Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Anne Stahl

The landscape and mystery of the bogs feature prominently in Irish myth and folklore.  The archaeological record speaks of votive offerings and buried bodies,  laid to rest deep beneath their murky, otherworldly waters.  As I drove to the conference on Friday I passed through bogs in Offaly and Roscommon.  Desolate, windy places; they practically howl a primal language.

Quagmire, swampland, morass:
the slime kingdoms,
domains of the cold-blooded,
of mud pads and dirtied eggs.
But bog
meaning soft,
the fall of windless rain,
pupil of amber. (Heaney, 1975)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes a lot about bogs.  He has referred to the bog as a sort of Jungian, as well as geological, memory-bank, a “dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity” (Broadbridge, 1977: 40). He sees the bog as a symbol of the Irish psyche, as contrasted to the American psyche which, in its pioneering spirit, looks  “outwards and upwards, to fulfilment through movement, advance, exploration and openness” (Corcoran, 1986: 62). The Irish bog is the “answering myth” to the frontier myth of the American consciousness (Heaney, 1980b: 55).

Landscape artist T.P. Flanagan also loved the bogs.  Flanagan romantically described the bog as “the fundamental Irish landscape” which had “primeval connection” with a pagan past. His perceptions were of “the moistness, the softness of the bog, its fecundity, its femininity…” (Parker 1993, 87). Heaney dedicated his first bog poem to his friend and fellow
bog-lover, Flanagan:

For T.P. Flanagan
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening –
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

T.P. Flanagan

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage,
The wet centre is bottomless.
(Heaney, 1969: 55-56)

More than once I imagined myself  – one of the thousands of offerings placed in the bog, with its perfect liminality: neither fully water, nor fully earth – but a transition point, a threshold.  The funny thing is….. I was.  As I drove back home Sunday, on a bleak stretch with rain lashing and wind howling: thump, thump, thump.

A flat tire.

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I have returned to my BnB, had a light supper and am now snuggled under an electric blanket sipping wine. One of the best things about BnB’s in Ireland are the electric blankets on the bed! Anyway, the conference was wonderful – if exhausting (for me). There is only so much information my brain can take in before it wants a nap. I hope to write up my notes in the next few days and will pass along what I gleaned, but I want to share a bit… on the day.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly hearing Brian Keenan recount his personal experience of being held captive in total darkness for 9 months. His act of vulnerability, as he shared what can only be described as a descent into madness – being utterly “unhooked” psychologically from all that keeps us on this side of the divide – spoke of the power of darkness as nothing else could. He talked of the various psychological constructs employed to retain attachment, and the long wave of depression that eventually erodes the connection to those constructs. His telling of the visitors who came and “spoke” with him, how his soul left his body during dream excursions, the fight to bring consciousness into those wanderings, and the ever present “power, who was man and beast, but neither man nor beast” – were stories full of ritual meaning.

There were of course wonderful talks on chamber cairns, court tombs, alignments, re-alignments, anchorites, hermits, darkness within the Irish MS, caves, the easter islands, and the dead. The ever present Dead, and their time……. which we are approaching.

A theme for me was the importance of place; how it both shapes cosmology and is shaped by it. As we rapidly approach the Gate of Samhain (I honour the new moon in scorpio – which falls on 13 Nov this year – not the modern date of Hallowe’en), I think of the sacred landscape created to reflect the cosmology of the ancient people here in Ireland: their veneration, and perhaps dread, of the dead – who continued to live among them and were active in daily life.

I am ready to return home to Cork tomorrow, and begin my Samhain preparations in earnest. And also to sift through my recollections, collect my notes, and share my insights from my observer journey….Into The Earth.


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I am in Sligo, and tomorrow I will feast on academic delights at Into the Earth: The Archaeology Of Darkness.  Don’t worry…I will share.

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I found one couple about my (middle) age who had me in to tea before bringing me to the stone (my memory having faded a bit after more than 30 years). They repeated the lore about Finn having thrown the stone from the mountain, and that it was called “fingerstone” because the marks of his fingers are on the stone (there is some spalling that would qualify, I note). Then they said it had fallen! Alas. The farmer who owns the field customarily got his giant rolls of hay well on to the prongs of his tractor by backing them against the stone and pressing them on. One day, the stone just gave way. “Finn MacCool threw it down,” laughed the informant, “and Sean Smith [name changed] knocked it down!”

I should also report some ambivalence toward Finn in this family, who related that (they grew up on the hill) the locals often called him, “Finn MacFool,” and perhaps eager school teachers and other forms of government admins. drumming in reverence for tradition in school kids growing up in the 1960s helped reduce the tradition unconsciously?

The fieldname will no doubt continue a while the tradition: it is locally named “cloghmor.”

So ancient ritual has transitioned from the target ritual of the Iron Age, probably the folkloric re-use/re-interpretation in the medieval times, and of course again as time passed until this Swiss Army Knife of a multifunctional stone ended by getting practical agrarian work done. We went to see it, where it now is sinking into the mud in this very rainy season. I could wish it would be preserved somehow, but another part of me sees it as a good long life-cycle.

