Sagas & Scéals: The Hiberno-Norse of Waterford.
A young woman ambles down a dark and narrow laneway, followed by a shaggy grey dog. She is twenty, perhaps twenty-one, and wears a woollen smock fastened over a flaxen dress with iron pins. She walks out into the sun and into a sprawling market square. The ground beneath her has been beaten into mud by the crowd. The sky is dark and grey, brewing rain, but the threat of bad weather doesn't deter her, or indeed the other inhabitants of this city.
There are great canvas tents all along the square with wide, open doorways, sheltering salt-beaten traders as they sell fur, tooled leather, fruit, honey, vegetables, wax, jewellery.
Góðan morgin*,” the girl calls to the old ostman selling bright green apples, waving, and he waves back. When he lifts his arm, a pendant catches the sunlight and glints around his neck; Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, in beaten, polished metal.
As they push through the throng, her dog goes to sniff at a stall where dried fish is being sold. He edges his head up to the wooden poles that the fish is hung from, daring to lick the side of a salted herring. The girl scolds him and pulls him away by the collar, and then apologises to the irate fisherwoman behind the stall: “Tá brón orm*.”
The market square is bustling with people hailing from both west and east of the North Sea. There are native Irish tentatively mingling with incoming Scandinavians, towns and cities filling up with ostmen, or ‘men from the east’. The girl calls her dog and they walk onwards, in through the hum of the crowd and the market, and into this new city built on the winter fjord.
She is part of a new and fast-growing cultural group appearing within Scandinavian settlements in Ireland. Her mother is an Irish freedwoman from the hills of the Déise; her father is an ostman from across the sea in Lochlann, or Norway. She is a Norse-Gael – perhaps better known as Hiberno-Norse – and thousands just like her populated the early medieval Viking towns of Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin.
Who were the Hiberno-Norse, and what impact did they have on the cultural, social, and archaeological history of Ireland?
According to the Annals of Ulster, Ireland was first introduced to these Scandinavian newcomers – more widely known as Vikings – in 795 A.D. A horde of Norwegian raiders made landfall at Rathlin Island off the coast of County Antrim, and summarily laid waste to the contemporaneous church there. The buildings were burnt to the ground and the church was pillaged for commodities like silver, slaves, and livestock. In the same year, the monks on Lambay Island in Dublin suffered a similar fate.
Being careful not to sanitise the Viking presence here too much – it’s always important to keep their violent appearance on our island in mind– one should take into account the very real and nonviolent impact that these newcomers had on the Irish once they ceased their raids and began to properly settle. There were, undoubtedly, Norse-Irish relationships, and subsequent marriages.
The Hiberno-Norse were the product of these relationships; people of mixed Irish and Norse ancestry. The group emerged in Ireland around the 9th century A.D., after the aforementioned Norse groups found their way down the Irish coast after settling in Scotland and the Isle of Man. Children of Norse and Irish parents then went on to grow up in a mixed-culture household and, more importantly, a mixed-culture society. Many were likely bilingual, speaking both Old Norse and Irish, and would have been exposed to the customs and stories of both parents’ individual cultures. It is also more likely that earlier Hiberno-Norse people had fathers from Scandinavia and mothers from Ireland, given that the majority of early Norse arrivals to Ireland were men.
This culture also gave rise to a class of in-demand mercenaries hailing from Norse-Gael clans – the gallowglass, from the Irish gallóglaigh, meaning foreign warriors.
In addition to this, the distinctive Hiberno-Norse art style began to emerge in jewellery and art, seen today in much of the archaeological finds associated with the culture, which produced fantastic craftspeople. An excellent example of this fine craftsmanship is Waterford’s kite brooch, a silver Hiberno-Norse brooch found during the excavation of the Waterford City Square Shopping Centre. The brooch itself dates back to around 1100 A.D., and is decorated with highly intricate gold filigree and amethyst-coloured glass gems.
Over time, the Hiberno-Norse people were Gaelicised to the point that their distinct culture disappeared. However, their imprint on Irish history was long-lasting, and endures today. For example, there are many areas in Ireland that still hold their Norse-Irish placenames.
– Waterford – from the Old Norse Veðrafjǫrðr; ‘winter port/port of the rams’
– Wexford – from the Old Norse Veisafjǫrðr; ‘fjord/inlet of the mud flats’
– Oxmantown, Co. Dublin – from the Old Norse Austmanna-tún; ‘Ostmantown’
– Ballygunner, Co. Waterford – from the Scandinavian name Gunnarr and the Irish baile (town); ‘the town of Gunnarr’
Additionally, there are several surnames present in the current Irish population that have Hiberno-Norse origins.
– McAuley – from the Irish Mac Amlaibh; ‘son of Amlaibh’, a Gaelicised version of Olaf.
– McAskill – from the Irish Mac Asgaill; ‘son of Asgall’, a Scandinavian given name.
– Macotter – from the Irish Mac Ottar; ‘son of Ottir’, a Scandinavian given name.
This autumn, the Office of Public Works will bring this rich culture to life by hosting a Halloween storytelling event like no other at Reginald’s Tower, Waterford; the vast Anglo-Norman successor to a Norse-built wooden watchtower constructed soon after the founding of Waterford in 914 A.D.
Sagas & Scéals is a storytelling event that will introduce visitors to Raghnailt, a Hiberno-Norse woman – complete with fully authentic costume – who will bring visitors on a storytelling adventure throughout the building. Reginald’s Tower will embrace the spookiest of seasons with pumpkins and skeletons galore, adding a ghostly ambience to the 12th-century stronghold.
Raghnailt is decidedly bilingual; she speaks both her maternal Irish and paternal Old Norse. As a child, she’ll inform visitors, her parents shared with her a myriad of stories and legends from their respective homelands, which she will then go on to recount throughout the event.
These tales include the story of Fenrir, the monstrous chained wolf of Norse mythology who, upon the advent of Ragnarok – the Old Norse doomsday – will break free from his binds and devour the sun; the medieval account of the werewolves of Osraige, the old Irish kingdom that lay in modern-day Kilkenny; the story of the horse-eared king Labraidh Loingseach; the terror of the infamous banshee; the Waterford vampire, the Dearg Dú; and many more.
The event will be aimed at giving a living personality to these distinctive people – not wholly Viking or wholly Irish, but something else entirely – and bringing to life some lesser-known myths of the Waterford area and beyond at the same time.
Details of the event and other related events can be found on the Reginald’s Tower social media pages closer to the time. Numbers limited – booking essential. Suitable for children 8+ years and above.
*Góðan morgin = Old Norse for good morning. Phonetic: goth-an mor-gin
*Tá brón orm = Irish for I’m sorry / my apologies. Phonetic: taw brone urm
Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them….
Cormac’s Chapel remains somewhat an enigma to scholars. Its mismatched blind-arcades, unfinished floral patterns, and off-centre chancel arch have kept historians occupied for decades arguing over the minutiae of the Chapel’s design. However, one of its most overlooked features, and one of its most interesting, is the collection of strange beasts carved throughout the Chapel. Inside and out, and dotted throughout the nave and the chancel are a collection of carvings showing strange creatures. These are commonly known as grotesques or chimeras. They are generally mythical beasts, or hybrid creatures showing animal and sometimes human features. These creatures can be found all across Europe and were generally carved on religious buildings between the 12th and 17th centuries, and protrude from the walls to make sure they stand out. They are generally associated with the rise of Gothic architecture in the later 12th century, so the grotesques found in Cormac’s Chapel represent an early example as the Chapel was built in the early 12th century between 1127 and 1134. Grotesques grew out of the tradition of the gargoyle which are similar in nature, often displaying fantastical creatures, but always around the termination of a waterspout. Cormac’s Chapel does, in fact, have one gargoyle on its outer wall, but the rest of the carvings are grotesques.
