Irish History

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Ireland’s wealth of valuable historical sites are in danger. Every day they’re under attack from the elements, from neglect, from developers, from public apathy or ignorance, and from misuse by landowners. It’s time to face the fact that many may not be there for the next generation.

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. (photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology)

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. Photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology

2014 has shown us two extreme examples of these dangers as first the severe winter storms eroded the cliffs beneath Dúnbeg Fort in Co. Kerry, resulting in large parts of the structure’s defensive wall falling into the sea, and then the storms caused part of Coolbanagher Castle in Co. Laois to collapse. After that partial collapse, the rest of the castle was completely demolished, although the circumstances of the decision and the identities of those who undertook the demolition are unclear at the time of writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Musician Danny Ellis’s memoir of growing up in Ireland’s notorious Artane Industrial School, The Boy at the Gate, is a triumph of forgiveness over bitterness.

boy at the gate

The Boy at the Gate by Danny Ellis (US cover, Arcade)

Growing up in Ireland, I was very aware of the The Artane Boys Band. It was famous throughout the country, called upon to play at every important occasion: St. Patrick’s Day parades, state occasions and football finals. But the school that formed the band — the Artane Industrial School, an infamous orphanage run by the Christian Brothers — had been closed since 1969, its history largely forgotten. The band endured after the school was shut down. In his book, The Boy at the Gate, local author Danny Ellis refers to the Artane Boys Band as “a diamond forged in the fires of hardship and misfortune,” an example of how music helps people through troubled times. Read the rest of this entry »

There are several stories and rumors concerning the death of Hugh de Lacy, the first Norman Lord of Meath. 

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Norman view of warfare (from the Bayeux Tapestry)

The less-colorful tale holds that he died in 1186 after being hit by falling masonry while inspecting work at Durrow. The more-colorful and nationalistic version credits a young stone mason with an opportunistic ambush. While inspecting work on the former abbey at Durrow — once the foremost early Irish university in the early days of the Brehon laws — de Lacy was distracted and bending over to peer at some stonework. A young stone mason, a local man, pulled a battle ax from beneath his tunic and quickly cut the lord’s head from his body. The mason then escaped into nearby woods, and presumably was a hero to the native Irish.

De Lacy’s body then became a literal bone of contention between the natives and the Norman forces, and it was almost a decade later, 1195, before the Normans finally secured his remains and removed them to Bective Abbey, where his body was finally laid to rest. His head was later brought to Dublin and interred with his wife in the Abbey of St. Thomas.

But things still may not be as simple as they appear. Hugh was rumored to have ordered a crown and been making plans to declare himself King of Ireland at the time of his death — introducing the possibility that his assassin may not have been an Irish rebel at all, but was possibly acting on Henry II‘s orders.

With this rumor in mind, King John’s alarm at seeing Hugh’s son Walter harboring enemies of the crown in 1210, which motivated John’s marching on Trim at the head of his army, is a little more understandable. You can read John’s action as decisively moving against a potential rival, and less as the act of an insecure king. John may have felt the possibility of a rival Norman king setting himself up in Ireland was once again in danger of becoming reality, and acted quickly to nip that eventuality in the bud.

Two decades after his death, the specter of Hugh de Lacy still seems to have cast a long shadow across the Irish Sea.

 

 

The stories of the goddess Brigid and the later St. Bridget are so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. The ancient feis of Imbolc was co-opted as St. Bridget’s Day, one of the most-popular saints days in Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

Saint Bridget  (Photo: St.Joseph Catholic Church, Macon Georgia)

Saint Bridget
(Photo: St.Joseph Catholic Church, Macon Georgia)

Bridget’s Early Life

Born c.451 near Faughart in Co. Louth, Bridget was the daughter of Dubtacht, a druid, and Brocca, who was either his wife or a slave, and possibly a Christian.  Bridget eventually became a Christian (probably after absorbing druidic teaching from her father) and founded a number of monasteries, including the famous one at Kildare. It’s possible she entered religious life after losing the sight in one eye (although some stories hold that she put her own eye out rather than enter into an unwelcome marriage, and once the marriage had been called off — Celtic tradition would not allow one to marry somebody disfigured — she put it back in and was miraculously healed).  Read the rest of this entry »

Imbolc (celebrated January 31-February 1) is an important feast day in the Celtic tradition.

