As I read book after book about the 5-7,000 year old ritual monuments, built from massive stones with capstones weighing 25-100 tons, and the pottery that has been found inside these places, I knew I wanted to see them for myself. I wanted to trace with my own hand the carvings made by these earliest of artists, and study the designs made on the pottery they created. I planned a week trip during February, during which I met with Sinead McCartan, an archaeologist at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. For an entire day, I held, studied and photographed 5,000 years of Irish pottery, made from the Stone Age through the Iron Age. Many pieces had been burial urns, holding cremated remains, and often would still have pieces of ornamentation within, such as a carved bone pin or clasp. Afterward, I traveled throughout several parts of Ireland visiting ancient megalithic sites, such as Newgrange, Loughcrew and Carrowkeel, each one a home to intricate rock art and impressive stone architecture. While on this trip, I hired a guide by the name of Michael. He is an extremely knowledgeable man who is also a Druid, so in addition to an abundance of site visits and accompanying legends, he also introduced a specifically spiritual point of view about the sites and the people who inhabited them. The Celts held a belief in “anima loci”- the “spirit of the place”- and everywhere in Ireland this is reflected. It is seen in the naming of wells and places, of assigning gods and goddesses and stories to specific sites, and this sense of acknowledging the spirit of a place is deeply respected. A recent story in County Clare involved a new highway being built, which would have required a “fairy tree” to be cut down. Local people were reminded by the seanachie (A wise storykeeper) of the taboo involved, and the highway was rearranged to go around the sacred site. The respect and acknowledgment of the spirits of a place are still very evident in everyday practice, whether Druid or not. I began to see that a place can be experienced on so many levels and in layers:
-through the intellectual knowledge a person had gained of history, mythology, art, folklore
-through the emotional weight of the stories: the passionate love, brutal killing and maiming,
Whirlpools of waters swallowing up a maiden, or fierce revenge or bravery
-through the spiritual memory of a past occurrence, or the magic that may have happened here
and the acknowledgment of the ways humans have experienced a place on a spiritual level
-through the physical, in how a place exists in time now and has been altered by humans over time
The interest sparked by the trip and new insights led me to find an Archaeology class being offered in Gleancholmcille, County Donegal, called “5,000 years in Stone”. I felt such gratitude to the University for making the Travel Grant available for this type of research. I began to focus my reading prior to the trip on the area we would be studying, and looked into writing about standing stones and megalithic culture. I knew from the itinerary that we would be moving forward in history also, studying the effects of Christianity on the art of the area, and I soon realized that only a “wholistic” approach would really give true understanding. In other words, to understand the music and art, one must know the history and politics, the geography, poetry and language, as all are interwoven and part of the whole picture, and learning one aspect alone leads to an isolated piece. My reading took in novels about Irish life and history, folk traditions and the “old ways”, and Celtic art and ornamentation. I read the scientific approaches to archeological sites and treasures, and also the writers who are exploring alternative views such as archaeoastronomy and Celtic cosmology. My library grew larger, and larger!
In August, I flew into Dublin and stayed in Malahide, a coastal town about 20 miles from the city. Expansive beaches and tidal watching were the perfect way to adjust to the time change and travel stress. Once settled in, I took to walking to Malahide Village, and toured the castle of the Talbott’s there, which was beautifully kept up and authentic, as people have inhabited it through this century. It has an impressive great hall where banquets are frequently held. A balcony above the dining area holds musicians and entertainers during the meal. A favorite part of the castle tour was seeing the private chambers of the royalty, where one could get a close look at the clothing, toiletries and more personal items, such as a travel case with razor, smelling salts, and bottles of strange looking potions and mixtures. A mannequin in an authentic ermine collared robe, as if the prince were preparing for a royal event, brought the scene to life. I also made a stop at the local pottery shop, and talked clay with the owner. Ireland is becoming rich in potters, as there is a national program for training new people each year, and there could be problems arising in supply and demand in the near future.