Inside the nave of the Chapel, several strange creatures can be seen including a horned lion, possibly a bat-like creature, and also a dragon-type creature with a human head clasped between its teeth. The damaged face of a bug-eyed grotesque can still be seen in the chancel arch. Inside the chancel, above the remains of the rare fresco paintings are other creatures reminiscent of horses baring their teeth, sitting next to more life-like human faces. Even some of the human faces that adorn the capital stones high up in the nave have a touch of the macabre as they pull faces and stick their tongues out.
Outside, several grotesques adorn both the north and south walls, although these are so eroded by weather and time that their original form is now lost to us. However, the strange beasts are not confined to just grotesques and capital stones. Both north and south portals have tympana with carved scenes. The much eroded south tympanum displays the tentatively identified ox of St. Luke, while the north tympanum shows the lion of St. Mark. However, neither of these are mythical or hybrid creatures. It is the figure to the right of the lion that is of interest as it depicts a centaur – a figure from Greek mythology that was half-man, half-horse. It can only be speculated if the tympanum on the south portal once showed such a figure as well.
There is no consensus on what the meaning of these grotesque carvings are. Some consider them to be merely decoration, expressing the imagination and whimsy of the period in which they were carved. Others have ascribed more religious connotations to them, arguing that as the church wanted sculptors to be preachers in stone, that these carvings were meant to teach people about sin and warning them not to be blasphemous. Another interpretation is that they were carved to ward away evil spirits from the buildings, and cast a watchful eye over the people. The truth may be somewhere in the middle. Whatever their intended meaning they still cast a watchful eye over Cormac’s Chapel today.
Cahir Castle 50 Years Open to the Public.
In 1971, Cahir Castle opened its doors to the visiting public for the first time after a lengthy period of conservation and restoration by the OPW. Since then hundreds of thousands of visitors, both from the island of Ireland and around the world have walked its cobble-stoned paths and marvelled at its centuries old architecture, while being regaled with the rich history of the castle by our dedicated team of tour guides.
Why are so many people still being drawn to this picturesque corner of Tipperary, even during these current tumultuous times? Is it just the fact that Cahir Castle that has stood overlooking the river Suir for over 800 years and is widely considered as one of the finest examples of a Norman built castle in Ireland? Could it be the castle’s wonderful state of preservation or its role as a film set for so many Hollywood blockbusters over the last 50 years? Our visitors can retrace the footsteps of movie stars such as Richard Burton, Helen Mirren, Ryan O’Neil, Liam Neeson and Matt Damon. Or, finally, could it be the visitor friendly atmosphere of the town, with its picturesque appearance and plethora of restaurants and gift shops or, perhaps in truth it is all of the above and so much more.
The story of Cahir predates the castle. The native Irish had built stone fortifications here long before the first Norman knights made landfall in Wexford in 1169. One of the first references to a fort in Cahir comes from a manuscript written by the Mac Firbisigh family in the 14th century, which recounts ancient oral tales. The Great Book of Lecan describes the stone fort as belonging to a woman called Badamair in the 3rd century AD; she is still known as the first woman of Cahir to this day. She was the mistress of an Irish chieftain, Finn Mac Radamair. The book describes how an enemy of the chieftain attacked the fort killing Badamair, in an act of vengeance against her lover. The fort was called `Rath Badhamhrach` and it was said to have been destroyed during the assault.
The Normans were responsible for introducing stone castles to Ireland. Cahir Castle dates from the early 13th century when the Worcester family began the task of fortifying the island in order to solidify their control of the region and the river traffic that flowed past its walls. Positioned on a rocky island the castle would have been an awe-inspiring sight.
In 1375, the castle and its lands were granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond by Edward III, King of England. This influential family would hold sway over the castle and the surrounding area for almost 600 years.
One of the most interesting events of the castle’s history occurred in 1599, during the reign of Elizabeth I. In May of that year Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and a favourite of the Queen, brought her army and two heavy artillery guns to batter the castle’s defences, the first use of such weapons against this mighty fortification. After just three days of heavy bombardment, the castle was captured. Visitors to Cahir can still see reminders from this momentous occasion, as there are two culverin balls embedded in the castle walls. The first of these can be seen in the North East tower overlooking the main entrance, while the second shot can be found wedged high up in the east wall of the keep, overlooking the middle courtyard. A superb large scaled model of the siege is the centrepiece of an exhibition about the event.
Unfortunately, for Robert Devereux, his victory at Cahir was one of the few successes of his campaign in Ireland and on his return to England with little to show for his costly efforts, he would fall from the Queen’s favour and feel the axeman’s blade just two years later.
Just 50 years later another famous character from history would also make his mark on the story of Cahir Castle. In 1650, Oliver Cromwell, along with part of his New Model Army, was cutting a bloody and brutal trail through the country when they arrived outside of the castle’s walls and prepared for war. Only this time, it was not his cannons that forced the defenders to eventually surrender, but his words. He wrote a direct letter to the Butler family that said:
“Sir, having brought my army and my cannon near this place, according to my usual manner in summoning places, I thought fit to offer you terms honourable to soldiers, that you march away with your baggage, arms and colours free from injury and violence. But if I be, not withstanding, necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremity usual in such cases. To avoid blood, this is offered to you by your servant, Oliver Cromwell”
These words may very well have spared Cahir the same fate as other fortified defences that were decimated by Cromwell’s armies during this period. In 1652, the castle’s Banqueting Hall was the location of a meeting where the articles of agreement were signed between the local Confederate leaders and the Cromwellian commanders.
Another infamous event had occurred in the Banqueting Hall in 1627 when the then Lord Cahir’s son in law, Lord Dunboyne and a Butler relation James Prendergast were attending a function at the castle. The two men were in dispute over the inheritance of land and both became embroiled in an altercation that led to the death of Prendergast. Lord Dunboyne was subsequently arrested for murder and incarcerated in Dublin Castle, but a jury of his peers acquitted him of the crime.
Today, visitors can self-guide around the site, but to truly get to grips with the rich and vibrant history of the castle a guided tour is always recommended. The guides bring the castle’s history to life.
The castle has a myriad of features, which will capture the attention, one of which is the portcullis. Its winding mechanism and wooden gears are located within the Keep (main tower). The gate, a classic representation of a medieval castle is a favoured location for photographs.
The Banqueting Hall the heart of the castle is home to the oldest and the newest artefacts at Cahir Castle. High upon the north wall of this large room sit the impressive antlers of the Giant Irish Deer, which has been extinct for approximately 10,000 years, while the ornate fireplace, with a medieval shield embossed on its stonework, is in fact only a year old! The fireplace is a prop created for the movie, ‘The Last Duel’, directed by Ridley Scott, and is not made from stone at all but from plaster. The film has just been released.
It’s not just tourists that have availed of the guided tours at Cahir, there have been many celebrity visitors to the castle since it opened, included among them the actor Mel Gibson of Braveheart fame, the historian Dan Snow and in 1995 the then President Mary Robinson toured the castle.
There are plenty of things to see beyond the castle walls including the finely designed wooden carvings of the Inch Field as well as the famous sword in the stone, erected in honour of the local people who played extras in the Hollywood movie Excalibur, which was partly filmed at Cahir Castle in the early 1980’s
The river Suir, which surrounds the castle, is home to a multitude of wildlife, including a flourishing colony of geese, a family of elegant swans, as well as herons, and a host of ducks that flock to see if visitors have any treats for them. In the adjacent parkland grey squirrels leap from branch to branch in the mighty oaks and buzzards and sparrow hawks soar high above the castle.
The Castle on Film
Just outside the castle are information plaques dedicated to the movies filmed at Cahir Castle. The history of the last 50 years is mirrored by the list of films starting with the 1973 production of ‘Catholics’ that starred the Hollywood Actors Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard.
