Navigatio Hiberionacum: A Modern Day Immram in Ireland

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I have taken my little talent – a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were – out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, (a sea) on which so far no boat has ventured…

Muirchú, Prologus, Life of Patrick, (7thC)

There’s something deliciously ‘early medieval’ about rowing wooden boats. No matter how much modern gear you happen to pack inside, there’s nothing ‘modern’ about the act of rowing itself. Of propelling a craft through the water by sheer power of human strength alone. Of pushing backwards from your legs a sweeping oar and seeing it catch and glide through the water, feeling a little surge forward in tandem with the others. Of riding into and cresting waves on the open sea. Of slinking through flat rivers. Of sitting in the bow, bobbing up and down, face forward to the horizon with hands on each side, feeling the wood hum and vibrate.

Wooden boats are most alive when they are moving. No really. You can hear them breathing, whalelike, an excited gurgling sound underneath, like a cistern, as water bubbles flow down the hull in transit. You can literally feel its synchronized heartbeat between the reach and return of the oars twisting and sliding between two thole pins – hard and soft wooden arteries – producing a dull ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’. A leathery wooden pulse pumping through the boat. The work of human hands.

It can, at times, get strangely hypnotic. Especially when on the board chatter had died down and people have settled into a good rhythm. The cox has little need to correct or instruct and the only thing left – is the open sea, the repetitive wooden heartbeat and ones own thoughts. My archaeo-imagination being what it is, I am usually transported back in time, to early medieval Ireland – not that hard when one is traversing the eastern Irish coastline in a clinker built craft, passing entire counties and landmarks once viewed in the same manner by seafarers from the north and still enshrined – despite anglicization – with Old Norse placenames.

Or perhaps, even further back, to Sixth and Seventh Century Ireland, when little boats and big seas occupied Early Christian literary imaginations as well as daily realities. Immrama. Navigatio. Peregrinatio. Exiles for God, adrift in the sea, seeking a retreat from the world. Romantic figures like Columba. Adómnan. Brendan. Island hermitages like Iona. Lindisfarne. Inishbofin.

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

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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

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All Quiet on the Western Front: An Archaeology of Inishark, Co. Galway

Afer a few days on a deserted western Island, it usually goes a bit wickerman...

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.

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St. Attracta’s Well: A Postcard From Early Medieval Ireland

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Wakeman’s 1895 sketch of St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher (Copyright Sligo County Library)

Seeing as today the feast day of a certain Irish St. Attracta, here’s a little something about her from Tírechán’s Collectanea which contains the earliest contemporary reference to her cult, a church site dedicated to her and a particular piece of geological info that amazingly still exists today…

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Prancing at Lughnasa? St Marcan’s Lough, Mayo

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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.

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Blood from a Stone: some half drawn thoughts on Bullauns

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‘Blood from a stone’ (Image: Author)

A while back, I was sniffing around the site of an old medieval parish church in Kilnamanagh, Co. Roscommon (not much remains) when I caught sight of an old stone ‘stoup’, or font, placed into the surrounding graveyard wall. It’s not medieval, probably 18/19th cent, but it nevertheless reminded me of medieval bullaun stones; hemispherical cup-shaped depressions hollowed out of rocks and very much associated with medieval ecclesiastical sites and pilgrim routes.

The crucifix that had been placed inside was plastic and coated with metallic paint, probably a fragment from a temporary grave marker. Being there a while, the metal had obviously undergone some sort of rust/oxidation chemical process. As a result, the water within had turned a wonderful blood-red colour, resulting in a very evocative image.     Continue reading

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

Sophia1The 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.

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