…..I wept.

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One day I may sit down to write with reference material and notes around me. Maybe. More often than not, when the mood strikes me I am outside rambling or, as I am today, sitting on the grass watching the dance of sunlight through leaves on an early autumn day. |t is something I lack: discipline. I will need to cultivate much more of it to get through the Acadame unscathed. Never the less….. I want to toss out my thoughts on the mounds.

I have noted already in this blog the various Irish words associated with the mound; sídhe (which literally means ‘hill’)

So, let us go back to the beginning. There is speculation within the literature of paleolithic communities here in Ireland, placing human habitation pre-12,000 BCE, though current dated evidence is ~8,000 BCE. The earliest known “grave” (and earliest European cremation) was a pit burial dated ~7530-7320 BCE. The cremation was not of a complete body, and the parts that were buried in the pit were placed in a circular fashion around a post and stone ax head; the ritual symbolism being apparent. (“the analysis suggests that the cremation undertaken was of a developed, sophisticated nature: a cremation practice that presumably was of some antiquity at a time of its undertaking.”) There have also been recent discoveries of cremated human remains in several caves, both along the coasts and in the midlands. (“While at the two coastal sites the interpretation can be made for the bones of ancestors remaining close to daily activity, the cave depositions may represent a liminal area, removed from daily routines. While the other sites were out in the open, in plain sight for all to see, the cave is more secluded, indeed hidden.[13] So, rather than one tradition, there was a variety at play contemporaneously.”)

At some point funerary practices for some people (important people) shifted to megalithic structures. The oldest in Ireland are found in the Carrowmore complex outside of Sligo, which date ~4200 BCE. Many of the early structures (court and passage) were built on top of what appear to have been dwellings. This is intriguing. (“Cooney has commented on the placement of monuments, suggesting that a common theme is the use of places already renowned.”) Within these imposing earthen structures were interred the cremated remains of the elite, the powerful, the leaders. Clearly, these are the guys and gals you want on your side in the Underworld.

There is some evidence that remains were moved about, and new remains added yearly. Regardless, the mounds which captured the rays of the sun with their roof boxes, allowed starlight and moonlight to mingle with the dead, and provided places of vigil for the stout of heart, were in use until the bronze age when their function changed ~2000 BCE. Think about that for a moment… The sídhe were used for roughly 2000 years, when suddenly society changed. I have often wondered whether a climactic or volcanic event, ushering in a cold period with reduced sunlight, shifted the society into different forms of connection – as well as societal structure.

So….. the mounds and hollow hills fell into disuse and disrepair from ~2000 BCE onwards. The people would have remembered that Great kings and queens of old were “living” there, watching, even with the shift to stone circles, alignments and pit and cist burials.

Here we take another leap. Christianity came to Ireland around the 6th century CE (~500), and we find the oldest example of written Old Irish during this time: An Cathach, which was a book of psalms. It is not until the manuscript traditions of the 12th century CE (~1100) that we find the oldest written accounts of Irish tales in Lebor na hUidhre (the book of the dun cow) – think Invasion stories, mythology and hero deeds.

~3000 years from the last ritual use of the Great Mounds of the Living Ancestors until we get written accounts of their stories.

“Now, what is interesting to note is that these mounds or hollow hills are often thought to also be burial mounds–barrows. This belief in the gods who live in the Hollow Hills may be the remnants of ancestor worship of an early race.” Mary Jones

The early prehistory in the west of Ireland: Investigations into the social archaeology of the Mesolithic, west of the Shannon, Ireland. Killian Driscoll


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Many’s the day I’ve had a wee thorn under my own nails!

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And all the times I was picking up potatoes, I did have conversations with them. Too, I did have thinks of all their growing days there in the ground, and all the things they did hear. Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants; and in their flowering, and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind … I have thinks these potatoes growing here did have knowings of star-songs.
~Opel Whiteley, 8 years of age, The Singing Creek where the Willows Grow – The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley, Penguin, 1994.

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you Remember Ellen

You remember Ellen, our hamlet’s pride,
How meekly she blest her humble lot,
When the stranger, William, had made her his bride,
And love was the light of their lowly cot.
Together they toiled through winds and rains,
Till William, at length, in sadness said,
“We must seek our fortune on other plains;”–
Then, sighing, she left her lowly shed.

They roamed a long and a weary way,
Nor much was the maiden’s heart at ease,
When now, at close of one stormy day,
They see a proud castle among the trees.
“To-night,” said the youth, “we’ll shelter there;
“The wind blows cold, the hour is late:”
So he blew the horn with a chieftain’s air,
And the Porter bowed, as they past the gate.

“Now, welcome, Lady,” exclaimed the youth,–
“This castle is thine, and these dark woods all!”
She believed him crazed, but his words were truth,
For Ellen is Lady of Rosna Hall!
And dearly the Lord of Rosna loves
What William the stranger wooed and wed;
And the light of bliss, in these lordly groves,
Shines pure as it did in the lowly shed.

~Thomas Moore

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