In 1975, the director Stanley Kubrick, famous for his Sci/Fi epic 2001 A Space Odyssey, started filming another cult classic. ‘Barry Lyndon’ was a period drama starring Ryan O’Neil, Patrick Magee and Hardy Kruger and several key scenes were filmed in Cahir Castle’s Banqueting Hall, inner courtyard and in the adjacent Inch Field.
Richard Burton, arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, came to Cahir Castle to film the movie ‘Tristan and Isolt’, which was released in the USA as Love Spell. Alongside Burton were many Irish actors such as Geraldine FitzGerald and Neil Tobin. Sadly, the film has slipped into the movie ether and is rarely seen today.
It was director John Boorman, who really put the castle and the town on the Hollywood filming map when he chose Cahir Castle as one of the sites for his cult fantasy epic ‘Excalibur’. The film took the mythical story of King Arthur and his Knights and the mercurial wizard Merlin and brought it to the big screen. Excalibur helped to launch the screen careers of many famous actors such as Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. It grossed over 35 million dollars in America alone and even today many visitors come to see where many of the films iconic battle scenes were filmed.
In 2013, a new historical slant on the life of King Henry VIII, The Tudors, began filming with Cahir Castle featuring in several scenes over the productions four season run. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and, future Superman actor, Henry Cavill starred in the smash hit show.
In recent years, two new major Hollywood productions have used the castle as a location. In 2019 ‘The Green Knight’ began filming and its lead star, Dev Patel, famous for films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl and Lara Croft) featured. The film was released earlier this year (2021).
During September 2020, another major movie started filming at the castle. Legendary director Ridley Scott brought his new blockbuster production to Ireland. ‘The Last Duel’ starred Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck in a tale about a desperate duel to the death set in medieval France. It almost recalls the real life story of the previously mentioned event that occurred in the Banqueting Hall at Cahir Castle in 1627.
The mighty and well preserved Cahir Castle with its fascinating and rich history is always worthy of a visit, particularly this year in which it celebrates five decades open to the public.
Robert O’Brien joined the Office of Public Works as a tour guide in the summer of 2014, first working at Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir before it closed for renovations, before moving on to Cahir Castle the following year.
Robert studied Creative Writing at Maynooth College in Kilkenny and has given Creative Writing workshops to adults and children over the years. He also studied horticulture at Kildalton College.
Robert is a keen historian with particular interest in the Crusades and naval operations during the Second World War. He lives in County Waterford.
“As you are now, So once I was”.
Samhain, the ancient Irish festival, marked the end of summer and the harvest season. It was an occasion to celebrate during a time of plenty before the harsh winter months brought shorter days, colder temperatures and a potential shortage of provisions. Huge bonfires were lit on hilltops in acknowledgement of the power of the ancient gods and in thanks for the bounty that had been reaped from the land. It was a time when the veil between this world and that of the supernatural thinned and could be crossed, an opportunity for portals to the other world to open and allow the supernatural residents found therein to visit our own realm. The souls of the dead could also return to the world of the mundane for a brief period of time on this night.
In more recent times the name Samhain has been replaced by the now familiar term Hallowe’en. Hallowe’en has become the great festival of the macabre, a time for horror and scares, an amalgamation of ancient and modern customs. Although a number of these customs have their origins in pagan traditions, now lost in the mists of time, the actual word Hallowe’en itself has a very different background as its roots lie in Christianity. In the early church the 13th May was a feast day designated for the remembrance of all martyrs, those known and unknown. Later this evolved to be a day to honour the memory of all saints and in particular saints that did not have a separate feast day of their own. Evidence for a change of date from the 13th May to the 1st November for this feast occurs during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731 – 741 A.D.) and in 837 A.D. Pope Gregory IV orders its general observance throughout the Church. So how does “All Saints’ Day” transform into the familiar word Hallowe’en? Hallow is an old word for a saint or a holy person, its origins lying in Old English, so All Saints Day was formerly called All Hallows Day, it occurs on the 1st November so the close of the day before, October 31st, is All Hallows Eve (or Evening) and abbreviated we then have Hallowe’en. All Saints’ Day is then followed on November 2nd by All Souls’ Day a day dedicated to remembering the faithful departed and so these two days have led, for many, to this time of year becoming the primary focus for commemorating the dead.
Of course commemorating the dead is nothing new and has been a preoccupation of humanity since time immemorial. Many of the wonders of the ancient world were built precisely for this purpose. The range in size and complexity of the structures built through the centuries to house the dead or dedicated to the memory of those who have passed is simply mind-boggling. On the one hand we have the pyramids, massive passage tombs or elaborate necropoli while on the other hand we have simple stone-lined cist burials or a standing stone to mark a burial spot. Scattered within the boundaries of many of our National Monuments are memorials to our dead and these take many forms, in shape, size and material used. Depending on the time period, affluence or beliefs of those interred these objects range from simple stone or wood markers to massive, monumental mausoleums. The ones we are probably most familiar with are the standard, stone tombstones that stand silent and stoic in the grounds and graveyards of our ruined churches, abbeys, priories and friaries. The decoration on these memorials can be quite plain consisting of a simple inscription, a name and maybe a date, however many are covered in carvings and decoration, all of it symbolic in some fashion and designed to deliver a message to those who view it.
Particularly striking are the tombstones that are decorated with the Arma Christi, the “Weapons of Christ”, a collection of the symbols of the Passion. As a grouping of symbols their use dates back to at least the 9th century however it is during the 15th to 17th centuries, in Ireland at least, that they appear quite commonly on tombstones and a host of symbols can often be found carved on a single stone. Among the symbols commonly seen are a mix of the following: a crown of thorns, a ladder, the column Jesus was bound to when scourged and the ropes used to bind him to it, the scourges or whips, the hammer and nails, the pincers used to remove the nails after the crucifixion, the seamless robes Jesus wore and the dice the soldiers used to gamble for the robes, the spear that pierced his side, the rod with vinegar soaked sponge affixed, thirty pieces of silver, a bell, the rooster that crowed three times, a jar or jug, a lantern, the sword used by Peter to cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant (and sometimes the ear itself is shown!). The sun and moon are often shown along with the Arma Christi and may represent the eclipse that took place on Good Friday or otherwise may be a simple, yet subtle, reminder of the passage of time.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of the medieval tombs that have survived to this day are the effigial tombs; there is something striking about seeing a depiction of a figure, lying in restful repose, dressed as they would have been hundreds of years ago. As to whether the representation is accurate or not is another thing, artistic licence is nothing new! Knights, ladies, ecclesiastical figures, wealthy citizens and merchants make up the majority of those depicted in this fashion, the commissioning of these elaborate memorials requiring a certain level of affluence. The appearance of effigial tombs in Ireland begins following the arrival of the Normans in the late 12th century, with the earliest surviving examples in the country dating to the late 12th and early 13th century. What is probably the oldest tombstone in Ireland with an inscribed date, the inscription records the year as being 1253, now stands within the 19th century chancel of St. Mary’s Church in Gowran, County Kilkenny. It depicts an ecclesiastic figure named Radoulfus, shown in his priestly robes, who died on March 19th of that year.