The next morning it was an early bus ride into “An Lar”, the City Center. My first stop was Trinity College. Founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1592 on a site confiscated from the Priory of All Hallows, it was the domain of the Protestant Church for centuries. A free education was offered to Catholics provided they converted to the Protestant faith. Today more than 70% of the students are Catholic, so times have changed dramatically. Distinguished alumni of Trinity include Jonathan Swift, Thomas Moore, George Berkelely (who gave his name to the California city), Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, and Samuel Beckett. The grounds cover 40 acres in the heart of Dublin, and it is here that one can view the famous Book of Kells. It is housed in the Trinity College Library, below the Old Library, which in itself is a sight beyond belief. The room is 213 feet long and 42 feet wide, and holds about 200,000 of the 3 million volumes belonging to the University, all within small alcoves off the main hall, which is truly magnificent with its vaulted ceiling. Most of the volumes were huge by our standards- some 11/2 to 2 feet tall, and all bound in leather in the old process of bookbinding. As I wandered through, it struck me that the human urge to “record” is so strong…many of these volumes were on display, going far back into the past, with recording of maps and flowers and cures and knowledge of all types. The sense of our forbears was very present and real in the Old Library, and very humbling. Below the Library is the Book of Kells exhibit. A beautifully presented pathway leads through rooms explaining the Book and its history, with videotaped documentation of the various processes used by the monks as they created the book. One tape showed the process of hands cracking eggs, mixing pigments and then painting in the calligraphy and artwork. Another presented ink-making and the actual printing of the gospels with a quill pen, and the sound of the quill on the prepared cowhide seemed to transport you to another time and place. The bookbinding videotape used all of the traditional devices the monks would have used and it was fascinating to appreciate the craftsmanship as well as the beauty of the finished product of a white leather cover. After making way through the exhibit, as if entering a church or sacred space, one is led into a darkened room, where in the middle stands an illuminated glass case. In this is the Book of Kells, generally considered the most striking manuscript ever produced in the Anglo-Saxon world. The 680 page book of gospels was rebound into four volumes in 1953, two of which are displayed at one time, so only four pages are seen. I was amazed-to tears- at the beauty and intricacy of the designs and the endeavor itself and what it must have involved in dedication and perseverance. It truly is a masterpiece.
I next visited the National Museum, where artifacts from 6,000 BC to the present are housed. It was awe-inspiring to be a few feet away from the treasures I had only read about. St. Patrick’s Bell, the oldest surviving example of Irish metalwork (5th century), sits near a multitude of other intricately decorated treasures such as the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch and bejewelled shrines to Brigid and others. One of my favorite pieces is a gold boat, complete with tiny oars and a mast, that was found with several other gold objects in a field, which has led to speculation that this was an offering of some kind. The museum has an exhibit of the Viking invasion and the mark it left upon Irish culture, which was full of interesting information and helped make sense of the changes and developments that occurred as adaptations were made to changed circumstances. For example, the Vikings introduced to Ireland the method of using weights and measures, which changed economics forever there. A replica of a longship and an extensive exhibit of artifacts found around the Dublin settlement was very enlightening, and I must say that it helped me see the Vikings in a kinder light than I had previously!
The following day I spent traveling to Gleancholmcille, the site of Oideas Gael, the school sponsoring the Archaeology class. Located in the most northern county of the Republic of Ireland, it involved two bus trips and long hours, but the scenery was a worthwhile diversion. Upon arriving in “The Glen” I was delighted with the sheer physical beauty of the place. The village is located in a valley between huge mountains, so north and south hold gorgeous views of mountain peaks. On the west end of the valley is the Atlantic Ocean, and a long stretch of beach the Irish call a “strand”, with warm enough water for swimming, which I did immediately. Oideas Gael is a small school, but full of people, classes and activity. There was a fiddler’s workshop congruent with our class, and all week the sweet sounds and lively tunes could be heard throughout the village. Evenings in the pub would find 25 or 30 fiddlers in a “session” of fast-paced music, with a solo ballad singer lending some variety now and then. The national radio station was there to record the sessions and workshops all week, as the quality and talent brought together is remarkable. The village is in the heart of the “Gaeltacht”, an Irish speaking area where people are fluent in the old language and it is spoken everywhere. As with our own Native American culture, the old language and culture was in danger of being obliterated, and nearly was, but a dedicated movement to revive the language has taken hold and is gaining strength.
The Folk Village was my first stop, as it was right next door to my residence for the week, which I shared with several others from the class. I took an interesting tour of Father McDyer’s restored Irish village, the local priest who had the idea to create this place to help a poor economy. Three small cottages replicate rural life in the 1720’s, 1820’s and 1920’s, and the cottages are surrounded by other interesting restorations, such as a sweat house, used just like a sauna, and a “hedge school”, where Irish children met with a teacher in hiding to carry on knowledge, language and teachings during penal times imposed by the English. The cottages were full of artifacts and stories, providing a glimpse, again, of how political and religious history affects everything- such as glass at first being a luxury, then with the English invasion, the Irish were taxed on number of windows in a home- so that houses were built to allow light with the least amount of opening- narrow slits that could be covered with a goatskin. At times a horse placenta was used as a window covering, with an “informant” saying “No bayonet would go through it!”, though visually it is quite a thing to ponder. Most of the interior light came through the doorway, with the traditional “half-door”, where the lower half could keep out animals and the upper half stay open, making a convenient arm rest for conversation or contemplation. Estyn Evans says in his book IRISH FOLK WAYS, relates a countryman describing it thus: “A man standing in the open door would be wasting time, but leaning on the half door he is just passing time”. Another story told us on the tour concerned a huge metal cauldron in the courtyard. When the Irish had their land confiscated by the English, and an English landlord took charge, the former landowners were forced to work for the landlord. With less land to farm, times were lean, and people were starving. The landlord would have the cauldron filled with a meager, watery soup, and invite his Irish tenants to come with their bowls on one condition: they had to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism. “He took the soup” came to identify those who had converted. The Folk Village provided a good basic overview of more recent Irish history, and the Archaeology class took us back in time quite a bit further. It began that afternoon.