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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Review: Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy

Columba Life & Legacy

Cover: Shaun Gallagher / The Columba Press

Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5.  7 + 224 pp.

Introduction

There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.

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No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 3]

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Image: Tatum/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(Continued from Part 2…)

Straight from the Horses Mouth

Ultimately, what comes across from a (relatively!) brief survey of the range of archaeological, historical and etymological material are the following commonalities:

  • Widespread distribution of archaeological evidence for horse activity, iconography and ritual associated with high status figures and burials in late prehistoric Europe.
  • Widespread attestation of horse motifs, symbolism and metaphor associated with sacral and ancestral kingship/inauguration in late antiquity/early medieval Europe.
  • Widespread ecclesiastical condemnation of horseflesh and equine attributes in later medieval literature
  • Widespread ecclesiastical adaptation and transformation of horse/kingship motifs & traditions in sources pertaining to secular royal authority and legitimacy.

In terms of depicted pre-christian ritual associated with royal inauguration, certain motifs and cultural components appear frequently:

  • Outdoor assembly/meeting/burial locations
  • Public performance & display; power, authority, legitimacy
  • Horse/King sacral & symbolic union; association, attributes, metaphor
  • Horse sacrifice & consumption
  • Communal feasting and drinking
  • Large cauldrons/containers/receptacles to facilitate communal participation
  • Reiteration and renewal of royal/tribal prosperity and fortune

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