Normally a wealth of further carvings decorated the surrounds of these effigies and it is worth keeping in mind that traces of paint have been found on these memorials; originally they were quite colourful unlike the bare stone we are familiar with today. The effigy itself can be situated on a stone box, forming a box or chest tomb, the side panels of which tend to feature images of various saints and other figures, the Arma Christi or heraldic decoration and coats of arms. The figures shown on these side panels are, erroneously, generally referred to as “Weepers”, actual weepers were usually anonymous figures posed in mourning and praying for the soul of the deceased. In Ireland many of these “Weepers” are actually saints, and those sculpted are often depicted with a feature or attribute that allows them to be identified. John for example, the youngest of the apostles is usually depicted without a beard, unlike the other apostles who are shown with an abundance of facial hair, whereas James the Greater usually has one, or all, of the following; a pilgrim staff, pilgrim bag or scallop shell. The scallop shell being familiar today from the Camino to Santiago de Compostela where the apostle himself is reputed to be buried. Fittingly, as we approach Hallowe’en, many of the figures represented on these side panels are depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom and many of them met rather gruesome ends. St. Catherine of Alexandria suffered many trials and tribulations before being sentenced to death, through the use of a spiked breaking wheel, before she was eventually beheaded. She is easily recognised on tomb surrounds as she carries or stands beside the spiked breaking wheel. In fireworks the Catherine Wheel takes both its name and form from this legend. Tradition has it that St. Simon was martyred by being sawn in half and so we see him depicted holding a massive saw. St. Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive, before being beheaded, and is usually depicted with a flaying or fleshing knife in one hand while holding a sheet of his own skin in his other hand.
There have been certain times in history when death and mortality have become preoccupations for populations and subsequently these themes become an integral element of the psyche of succeeding generations. In particular, in the aftermath of cataclysmic events, such as wars and natural disasters there is a tendency for society to focus on mortality and the transience of the ephemeral frame. Perhaps the most catastrophic event to occur in Europe during the medieval period was the “Great Plague” or “Black Death” that struck in the mid to late 1340’s. During this outbreak it is reckoned that somewhere between one and two thirds of the population of the continent died (there is great variance in the estimates of the overall percentage of deaths but it is certain that there were massive numbers of casualties). In Ireland, the great plague struck the urban, economic centres of the country hardest, initially being brought from the continent via ship along the primary trade routes to Ireland and subsequently spreading inland, again following the commercial routes. As a result of the outbreak spreading in this fashion the areas worst affected were those where the Norman families had greatest control. John Clyn, a Kilkenny Franciscan, gives a contemporary account of events during the time of the plague. He ends his “Annals of Ireland” with the following poignant wish:
So that notable deeds should not perish with time, and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.
Friar Clyn’s chronicle may have ended with the above plea, and its mix of futility and hope, but there is one further entry in his work, written in a different hand, it says simply: “Here it seems the author died”.
Friar Clyn is still known to us today thanks to the survival of his chronicles but the majority of those that fell victim to the plague were buried in mass graves, plots of land whose locations, in general, are now lost to the vagaries of time. The plague did not play favourites and the great and mighty were as likely as anyone to fall into its grip. On the north wall of the chancel of the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Knockmoy, in County Galway, is a surviving example of medieval wall painting. To the right of an image of Christ, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is portrayed, two archers firing arrows into the saint’s body. During outbreaks of plague St. Sebastian was venerated and prayed to for protection and deliverance. Above this depiction of the martyrdom are six figures, three are of kings in their prime while the other three are crowned skeletons. These kings and skeletons represent the legend of “The Three Living and The Three Dead”, a reminder that death is inevitable for all. The legend also has a moral to convey as the Three Dead confront the Three Living encouraging them to repent and live good lives as their wealth and power will have no benefit in the grave. As James Shirley (1596 – 1666) writes in his poem “Death the Leveller”:
Death lays his icy hand on Kings,
Sceptre and Crown,
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made,
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
Although death may level the field, the wealthy, however, could afford to have a memorial commissioned for posterity. A specific type of effigial tomb is said to have begun to appear in the aftermath of the Black Death and it takes a form that would fit in perfectly with our modern take on Hallowe’en being a festival of fear and a celebration of the morbid. These memorials are collectively known as cadaver tombs and to us today would appear to be the product of the fertile imagination of a horror writer. There are approximately a dozen known cadaver effigies remaining in Ireland. In the case of cadaver tombs the effigy does not depict the subject at the height of their powers and health but instead they are shown after the mortal coil has been shuffled off and decay has begun its work on the physical remains. Invariably shown with the burial shroud rolled away from the body, emaciated corpses in varying states of decay greet the viewer. As gruesome as this may seem the smaller details compound the overall effect. On the most decorative of the cadaver tombs we find a host of verminous creatures, writhing around the skeletal remains of the deceased, including include beetles, lizards, snakes and worms.
The finest cadaver tomb in Ireland is that of James Rice, now located within Christchurch Cathedral at the heart of the Viking Triangle in Waterford. James Rice was mayor of Waterford on multiple occasions and twice made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a perilous undertaking in the 15th century. Due to the distinct prospect of dying while making the journey he commissioned his tomb in 1482, prior to a planned pilgrimage to Santiago for the jubilee year of 1483. He founded a side chapel of the medieval Cathedral in Waterford, dedicated to Saints James and Catherine, in order to house the tomb (the current cathedral was built by John Roberts in the 1770’s following the demolition of the earlier Gothic cathedral). James Rice survived the pilgrimage and is believed to have died around 1488. The tomb itself depicts the knotted burial shroud pulled open, revealing a decomposing effigy lying recumbent, eyes staring sightlessly upwards, one emaciated hand drawing part of the shroud across the body to protect the modesty of the deceased while a frog sits undisturbed atop the lower abdomen while worms crawl through gaps in his ribs. The tomb bears an inscription mentioning both James Rice and his wife Katherina Brown along with the following memento mori:
Whoever you may be, passer-by, stop, weep and read, I am what you are going to be, and I was what you now are, I beg of you pray for me, it is our fate to pass through the gate of death
Of course cadaver tombs and other memento mori were not directly intended as a means of causing fear but rather the intention was to deliver a message, literally “remember that you will die”. They offered the viewer the opportunity to reflect on their own mortality and perhaps resolve to make changes to live a better life. Although the cadaver tombs may have been the height of artistic expression of this philosophy the use of memento mori has continued to the modern day. Down through the centuries various symbols such as hourglasses, skulls and crossbones, upside down torches, the Danse Macabre, have been used to remind the observer that time is passing. The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, was a particularly graphic reminder that no matter a person’s station in life all must answer the call of Death. The earliest known depiction of the Danse Macabre was a mural in Paris, completed circa 1425. Typically in the Dance of Death a line or chain, sometimes a circle, of figures are depicted dancing their way to the grave with the living and the dead alternating as they advance hand in hand. All classes, from richest to poorest, are shown and it served as a reminder that all, be they Emperor, merchant or peasant, suffer the same fate and all are made equal in the presence of Death.
All memorials, in a sense, can be classed as memento mori. Although used to commemorate the dead they are tangible indicators of what is to come. They are reminders of those gone and in many cases are the only record remaining of those mentioned. It can be humbling to stand amongst the gravestones in an ancient burial ground, read a name and realise that you are possibly the first person in decades or even centuries to speak the name of that person aloud. By taking that moment to read that name you acknowledge that although now gone the person named once lived, a fellow human, whose only record of their life may be that which is inscribed on the stone before you. The classic memento mori ends with “As I am now, so you will be”, a note of finality, an admonishment that life is transient. However, we should never forget how the saying begins, we are simply the latest in a long line of generations of humanity that stretches back to prehistory, and it reminds us that we today have something in common with those now gone, for “As you are now, so once I was”.
James Barry is a native of Co. Waterford. Currently Head Guide in Reginald’s Tower where he has been working as a guide since 2002. Growing up next door to a graveyard sparked a lifelong interest in memorials to the dead.
Keeper of the Kings.
“Mine is an unusual job. I am neither a butcher nor a baker nor a candlestick maker. You could be guessing for a year and a day and you’d never guess what I am. The word ‘unique’ is much abused, but my position here and now lays claim to it. I’d best start off by giving myself my correct title which is ‘Official Caretaker of, and Guide to, the Rock of Cashel, Hore Abbey, St. Dominick’s Abbey, in the City of Cashel, in the County of Tipperary, Ireland.’ That would sound fine in the mouth of a good herald.”