Here comes lambing season!  (Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

Here comes lambing season!
(Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

The mid-point of winter having been passed at the winter solstice (Dec 21), the days are now slowly growing brighter. Imbolc is often called the “rekindling of the solar hearth” and celebrates the returning sun, the promise of spring, and the steadily improving weather. It’s a very important time for farmers, who depend upon the whims of the weather. Tradition holds that the weather on Imbolc is a predictor of the year to come: too cold/wet/stormy and a bad year is predicted (although in typically pessimistic Irish fashion, if the day is too nice that’s thought to presage even worse conditions!). Weather that’s just a little better than expected is thought best, promising a mild conclusion to winter and a fertile year.  Read the rest of this entry »

Trim Castle, the largest Norman castle in Ireland, is often known as King John’s Castle. The story behind this “honorific” title is not what you might expect.

King John's Castle, Trim

Trim Castle on the banks of the River Boyne
(Photo: infomatique via cc license/Flickr)

When the Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 1100s they claimed the best land in Meath and Dublin, and made Trim the center of their administration north of Dublin. Responsibility for the area was granted to Hugh de Lacy in 1172, and construction began on a fortress on a high point overlooking the River Boyne (which, at that time, was navigable as far as Trim). The castle on the site today, one of the largest in Ireland, was largely built by De Lacy and his son, Walter, and is officially known as Trim Castle. However, many people refer to it as King John’s Castle. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is made up of three major passage grave sites: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. I’ve written about the first two already, so it’s time to explore the most-complicated of them all, Knowth: quite literally, a city of the dead.

Knowth passage grave

One of the satellite tombs at Knowth.
(Photo by Photolifer/Marc Gautier via cc license/Flickr)

Constructed contemporaneously with Newgrange, the Knowth site consists of a cluster of 18 smaller tombs around one huge central tomb. When I was a child, I used to peer through the gate to the site at the huge network of rectangular pits that marked the excavation that continued for decades before the site was finally open to visitors. It took the archaeologists five years of digging to discover the entrance to the first passage, and then another year before they found the second one. Eventually, archaeologists would spend over 40 years excavating Knowth, and the story they discovered was extremely complex.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is an age-worn statue of the Duke of Wellington doing atop a pillar in the small town of Trim, in the County Meath countryside?

View of Trim with the statue of Wellington keeping watch. (Credit: Diego's Sideburns/Flickr)

View of Trim with the statue of Wellington keeping watch.
(Credit: Diego’s Sideburns/Flickr)

Many visitors to the small town of Trim in Co. Meath do a double-take when they first realize the statue on top of the huge plinth near the center of town is none other than Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, Vanquisher of Napoleon and symbol of a British Empire on which the sun never set. They plaintively cry, “Oh, you poor oppressed simpletons, do you not know who that man was?” Some take to the letters pages of the local or even national newspapers and vent their spleen: “How can the Irish literally put a British aristocrat on a pedestal in this way?” Read the rest of this entry »

With all the hoopla surrounding Halloween, there is another Irish Samhain tradition that gets overlooked, the practice of winterage in the Burren in Co. Clare.

 Burren WInterage Weekend

 

Winterage is a practice of transhumance agriculture (where animals are moved from one grazing ground to another seasonally). On the Burren it’s the reason why local biodiversity is so unique. Read the rest of this entry »

Belvedere House is a Georgian villa on the shores of Lough Ennell near Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. Open to the public, the estate features several striking follies, including the so-called “Jealous Wall,” which bears testimony to one of the most sordid family squabbles in Irish history.

Mary Molesworth (source: www.belvedere-house.com)

Mary Molesworth (source: www.belvedere-house.com)

It all started in 1936, when an ambitious aristocrat, Robert Rochfort, (later the 1st Earl of Belvedere) decided he wanted to marry a popular young woman in Dublin artistic circles, the 16-year-old Mary Molesworth. She evidently sensed he wasn’t quite the catch he appeared, as she resisted his initial advances, but her family, seduced by his power and great name, arranged the match. Read the rest of this entry »

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