Celts

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Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

The May Bush/Wishing Tree(s) on the Hill of Tara.

A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.  Read the rest of this entry »

Celtic scholar Juliene Osborne-McKnight’s novel Song of Ireland is a very enjoyable dramatization of the arrival of the Celts in Ireland and their clash with the Tuatha de Danaan.

Book Review: Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne- McKnight

Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne-McKnight (paperback, Tor)

To start off, Osborne-McKnight does a wonderful job of drawing the ancient Celts as a people with a nomadic spirit, moving around Europe and as far as Egypt as mercenaries, attracting respect and riches wherever they went. The life of Amergin, son of warrior king Mil, is vivid and she gives a real sense of their beliefs, social, and religious structure. As a founding myth, the idea of the Irish being fundamentally nomadic in our core puts a more positive spin on decades of emigration, and is a valid reading of our history.  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 »

Distinguished historian Graham Robb is the latest to contract Celtomania, coming up with a fascinating theory that the ancient Celts possessed advanced knowledge of surveying and astronomy in his new book.

In The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost World of the Celts (published as The Ancient Paths in Europe), Graham Robb (author of Parisians and The Discovery of France) proposes a new theory that the Celts built their communities in Gaul and Britain (less so in Ireland) along precisely aligned solar pathways. Some of these ancient paths could have been formal roadways, but many may have only ever been well-worth tracks or simply maps in a Druid’s head. When the Romans conquered Gaul, they seem to have paved these pre-existing roads and traditional paths in Roman fashion, and over time a complex system of Celtic self-organization was obscured.  Read the rest of this entry »

The accepted theory that Scandinavian explorers were the first to discover the Americas, long before Columbus, has been taking a battering lately. There’s now more evidence to support the discovery* of North America by the Irish.

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan's  voyage to the New World. (source: wikipedia commons)

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan’s voyage to the New World.
(source: wikipedia commons)

An Irish village in South Carolina

When Spanish explorers first came to the Americas in the early 1500s, some explored the Carolinas and founded a settlement in Georgia around 1526. The settlement was near Charleston, South Carolina, and was populated by fairer-skinned, very tall people with beards — completely unlike the local Native American tribes. Relations between these agrarian settlers and the native population are recorded as being peaceful, and one fairly detailed account of their way of life was recorded by Spanish chroniclers at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.  Read the rest of this entry »

From Falias was brought Lia Fail which is in Temair,

and which is used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland.”

Lebor Gabala Erenn

 

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background. (Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com)

On top of the Hill of Tara, in the middle of the rath known as An Forradh, “The King’s Seat,” there stands a large carved stone. This is the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny, one of the powerful totems the Tuatha de Danaan, the god-like ancestors of Irish Myth, are said to have brought with them to Ireland. Legend has it that when the kings of Ireland assembled at Tara to choose a new Ard Ri, or High King, the stone would shout its approval when the candidate touched it. This was one of what appear to be several trials a would-be High King had to pass.

Two standing stones in the  churchyard of St. Patrick's Church on the Hill of Tara. (Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

Two standing stones in the churchyard of St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

 

Standing Stones

Another was driving his chariot through two nearby standing stones which would jump out of the way if he was worthy. There were traditionally a number of standing stones around the hill, but few now remain (at least overground). Two still stand side by side in the adjacent churchyard — one featuring a very-weathered sheela-na-gig carving. However, there does not appear to be space between them to drive a chariot through.

The Lia Fail originally stood near the Mound of the Hostages, but was moved to its present position in 1798, to mark the graves of 400 rebels who were buried on the hill after a battle.

 

Controversy

Whether this is the real Lia Fail or simply one of the other standing stones the annals tell us stood around the Hill of Tara is a matter of some conjecture. One theory holds that the original Lia Fail was stolen and brought to Scotland, where it became known as the Stone of Scone, and has been used to crown Scots and English monarchs ever since — Oh, we Irish never tire of bashing the English. Another story holds that the real Lia Fail was hidden away for safekeeping until Ireland is ready for a High King again — if so, it’ll have a long wait.

