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.
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.
With this fantastic tool, it is now possible to search, select, exclude, define, zoom down, separate and review details of 8288 radiocarbon and 313 dendro dates from Ireland within a geographical framework. Yes, you heard correctly. 8288. 313. Such data carries great potential for anyone interested in Irish archaeology – from professionals and researchers to students and interested members of the public – enabling both a macro and micro (radiocarbon) snapshot of the island. And its ongoing.
As a brief example, I was just playing around with it a few minutes ago and I zoomed down to an area for which I would have presumed to be fairly familiar with known archaeological information. There I found a ref to an old burial, something I had certainly read about years ago, but which had only recently come back with a C14 date. The horizon? Right slap bang in the middle of a period I’m most interested in. Score.
My congratulations and deep deep thanks to Robert and his many helpers and partners in crime who helped produce this fantastic new resource. I have a feeling it will fast become a staple for professionals, post graduates and researchers alike, among many others. Radio, what’s new? Go use it. Rinse. Repeat.
View from Skellig Michael – Image: regienbb / flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
‘Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations’.
A few days ago saw the official launch of what can only be described as the archaeo-bible for the next generation (and beyond) for scholars of Early Medieval Ireland. Essentially, it contains the most up to date survey, run-down and compilation of everything we thought we knew, everything we have learned, and everything we think we now know, arising from archaeological excavations (1930 to the present). This is the latest offering from the Early Medieval Archaeology Project and is the product of several years of dedicated work and research.
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.
Here’s a little something for May 1st. Blame all the ‘celtic’ bealtaine stuff that is flying around the net today.
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 1.0. Bealtaine vanilla.