peas. “Or I’ll really mallavogue ye!”

If this sounds like the start of a dreadful Irish childhood misery litt biography, then, my apologies. Its certainly not meant to. Nor is it meant to denigrate those who weren’t as lucky as I was. I can look back in humour at the linguistics, precisely because (accidental shiner aside) there wasn’t a hand laid on me growing up. But that certainly didn’t stop me from experiencing what many Irish people will attest to: the dramatic, cartoonish, deliberately-animated, blood-spattered expressions of medieval-esque ultra violence uttered by that most fearful of creatures which haunted an Irish youth:

An Angry Irish Mammy. With a Wooden Spoon.

Continue reading

Advertisements

A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

wp-1476715864681.jpg

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?

Continue reading

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

3867536348_bf3423c028_b

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

Continue reading

Through the Grass, Darkly: Irish Folk Horror

img_20161026_104040_processed

Image: Author

Folklore has a profound and unsettling impact on the imaginative perception of landscape, identity, time and the past. Folk memory is often manifested as an intrusive and violent breach from an older repressed, ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ state that transgresses the development of cultural order.

Extract: Fiend in the Furrows Blog

Feral Fields

Despite being an early medievalist and a big film fan, I have never had much interest in horror/fantasy genres in general. I prefer ‘the real stuff’ – far more terrifying. But folk horror is different. Its something that has always been loitering in the shadows of my peripheral vision – as a child, as an adult, as a consumer of culture, as an archaeologist & historian – despite only being consciously labelled as such in my head in the last few years.

I grew up in 1980s Ireland – bleak and cloudy in more ways than one – reading and watching stuff which is now considered classic staples of the genre.  New housing estate on the edge of urban sprawl. Invasive concrete arteries slowly spreading into moody rural hinterlands. Feral fields and hedgerows only a short bike ride away.

I raided wood pallets from industrial factories for Halloween bonfires one day – picked blackberries, collected frog spawn and built tree houses the next. Cycled along unfinished motorways past castle ruins and burial mounds. Explored ‘haunted’ country lanes in twilight, peopling stumps, bumps and ditches with youthful abandon.  It was one big halfway house of a childhood. Halfway between then and now, here and there. Through the grass, darkly. Half afraid to put away childish things.

Continue reading

‘Tlachta Be The Day’: Excavations at Tlachta, Co. Meath

Aerial View: Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Co. Meath (Bing Maps)

Here’s one to watch: today marks the beginning of a three week archaeological exploration of the late prehistoric multivallate enclosure site at Tlachta/Hill of Ward, Athboy, Co. Meath. The project is led by Dr. Steve Davis of UCD School of Archaeology and Cathy Moore (in addition to a cast of ‘thousands’) and is funded by the Royal Irish Academy, Meath Co. Council, the OPW and the Heritage Council. Steve has been conducting geophysical and computer aerial surveys of the site in recent years and the current project is the result of some very exciting and tantalizing indications arising from same.

Tlachta, considered to be an extremely high status ceremonial enclosure site, is mysterious in terms of its original function and purpose. It loomed large in the medieval political scene and plays a recurring role in myth, legend and dindsenchas (Place Name Lore) – including a dubious, but nevertheless intriguing association with ‘druids’ and Halloween (Samhain). These archaeological investigations are an historic first for the site and hold the prospect of finally answering some of the many questions we have concerning its origin, activity and probable augmentation over time.

Continue reading

‘Out of the Mouths of Babes’: An Archaeology of the National Folklore Collection

Schoolchildren, Waterford, 1932.

Image: National Library of Ireland / Flickr Commons (NLI Ref: P_WP_3910)

For the day that’s in it, I bring glorious tidings of a recently unveiled fantastic new historical & archaeological resource, wrapped up with a festive angle for good measure. Dúchas.ie is a new website of an incredible project (work in progress) which holds the long-awaited & venerable task of digitizing the National Folklore Collection of Ireland – ‘one of the largest folklore collections in the world’ – and ultimately making it available online for all. In the last two weeks, it has released its first fruits, 80% (c. 64,000 individual items) of handwritten folklore material from four counties in the Schools’ Folklore Collection (Dublin, Donegal, Mayo and Waterford) all beautifully digitized, readable, and zoomable on a clean, clear interface.

The Irish Folklore Collection is, quite simply, one of the nations greatest modern cultural treasures:

Continue reading

Prancing at Lughnasa? St Marcan’s Lough, Mayo

5436708926_a9f329bf64_z

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.

Continue reading

Pre-Christian Rock and Roll: St. Patrick’s Chair, Boheh, Co. Mayo

The townland of Boheh, Co. Mayo contains one of my favourite examples of outdoor prehistoric rock art in Ireland. Along a narrow side road, hidden away behind derelict housing and high hedgerows, lies a large natural outcrop of rock flecked with quartz strains, known as ‘St. Patrick’s Chair’. Upon its surface (spread out over 4 m2 ) over 250 individual petroglyphs are carved. They take the form of isolated ‘cup’, ‘cup and rings’ and ‘keyhole’ motifs (archaeological designations); and altogether form quite an impressive sight when viewed in the right seasonal and lighting conditions.

Both April 18th and August 24th are two such occasions.

Should you ever chance to find yourself at the site on either the above dates (weather permitting) you may be treated to the prehistoric equivalent of a ‘light show’. Standing at Boheh Rock/St. Patrick’s Chair on the dates above, looking west, the sun appears to set right on the peak of Croagh Patrick itself. Not only that, but it then subsequently appears, to an observer standing at Boheh ‘rock’, that the sun ‘rolls’ down the north side of the conical peak itself.

Continue reading