That is a piece from an article written by my grandfather Joe Minogue and published by The Bell in 1942. In the same article he states that in 1942 he had held the job for close to twenty years. His brother had it before that and his father had it before him again. Between the three of them they had given, at that stage, the greater part of fifty years on the Rock.
My great-grandfather John Minogue was once a clerical student in Rome with a passion for archaeology. He later became an Inspector in the R.I.C. before taking up the position as caretaker and guide to the Rock of Cashel around 1892. After his death in 1922 his son, also named John, took up the position until 1926. My grandfather, Joe Minogue, took over the role in 1926 and held it until his death in 1957. Joe Minogue’s son Billy, my uncle, took over in 1957 and retired in the 1980s. My cousin, Michael O’Dwyer, also worked as a guide on the Rock during the 1980s. I started working on the Rock as a guide in 1992 and, apart from a short spell where I worked in England, have been here ever since. I became Supervisor in 2005. The Minogue family have been associated with the Rock of Cashel for over 120 years in total.
The family tradition of service to the Rock continued when my sister, Julieanne Slattery, started work as a guide in 2005. In 2007 she travelled to Australia but returned to the Rock in 2009. Growing up we both heard stories and sagas of historic battles between dynasties going back centuries, recounted so passionately by our Uncle Billy. One of Julieanne’s earliest memories was of our Uncle Billy standing outside Cormac’s Chapel conducting a guided tour. As a result, Cashel’s vast and fascinating history was never far from our thoughts, even when we lived overseas. In 2016 the fifth generation of our family, my son Cathal Moriarty, passed the walled chambers of the Rock as the newest addition to the guide staff.
Reading through the article my grandfather wrote in 1942, he also reflects that his knowledge of the Rock did not consist of surface patter. His father saw to that. He drilled the story of Cashel into them when they were young. The very odd time my great-grandfather was ill my grandfather would be allowed to conduct visitors on a guided tour around the Rock. On his return he had to render a strict account of his doings. Had he done this? Had he done that? Had he translated the Latin inscription at the Cathedral threshold? What had he said it signified Satisfied with my grandfather’s responses, my great-grandfather would cover himself up with the bedclothes and chuckle softly to himself.
In that article, my grandfather also asks the question, “Have I ever locked a person into the Cathedral at night?” “Well no, I haven’t” is his answer. When locking up for the night he would give a “Hello” in through the Cathedral door just to make sure there was no one inside. His ears were so finely tuned to the gentle noises of the buildings that he would know almost instinctively whether there was someone inside or not.
For my part I believe that a good tour guide is more than simply an imparter of historic information. I believe the job entails having as much enthusiasm in the delivery as it does in the acquiring of knowledge. I impress on guides that they are like actors on a stage delivering their lines in a way that makes their audience hang on every word. I tell the guides to enjoy what they’re doing and to interact with the visitors as much as they can on a busy site. Often you will find it’s the connection made at the end of a tour that leaves the best impression. Being at ease with people and imagining yourself a performer does indeed help as part of the job description.
Managing such a busy site can be a testing affair at times, even for the experienced, but, within the confines of the most sacred of Irish historical sites, the vast majority of working days are very pleasant ones. It’s hard not to be proud of Ireland’s wonderful and ancient history when you work in a place like this. Every day I have a feeling of pride. People are listening to your every word and will often applaud at the end. There are few enough jobs in this world where you get that kind of response.
Both my sister Julieanne and I felt a massive sense of pride to be present during the historic visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the Rock of Cashel in May 2011. Before their arrival that morning I paid a visit to my grandfather’s grave on the Rock and pondered over what he would think of his two granddaughters welcoming the Royal couple to his beloved Rock.
I would like to conclude with a final piece from my grandfather’s article and, reading it, you will understand the pride he and our family still have today working on the Rock of Cashel:
That’s my story as best I can tell it. Ah, but I almost forgot. When next you pass Cashel I shall be resplendent in a uniform with a peaked shiny cap. If you cannot come, I would have you picture me against the background of my beloved Rock and the richest land in all Ireland thrown in a great circle about my feet. The rich land runs till it meets the mountains whose names I know like a prayer – Slievenamon, the Comeraghs, the Galtees, Knockagreena, Devil’s Bit. Those landmarks at the very least are unchanged and unchangeable since Oliol Olum or Aengus stood and contemplated them from Cashel before breakfast. The Kings are dead. I guard them. In truth, I am the Keeper of the Kings.
Portumna Castle’s Gardens.
Portumna Castle is one of very few remaining semi-fortified Jacobean Manor Houses in Ireland. It was built by the Fourth Earl of Clanricarde (1573-1635) and his wife Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex (d.1632). The build was completed by 1618 and this year we celebrate 400 years of its existence.
The imposing facade of the castle faces north and is approached by a long avenue passing through three formal gardens and aligned gateways. The Lady's Garden closest to the house is planted with old bush roses, which flower throughout the month of June, surrounded by box hedging and clipped bay lollipop trees. The second walled garden has wide formal paths, lawns and specimen trees including black walnuts. Through a small doorway to the side of this space is the entrance to the old kitchen garden, walled-in and over an acre in size.
This garden was run for over 15 years as a community garden led by local horticulturist Ruth Carty. They planted fruit trees and bushes, and put in a polytunnel, flower beds and vegetable beds. They grew the fruit and vegetables for sale locally and maintained the space. When Ruth retired, it was decided by the OPW to take on a craft gardener, myself, Lynn O’Keeffe-Lascar in 2015.
Since then the focus of the garden has changed, it is now about the visitor experience, providing lots of colour, scent and interest from Easter to Halloween. I have added hundreds of bulbs to existing beds and borders, to flower in time from when the castle opens at Easter; these include Thalia daffodils, multi-stemmed scented hyacinths, blue and white cammasias, irises, tulips and finally alliums.
The main paths follow the original layout as found by the archaeologists when the garden was surveyed. That is a wide path approx. 4m in from the walls all around the whole garden and a central path. The south and west walls, lined with flower beds, are faced with red brick to hold the heat of the sun while the north and east walls are stone and are planted up with a large shrubbery and mixed fruit plantings. The central path is flanked by box hedging, narrow herbaceous borders either side and mature espalier trained apples. These trees burst into pink and white blossoms in May, before the herbaceous borders flower for the rest of summer.
Worth seeing in flower is the well-established wisteria archway that fills the garden with scent in mid-May, the mini woodland that has a carpet of primroses and bulbs in early spring and the large vegetable garden planted up with potatoes, herbs, peas, sweetcorn and pumpkins in summer. Of particular interest to children is the willow maze that grows taller and taller as the summer progresses. There are sunny bench seats along the south-facing wall, and shady arbours in the woodland and even a thatched gazebo with a large pergola over cobbles draped in grapes.
I have a strong focus on wildlife wherever I garden, my original horticultural training was in organic production, and I still follow those principles when possible. I have put in a small pond that is regularly used by birds to wash, including goldcrests, and I hope to see frog spawn in it soon too. I have a pair of robins (sometimes three but that usually causes consternation) who follow the gardeners around all the time hoping we’ll dig something up for them. The garden buzzes with bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies, and I follow the advice of the National Pollinator Plan. This includes choosing flowering plants that best suit the bees, single flowers instead of doubles, areas of long grass, and having lots of flowers in the garden all year round. There are several native black honey bee colonies on site, which are being monitored by NUIG. These wild bees are very special to us, and are minded on-site through the protection of their hives, and by growing lots of bee-friendly crops such as phacelia, linseed and sunflowers, as well as hazel and willow. In return, the bees are very well behaved, pollinate the strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins, and haven’t stung anyone yet!
Lynn O’Keeffe-Lascar has a DSc in Amenity Horticulture from Greenmount College, Antrim. She has extensive experience in community gardening, fruit and vegetable growing.
A Very Unusual Commute….
