Over the centuries, Ireland has accumulated a lot of statues and monuments around the country. Many are positioned on remote hill tops or prominences. However, these remote locations are now making them vulnerable to vandalism.
The oldest of these monuments are simple stone cairns built up on mountain tops. These can be difficult to date, particularly because succeeding generations of local residents and more-recently hikers tend to add stones to the cairn to mark their visit. (In recent years, some misguided people have taken stones from some cairns as some sort of good luck charm — causing concerned locals in at least one location to remove signs pointing to cairns that are particularly badly affected.*)
In the last century, religious fervor combined with the new-found power of the fledgling Irish state caused many crosses and holy statues to be erected on previously unspoiled hilltops and at some pre-Christian holy sites. As Catholic dogma began to lose its stranglehold on the Irish people in the later years of the last century, and as scandal engulfed the church during the early decades of this one, people began to question and object to these religious symbols and now a minority appear to be taking direct action against them, launching a new cycle of destruction in Ireland’s uncomfortable relationship with its own heritage.
This tension between modernity and tradition is illustrated by the controversy over the location and design of a statue on the Hill of Tara, that took place over many years. A badly deteriorated statue of St. Patrick was removed (quite legally, if suddenly) from Rath na Rí (the Fort of the King) on the Hill of Tara in 1992. When a replacement was proposed, and an artistic interpretation of the saint was chosen as the new statue, there was a hue and cry from traditionalists attached to the classic imagery of the mitre’d saint with his shamrocks and crozier — regardless of the fact that these details are not thought to be entirely historically accurate. When a statue of St. Patrick was eventually restored to the Hill, it was located in a separate place (after all, the Hill was originally a pagan center of worship, not a Christian site) and the replacement statue was entirely traditional in all its trappings. It’s hard not to see the placement of the original statue (back in 1829) as being symbolic of a Christian victory over paganism. The new location for the St. Patrick statue at least demonstrates that we no are longer quite so comfortable with such value judgements, al least publicly.
While taking souvenirs can be understood (if not excused) as an acknowledgement of the spiritual mystery of ancient stone cairns, the latest battle over religious symbolism in Ireland reflects nothing but ignorance, an unwillingness to engage with others, and a delight in simple vandalism.
A crude metal cross has stood on Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain peak, since 1976 (itself replacing an earlier wooden cross), but it was cut down in November 2014. A month ago (January 2015), a modern statue of the Celtic sea god Manannán Mac Lir — famous for being carved by a sculpter who works on Game of Thrones — was stolen from hilltop overlooking Lough Foyle. The religious motivation to this theft was clearly shown by the vandal leaving a wooden cross and a sign quoting one of the ten commandments, “You shall have no other gods but me.” This statue was found by hikers yesterday, but there’s currently no word on how much damage it has suffered. The cross has already been re-erected on Carrauntoohil.
These actions by individuals or small groups represent a new round of battles over religious symbolism in Ireland, and further demonstrate a general apathy towards Ireland’s heritage. I’m not saying a rusty metal cross on a mountainside is the equivalent to a neolithic burial mound or medieval church, but it is meaningful to many, and deserves respect. I doubt the statue of Manannán Mac Lir held a great deal of spiritual value, but it was a landmark, a tourist attraction, and a testament to Ireland’s rich and varied heritage, so was also worthy of respect. As publicly accessible monuments, both are communal property in a sense, so the attacks on them represent both a desire to escape the dogma and orthodoxy of the past but also an unfortunate disrespect for the community, the concept of public property, and continued antipathy towards Ireland’s heritage.
* There are a number of hard-to-find sites that I’ve visited over the years — sometimes being given directions or a tour by local people — that I will not write about because of the disregard with which some people have treated these sites, and the damage that results.
Tags: endangered Ireland