Professor Michael Herity, our instructor for the week, until recently taught Archaeology at University College, Dublin, where he was Dean of Celtic Studies. A specialist in the Irish Stone Age and its European background, he has also studied in great depth Celtic Royal sites and the history and features of Irish hermitages and monasteries. He was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1996, and brought to our class a breadth and depth of knowledge. Each day we visited several sites and held an outdoor classroom at each one. Though he could have filled us with facts, Professor Herity chose instead to use the “Socratic” method of teaching. On the first day he said “ I could tell you the historical and archaeological facts about this place, and you would leave here and forget everything I told you. Using the Socratic method, where you will develop your powers of observation, critical thinking and analysis, you will come to know the facts and will hopefully remember them forever”. He asked question after question, sometimes giving hints, but really asked us to be keen observers of a site and its characteristics. The first afternoon was a true test of patience, and a good lesson in developing our skills. We were at Doon Point, which seemed at first to be only a grassy field dotted with sheep droppings, on a point of land surrounded by sheer cliffs down to the Atlantic. After several hours of observation, talk, measurements, debate, questioning, and hypothesizing, we were able to conclude that this was the site of an ancient promontory fort, and each of us could point out the features of the site and explain them in detail. My favorite quote of the Professor’s, “Do you want to re-think that?”, served well throughout the week, as did our developing skills as we looked at court and portal tombs, standing stones, raths and cashels.
Professor Herity was also accompanied by David McGuinness, an archaeologist from “UCD” also, who brought to the class his unique, passionately scientific slant on things. His appreciation and love of his field was contagious, and he added a liveliness to the discussion without ever revealing too much information early on. The two of us had several good conversations about the scientific versus spiritual approach to the sites. Professor Francis Byrne, and expert on the Annals of the Four Masters, conducted a lecture and seminar mid-week. The Annals are the earliest written record of Irish history, documenting geological and celestial events as well as the actual history of the people. Again, I was struck by the dedication and devotion this Professor had toward his area of study. Later in the week we were joined by Doctor Dorothy Kelly, and expert on the Book of Kells, and a professor at University College, Dublin. She provided evening lectures and took us on guided tours of the Christian influences on the art of the Glen, with explanations of the cross slabs of the “turas” or stations that pilgrims visit to this day.
It was interesting to compare my earlier experiences approaching these sites with a “spiritual” awareness with this very scientific approach. I learned valuable things from both experiences, and both sides are necessary, I think, to reaching a full understanding and “feeling” for the places. The magic and mystery lends a fullness and wholeness to each site that I appreciated more as we made our way through the week.