For most people, the journey to work on a Monday morning is a mundane everyday experience, punctuated by landmarks along the familiar route and the jostle for space with other pedestrians, traffic lights and marked, for many city dwellers at least, by a hopeful search for parking at the end of the trip.
For some employees of the OPW Heritage Service however, the journey to work – and what they do when they get there – is highly unusual to say the least. Take the men from the OPW’s Killarney National Monuments District who, early every Monday morning for several months each year starting in about mid-April, embark at the landing stage next to the Skellig Experience Centre in Portmagee, Co. Kerry and make the 90 minute trip across 12 kilometres of ocean to the rocky island of Skellig Michael. These are the men from the OPW’s National Monuments District who maintain the fabric on this most exposed and haunting ancient Hermitage and World Heritage Site; in the words of some locals, they are “the lads who mind the Rock…”
Tom Kerrisk, John Lyme, Michael O’ Connor, James O’Donoghue and Foreman Pat O’ Shea have between them probably worked for more than 100 man years on Ireland’s National Monuments in State care in the Kerry District. Their collected experience is huge and their knowledge of the Monuments they look after is extensive. Their District Manager, Maurice Fitzgerald, is also steeped in the tradition of the work, having been himself involved for many years working on the same portfolio of properties and possessing a deep understanding of them and their individual challenges.
...in the words of some locals, they are “the lads who mind the Rock
For some of the year, the teams’ work involves them in traveling to many of the historic sites scattered on the long southern Kerry peninsulas of Iveragh and Dingle and, compared to the journey to Skellig Michael, getting to places like Loher Stone Fort or Ballinskelligs Abbey is a relatively easy task. Their work in these places involves maintaining the structures of these places, checking for displaced masonry, looking for any unusual movement in the stone or any damage from animals or people perhaps that needs to be corrected before it results in lasting effects. Other tasks will include repairing fencing or boundary walling, cutting grass sward during the season and keeping a vigilant eye for any developing hazards like wayward stones or uneven footpaths that might trip an unwary visitor.
The work they do at Skellig Michael is however markedly different and that’s not just down to the unusual – and frequently rather damp – commute. When they get to work on Skellig on Monday morning, it’s the first day of a five day stretch for them. Due to the distance from the mainland and the highly variable nature of the weather and sea conditions, they will stay on the island for the entire week, returning to Portmagee and weekend pursuits of home and families only late on Friday evening. During the week, they have the company of visitors during the day – assuming the weather conditions have been good and landings are feasible – but shortly after midafternoon, they only have each other and the three OPW guides resident on the island during the summer for company or perhaps one of their occasional colleagues visiting temporarily from Killarney. And, oh yes, several thousand Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Guillemots, Storm Petrels, Kittiwakes and Gannets…
Working on National Monument stone structures is a challenging task at the best of times. Remaining faithful to traditional skills means using lime mortar for example; a material that can take days to dry out fully and has to be protected from the elements throughout. Not exactly easy in a rainy Irish climate. These basic difficulties are all magnified however when it comes to Skellig. There is no natural fresh water source on Skellig Michael and every drop of water, every scrap of building material, all scaffolding and other supplies used has to be transported to the site by boat or helicopter before work can begin – a mix of logistical and weather prediction juggling and problem solving Maurice Fitzgerald as District Works Manager, Killarney has to tackle every year.
The very physical nature of the site itself presents unusual challenges too. When working at the Monastery on the summit, the men have to physically haul all their tools, mortars and building material up the more than 600 ancient steps to the top before they can even start to repair a piece of dislodged stone or attempt to reshape a crumbling wall top. The separate Hermitage structure on the even more precipitous South peak was also conserved by the team in recent years and the challenge involved in working on what is essentially a fragile building perched on a rock outcrop 217m high can only be wondered at. Lower down, nearer sea level, much work in recent years has focused on the reconstruction and repointing of the Lighthouse Road wall – a seaward facing stone barrier built largely by the Lighthouse keepers in the 18th century along the access road that leads from the landing pier right up past the base of the monastery steps and onward to the Commissioners of Irish Lights Lighthouse at the southerly tip of the Island. As the team have worked on this wall in recent years, they have moved slowly along its length, operating from impossible-seeming scaffolding perched outside the wall itself on the cliff face. Safety harnesses, ropes, and climbing gear are the order of the day, all organised by the Safety Contractor, Mike O’ Shea who is, at this stage, practically part of the wider OPW family on Skellig, having himself spent about 10 years on the site.
There is, of course, a very public dimension to Skellig Michael. Every year, thousands of visitors manage to make their way to this UNESCO World Heritage Site (although many fail to succeed because of the weather and sea) and it is the job of the OPW team to prepare the site for their arrival and try and make sure that conditions for their visit are maintained as safe as possible. Skellig can be a dangerous environment and there have been some fatalities among visitors over the years. Before the start of each visitor season therefore, the team access the site early during the month of April – weather permitting – and begin their tasks of preparing the island for visitors. This means thoroughly cleaning winter storm debris from visitor areas, removing algae from the pier, checking each of the steps up to the Monastery to make sure they have not been dislodged or loosened by the effects of weather or nesting birds and ensuring that there is no rockfall material preparing to shed from slopes above the road. Access to the island in this early part of the year can be highly challenging however and regular landings can sometimes prove impossible until relatively late in the month of April. Even when they can land however, the sea can still play its tricks and, as has happened more than occasionally, the men have been stranded for almost 10-day periods when the weather has turned and they could not be taken off on the scheduled Friday. Getting stranded on a remote Island may seem like a romantic idea, but the reality of rainy days and dwindling food supplies is a little different and as Eoin Walsh, OPW’s local Boatman who manages the transport arrangements, said after the most recent delay: “they were a bit thinner when I got them home.”
Even though the very act of simply going to work on Skellig Michael presents real hardships – something that most of us would never dream of in our own daily commute to work – it is clear that there is a significant challenge for these men and their colleagues in Killarney in doing what they do and an inherent respect among them for the island and what it represents. Their commitment to the work and to making sure that Skellig Michael stays the gem that it is speaks volumes for the amount of continuing and persistent effort that is needed to keep not alone this site but all of Ireland’s Heritage estate in the care of the OPW in good shape. “Minding the Rock” it would appear, will be a job that will be around for quite a while.
Frank Shalvey works in the OPW Heritage Services managing portfolio and visitor issues related to the National Monuments estate.
Behind the Scenes at Newgrange at the Winter Solstice.
A place in the chamber at Newgrange for Winter Solstice dawn is highly prized. In 2000, the Office of Public Works introduced an annual lottery for those sought-after spots and ever since then the Winter Solstice starts for us on the last Friday in September. That is the day when we have the Draw to select our lucky Lottery winners.
Thirty children from our local schools — Slane, Donore and Knockcommon National Schools, come into the centre in a flurry of excitement after being collected from school by one of our Brú buses. They pick out 120 names from the large number (28,595 for Solstice 2018) of application forms spread out on the floor. The first 60 names drawn are offered the initial places on the six days we are open for dawn. The other 60 are put on a reserve list.
Every year we ask the children where they would like the winners to come from and they invariably say that they wish all the winners to be from the locality. However, when the origin of the winners is called out, the biggest cheers always come for the countries the furthest away. The children attend to their Solstice duty in a very responsible way, taking their time and choosing carefully. We are so proud of them all, they are all very well behaved and very well-mannered. They are a credit to their families and to their teachers and we are very grateful to them all for their invaluable help.
On the days we contact people to tell them that they have won, we think we have the best job in the world. What always strikes us is how many lottery winners tell us that they had a strong feeling that they were going to win and that their visit to Newgrange had been one of the most memorable days of their year. We scan a copy of their original application and attach it to the email as some of our winners don’t believe that they have won until they see their own signature.
Some people get back to us within an hour, sometimes making a commitment to travel half way around the world on the off chance that they will see the sun shine in distant County Meath in December. We are astounded by what can only be called their ‘act of faith’.