Note
This is the third part of a series looking at the Hill of Tara.
The Mound of the Hostages before the current restoration project. (Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The Mound of the Hostages in 2009, before the current restoration project.
(Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The oldest — and perhaps most important — monument on the Hill of Tara is the misleadingly named “Mound of the Hostages,” a neolithic passage tomb of a much smaller scale than Newgrange (which is visible from the top of the hill on a clear day — but you’ll need binoculars). Due to the thick metal bars on the entrance, generations of Irish schoolchildren (and tourists) came away from brief tours of the hill erroneously assuming that this was a prison mound. This small tomb is similar to the satellite tombs that surround the principle cairns at Loughcrew, Newgrange and Knowth, but in rather better condition. The passage is very short (about 13 feet) and the chamber is simply where the passage deadends, rather than an elaborate cruciform chamber with carved bowls like some others. Despite its relative simplicity, the passage has a solar alignment, this time with the “cross-quarter” days (Feb. 4 and Nov. 8) which correspond to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc and Samhain, and boasts some fine carved rocks. Unlike Newgrange, which controls access to the chamber at the solstice by lottery, anyone can walk up to the Mound of the Hostages and observe the solar alignment through the bars on cross-quarter days — weather permitting!

The tomb is called the Mound of the Hostages/Dumha na nGiall after one of the most-famous High Kings of Ireland, Niall Nolligach, who — like all Iron Age kings — took members of other royal families “hostage” to deter aggression, hence his nickname, Niall of the Nine Hostages. The iron bars on the tomb entrance gives the misleading impression that these hostages were thrown into the tomb to rot, but the truth is that the main tribes of Ireland sent children to be fostered by other leading families to create alliances and engender goodwill, so treating them that harshly would rather have defeated the purpose.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction. The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction (June 2012). The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

One striking fact about the Mound of the Hostages is that it remained in use centuries after all the other passage tombs had fallen into disuse. Whatever the exact reasons for this change in burial practice were, it appears that Tara was considered more important than the other tombs; when the mound was excavated in the 1950s, the volume of human remains filled the passage and chamber almost to the roof. Indeed, archaeologists have found that our ancestors began interring people in graves around the mound at a certain point; whether this reflects new beliefs or the simple fact that the tomb had reached capacity is open to debate.

In late 2011, the National Monuments Service began work to stabilize and repair the front of the mound. The two slopes adjacent to the entrance had become very eroded, and the integrity of the structure was judged to be at risk. Workers removed the earth covering the passage and chamber, affording visitors an unparalleled look at the construction of the passage. Needless to say, this work was very controversial (note protest sign in the photo above right), not least because it began on the day of the winter alignment and blocked the solar alignment during the time when work was underway. (The workers charged with carrying out repairs are said to have had no idea about the alignment — although I learned that nugget of gossip from the protestors, so take with a pinch of salt — which, if true, reminds us of how little-appreciated this monument is.) I have not been able to visit the site thus far in 2013, but a recent picture (below) shows the new facade close to completion. Doubtless there will be a sustained argument over the integrity of the interpretation, as still continues over Newgrange.

Plan to check out the new Hill of Tara on your Irish vacation

The almost-complete new facade of the Mound of the Hostages in spring 2013.
(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

 

Hill of Tara: a must-visit part of any Irish vacation.

Explanatory signage detailing the reasons for reconstruction which was erected during the 2012 conservation work. Click through to a higher resolution image if you want to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

History of the Hill of Tara. Background research for any Irish vacation.

Interpretive signage erected during the 2012 conservation work at the Mound of the Hostages. Click through to a higher resolution image if you wish to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

 

Notes

[This is part two in a series of posts on the Hill of Tara. Part one, dealing with the history of the Hill of Tara can be read here. The third post in this series will deal with the Lia Fail, the fabled stone of destiny.]

Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Bru na Boinne

Peter Jackson could have filmed the Hobbiton scenes around Dowth. It’s that beautiful.

Dowth is one of the three tombs in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured (and it seems fitting, given that Dowth is derived from Dubhbadh, meaning darkness). Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.

Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)

Visiting Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth

Newgrange as seen from the top of the Dowth mound.

The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!

As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason?  Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.

Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.

The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.

When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers.  Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”

Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.

Click through to see The Stone of Seven the Suns up close…

Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.

Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.

The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.

One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.

Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.

As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.

Co. Meath tourism, Visiting Ireland, Ireland with children

Knowth (L) and Newgrange (R) seen from the Friary on top of the Hill of Slane. Could an overgrown mound behind the church be the grave of the man who legend says cleared the site for these famous tombs? (Click through for a better resolution view.)

You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a built structure, or a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the hill and suggests future locations to explore.

Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick-started by that story.)  The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether  that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older.  Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC.  However, the preliminary earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.

Fieldwork has been ongoing since 2010, so this is a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.

Links:

2010 Research « The Hill of Slane Archaeological Project.

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