Sometimes our email to the winners gets caught in spam. We try to avoid the word ‘lottery’ and ‘winner’ in the text so that firewalls don’t shut us out. However, we have telephone numbers and postal addresses for all so we don’t give up if we don’t hear back after our first contact. We only go to the reserve list once we hear back directly from the person concerned that they are unable to attend. Of course not everyone who wins is in a position to travel and we understand that.
We are open to the public for 6 mornings, 18th to 23rd December, with ten lottery winners, plus a guest, inside on each of those days. We think it is only right that on such a special occasion, each winner has someone to share the experience with in the darkness. By the beginning of December, all of the six days are filled. We double check we have mobile phone numbers for everyone and that everyone knows where to go on the morning and at what time.
We have our Pre-Solstice planning meeting at the end of November. As with every big public event, the Winter Solstice event doesn’t happen by chance. Different sections of the OPW meet with their colleagues from the Gardaí and Meath County Council and we form a plan that we are all happy to sign off on. The Gardaí help manage the traffic and keep the roads open and Meath County Council keep the roads passable if we have bad frost or heavy snow. The OPW Press Office and National Monuments Unit coordinate with national and international media outlets to arrange access to the site. This high profile event captures interest globally and coverage is highly prized.
There is a wonderful infectious buzz to the event and as we approach the Solstice dates, we become obsessed with weather forecasts. However, after many years’ experience we know that no matter what the weather is like or is predicted to be like, it is impossible to forecast precisely what will be happening in a small patch of sky opposite Newgrange at 8.58am. On cloudy days, we tell ourselves and our lucky lottery winners not to give up hope. We also have to be mindful that even on promising mornings, it still may not all turn out as we anticipate.
We ask our Solstice attendees to be at the Centre by 7.00am or shortly afterwards. We greet them at reception with warm congratulations and ask their names so we can check them off our list. We then give the people who are going inside the chamber a special Solstice badge to wear around their necks so we can identify them at the site. As we have plenty of time to spare before we go to the site, our guests relax over a cup of tea and biscuit. We started the tradition of giving our lottery winners something to eat before dawn because we had a run of people fainting in the chamber some years back. Visitors are so keen and excited to get here that we discovered some had forgotten to eat.
Another reason we offer some food is that there were times when as we have waited in silence in the dark chamber when the only sound to be heard was the rumbling of hungry tummies!
At the monument itself, before any visitors arrive, our colleagues are preparing the site for its moment in the light! The gravel is swept in the chamber and raked into a spiral design, the bollards in the end recess are removed and the power generator in connected…just in case. Once the horizon begins to brighten, the gates are open. On the 21st, each person who comes through the gate is given a numbered card. This is how we organise those who are not lottery winners getting into the chamber after dawn.
Shortly after 8.00am, the lucky group who are going inside the chamber are gathered and we head across the Boyne from the Centre to the bus stop. A Special Solstice bus is always reserved for the winners and as we pull out on the road, the excitement within the bus generates enough anticipation and energy that we feel the bus could fly up the lane to the monument.
At Newgrange, we wait outside for a while watching the horizon and then at about 8.35am the group goes inside with a guide who reminds them that they are there to witness an event planned over 5,000 years ago and that cloud or sun, they are fortunate to have been chosen.
While the lottery winners are inside waiting, the people on the outside gather. On December 21st, we will have several hundred people and on the others days there will be fewer. The atmosphere outside is totally different from that inside. People are more relaxed and they watch the sun rise with eyes totally fixed on the horizon. As all of our regulars know, the people inside the chamber will have lost sense of time and will be wondering what’s happening outside.
Once the sun rises above the horizon, those of us on the outside cheer very loudly so that those in the chamber know that the sun is up and on its way. The group on the inside have to wait until four minutes after sunrise to see the first beam of sunlight on the floor so that cheer from the far side can be very reassuring.
On the outside we chat and take photos while old friends compare solstice experiences. When the lucky winners emerge blinking in the sunshine and grinning like their faces might crack, we cheer in celebration. Then we start bringing everyone who has been standing outside into the chamber in small groups. This can take a long time on Dec 21st.
When all the excitement is over our minds turn to food. All year long we look forward to the Solstice breakfasts. It is the only time of year that our Tea Rooms do the Full Irish. On December 21st, we invite friends who have supported us during the year to breakfast and it is a great gathering. We sit down to eat as an extended family and to celebrate our good fortune at being the guardians (for now) of such wonderful monuments.
The Shadow of the Witch.
It’s all about the 23 degrees. The jolly tilt of our home planet, as it circles the sun yearly, has provided a rhythm in the lives of people, animals and plants—especially at temperate latitudes—since life on earth began. Over the millennia, and across continents, festivals and gatherings have developed around seasonal turning points. In China, Lidong is the equivalent of Halloween, as is Diwali in India and Martenmas in France. Setsubun in Japan is paralleled by Groundhog Day in the United States, and Saint Bridget’s Day in Ireland. Traditionally the four festivals of seasonal transition in Ireland were Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lunasa. Just as the seasons inspired Greek drama, the ‘cross-quarter day’ festivals are the backdrop to the Gaelic texts. In legend and in folklore they mark the time of great battles or transitions, and moments of inauguration of kings. Samhain, the transition between summer’s end and the start of winter at the end of October, is a time of transformation and a festival of the dead. The discovery in 2008 that the central monument in Carrowmore—Listoghil—is aligned on sunrise at two of the critical season crossing dates left us with some interesting questions. For instance; could this design be interpreted as a physical representation of seasonal transits being celebrated in ancient Ireland?
Carrowmore, in County Sligo, is one of the most extensive clusters of Stone Age monuments in Ireland, with approximately 30 sites forming a nucleus at the core of the Cúil Iorra peninsula, all surrounding the central monument, Tomb 51 or Listoghil. On the fringes of this landmass low hills are punctuated on their summits by monuments of the same tradition, the IPTT, or Irish passage tomb tradition. A majority of the small satellite monuments and of the outlying sites are directed into the area at the centre of the peninsula, the location of the central monument.
Today we are in a moment of new discoveries. New work on the bones of the ancient dead—through the scientific techniques of osteology, stable isotopes of various elements and ancient DNA—has yielded a remarkable treasure trove of information about the lives and ancestral origins of the occupants of the Sligo monuments. Further research using lake coring tells us about their farming practices and about the vagaries of climate during a millennium of remarkable change in Ireland, starting with the arrival of the first farmers (about six thousand years ago) and culminating in a second invasion, that of the Beaker Folk at the outset of the Bronze Age. This is the story told by the guides and by the exhibition in the Office of Public Works Visitor Centre at Carrowmore (near Ransboro, about 4 km west of Sligo town). It is an account enriched by myth and legend as well as archaeology. The Neolithic era left a remarkable imprint on the landscape of Sligo; including many striking hill cairns, such as Knocknarea (with Queen Maeve’s Tomb), Keash Hill (with The Pinnacle on top) and the Ballygawley Mountains. Remarkably, many of these—up to a dozen—have never been excavated. Although folklore and quasi-historical accounts abound, no one really knows what they contain, or where they point to.
Listoghil, at the heart of Carrowmore, is a very different story. Tomb 51, as it is known by archaeologists, was greatly destroyed, probably towards the end of the 17th century. The authority of the Gaelic ascendancy had finally been broken by the arrival of parliamentarian and later royalist armies; this was a time of road building, bridge building and the lining of properties with field walls by landlords and merchants. The great English naturalist, Charles Elcock, accounted in the Proceedings of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club local descriptions of the use of the monument as a quarry, and the resulting discovery of the central chamber. This may have led to Listoghil becoming known locally as ‘The Cave’. A table-like dolmen with a mighty rooflslab lay swathed in a grass-covered uneven mound of irregular form with occasional boulders protruding.
All this changed in 1996 when the Swedish archaeologist Burenhult began the excavation of Carrowmore 51. His work revealed a very different monument to the smaller satellite tombs that surrounded it; they were mostly open in their architectural character and had been reused for burial repeatedly over the better part of a millennium. From the available data, it appears that Listoghil witnessed burial rituals over a comparatively shorter time period, perhaps a couple of centuries; then it was closed and covered by a stone mound.
The dead in Listoghil were treated differently, too. In the open boulder-built Carrowmore satellite monuments, cremation was the dominant funerary practice. Although cremations were discovered around some of the Listoghil kerbstones, at least seven people were placed unburnt in the inner chamber. Antiquarian digs disturbed this context, but gold standard (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) carbon 14 dates, including one from bone, gave an indication of a narrow window of usage for the central monument at Carrowmore. Between 5400 and 5600 years ago human bones were deposited. Sometime later, the cairn was built up around the chamber. The builders appear to have constructed a passage—the exact form of which can never be known—to provide (and control) access.
There was one slightly macabre twist: one of the occupants of Listoghil, a male in his fifties, had been de-fleshed, possibly one of a suite of funerary treatments marking new innovations in the Irish Passage Tomb tradition (The burial ritual in Listoghil is echoed in Carrowkeel, the other great Sligo passage tomb cluster; Carrowkeel starts to be used for burial around the time of the building of Listoghil. There, bodies were dismembered using sharp stone tools). Another individual, a male in his twenties, was shown by DNA analysis in 2019 to be the father of a man buried in Primrose Grange, a monument located just two kilometres away on the slopes of Knocknarea.
The connections of Carrowmore to the outlying hills were manifested in another way in 2008 when the sunrise at Halloween was first observed in modern times. The central chamber—although the outer cairn is a modern reconstruction, the chamber is still preserved in its original position—has a gable-shaped blocking stone to the front. It bears no weight and the point of the gable is rounded and polished by many hands. When the sun rises in alignment with the chamber, the shadow of this stone falls on the underside of the capstone. While every detail of this uneven surface stands out in the angled orange sunlight, the elongated shadow reaches over a meter long, like a spike of darkness centred on the belly of the roofslab. Gradually, as the sun rises, the shadow moves to the east and shortens. The effect lasts ten minutes.
Many visitors ask why so much Neolithic architecture in this landscape points towards the centre and towards Listoghil. The survey work in 2007 and subsequent observation sought to address this question. It was as if the monument—despite all its travails—still had something to tell us.
When the sun rises in alignment with the central chamber of Carrowmore it appears cupped in a natural saddle in the Ballygawley Mountains, six km away. Then, over the course of winter, after departing this natural hollow, the position of sunrise edges south as the days shorten. It crosses four rounded hills, each with a cairn on its summit; Aughamore Far, Sliabh Da Én, Sliabh Dargan, and Teach Cailleach a Bhérra, the house of the winter hag, Bhérra. The profile of the hills in folklore is visualised as the hag herself in repose with her head to the right (A similar figure in Callinish, Lewis in the Outer Hebrides is called the Cailleach na Móinteach). The arrival of sunrise to the top of the ‘head’ of the Cailleach marks standstill. The sun rises in virtually the same position for nearly two weeks as the season turns and the solstice is with us. The following weeks sees the position of sunrise travelling back across the reclining witch; and on February 10 the saddle again becomes the setting for the alignment event with Listoghil.
The idea of cyclicality is built into the Gaelic texts (like Queen Maeve’s cattle raid of Cooley, or the battle of Moytirra, a battle of light and dark forces, fought at a passage tomb cluster at Halloween). Temporal cyclicality is echoed in the symbolism of the antler pins accompanying the dead inside the Sligo passage tombs. The antlers are at their finest at Halloween, which is rutting season; stags deploy them as weapons in fights over females, and are lost in early spring. The mythic life of the Cailleach, who can be seen as a metaphor for a female earth, is cyclical too; she is frightening and dark in the winter and becomes young and fruitful in the spring. Perhaps here we catch a glimpse of the cosmology of the ancients; as John Waddell says there are echoes of these narratives in the Gundestrup cauldron and even in the cosmology of Ancient Egypt.
Local folklorists added to the background story, in particular the sculptor Michael Quirke. Other details were filled in by William Butler Yeats, who seems to have preserved elements of lore almost lost over the course of the twentieth century.
Such a mortal too was Clooth-na-bare, who went all over the world seeking a lake deep enough to drown her faery life, of which she had grown weary, leaping from hill to lake and lake to hill, and setting up a cairn of stones wherever her feet lighted, until at last she found the deepest water in the world in little Lough Ia, on the top of the Birds’ Mountain at SligoWilliam Butler Yeats,
The Celtic Twilight, 1893
The Ballygawley Mountains are the locations of Sliabh Da Én (the Mountain of Two Birds) and Lough Da Gé (the lake of two geese, a hillside corrie lake, reputed to be bottomless). Yeats’ accounts (and those of other folklorists) shows how the cluster of four low hills was seen in totality as the Cailleach Bhérra, though in modern maps only one of the hills carries the name of the famous hag and sovereignty goddess. In a footnote Yeats’ observes that doubtless “Clooth-na-bare should be Cailleac Bare, which would mean the old Woman Bare”.
The width and depth of these traditions in the greater western European context is impressive. Authors like Cristobo Carrín and Gearoid Ó Crualaoich describe the Cailleach or Gawres, or La Vieja (the giantess or hag), as virtually ubiquitous as a symbol of nature and seasonality in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Spain. She rules the winter, and is ‘defeated’ by the arrival of spring. She is connected in folklore to natural rock formations or ancient monuments. A version of her appears to have been Christianised as Saint Bridget. Traditional narratives and rituals are faintly detectable in modern day myths. We still celebrate witches, divination, and the change of seasons in our Halloween traditions. Even in cultures geographically remote from each other and connected only by the 23 degree tilt of the Earth, similar themes occur. In Japan at Setsubun in February revellers throw beans at a heavily dressed up demon, an equivalent to the winter witch.
The Listoghil phenomenon is shared with another very famous Irish site, Dumha na nGiall, the Mound of the Hostages at Tara. This site was in use around the time of Listoghil, but the chamber and cairn were constructed perhaps two hundred years later. In recent years we have had the opportunity to observe at both sites and compare notes. The chamber of the Mound of the Hostages is aligned to the distant Wicklow Hills and the island of Lambay. At approximately 7.25 am on the 31 October the sun rises and casts a quadrilateral of faint pink light on the vegetation-covered backstone of DNG. On that date, the sun rises in perfect alignment with the chamber. Meanwhile in Sligo the anticipation is building, and the Ballygawley Mountains are backlit with a deep orange glow. 17 minutes later the planet has rolled on its axis enough, and the solar climb from behind the Ballygawley Mountains is complete. A golden sliver of sun breaks the saddle and the spike of shadow suddenly appears on the capstone underside of Listoghil. Perhaps this congruence is coincidental; certainly it is a remarkable one.
These days the sunrise event at Carrowmore is celebrated by Office of Public Works staff in conjunction with the local community, the Ransboro Development Association. The RDA supply tea and buns, and join visitors and guides in hoping for a clear morning. Even if the sun does not oblige, the atmosphere is enthusiastic and celebratory. The centre opens at 7.15 am and sunrise occurs between 7.40 and 8.00 am. Usually a slide show/ talk is conducted in the centre afterwards to wrap up proceedings.
Pádraig Meehan is a writer and researcher; his field of interest is the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition. As a member of the Human Population Dynamics at Carrowkeel international archaeology research team, he has co-authored a recent series of papers. He has also published articles and a book on the topic of the Listoghil alignment. Pádraig works as a guide in Carrowmore visitor centre, Sligo.