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‘Tis that time of year when people start making lists of potential gifts for their friends and/or family and publishers launch new books to appeal to every personality type and disposition. One of these gift books is Who’s Fecking’ Who in Irish History by Colin Murphy (with hilarious illustrations by Brendan O’Reilly).

Whos Feckin Who in Irish HistoryWho’s Feckin’ Who is the latest installment in a popular series of humorous books about all aspects of Irish life. It comprises hilarious biographies of famous and infamous figures from Irish history.

To start with, I should point out that the title is not as scandalous as the unfamiliar might think. Feckin’ is not an exact synonym for a much more-well-know and internationally used four letter word. While feckin’ is a gentle curse — one your Granny might use when discussing politicians — it isn’t used as a coarse description of the act of love. So, the title of the book does not refer to who’s getting it on with whom in Irish history — that might be a very interesting book, but it’s not this one. (With notable exceptions for Charles Stuart Parnell and Katherine O’Shea, as well as Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, whose stories, like their lives, are entwined.) Read the rest of this entry »

As we enter the “decade of centenaries” that marks 100 years since many of the founding events of the Irish Republic, a whole slew of books focusing on the revolution and subsequent civil war are being published.

Fergal Tobin’s The Irish Revolution: An Illustrated History 1912-1925 is an excellent one-volume introduction to this contentious corner of Irish history. The great strength of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not the pictures and maps — although they are extensive and very well integrated into the text — but the clear way the author sets out the shifting political world views of Irish people at the time. One of the remarkable things about this time is that the population moved from a point where the partition of Ireland was not even conceivable in 1912, to becoming the only possible solution a decade later.  Read the rest of this entry »

Vanishing Ireland is a series of books that combines revealing interviews with some of Ireland’s oldest residents with striking photographs of the subjects.

Vanishing Ireland cover

Vanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community by James Fennell & Turtle Bunbury

There’s often not much to review in a coffee table book; featuring lots of large glossy pictures of beautiful places, things, or people, they’re only really good for daydreaming. I prefer my coffee table books to have a strong textual element, to marry striking photographs or illustrations to interesting arguments or well-structured stories. Vanishing Ireland: Friendship & Community, photographs by James Fennell and words by Turtle Bunbury, succeeds on both counts.  Read the rest of this entry »

Just who was Jonathan Swift, political satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels? A new biography by Leo Damrosch paints a vivid and most compelling picture of a multi-faceted and contradictory individual.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, is clearly an attempt to write the definitive work. The previous incumbent weighed in at 3000 pages, so its approach was clearly to overwhelm the reader with detail and sheer volume of material. Damrosch is more selective, and turns the copious material of Swift’s life (letters, diaries, account books, pamphlets — acknowledged and anonymous — books and more) into a vibrant and colorful life.  Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Boru began life as the son of a minor regional king, but he ended it as the first High King of Ireland from outside the Uí Néill dynasty. 2014 marks the 1000th anniversary of his death, and a great many events and exhibitions are planned to commemorate the battle.

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as nationalistic propaganda. (source: wikipedia commons)

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as national propaganda. (Source: wikipedia commons)


Fin Dwyer, creator of the excellent Irish History Podcast, calls the Battle of Clontarf “the most-famous and most-misunderstood battle in Irish history.” It’s easy to see why. During the many centuries of rebellion and resentment against the English occupiers, the Battle of Clontarf was held up as a great example of the Irish throwing off their occupiers (in this reading, the sole enemy was the Vikings) — indeed, while I was at national school in the 1980’s it was very much the official line. (Witness High Frazier’s romantic depiction of the struggle above.) Modern historians have largely rejected this simplified interpretation. The Battle of Clontarf was fought to put down a rebellion against Brian’s authority, not expel invaders.  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. 


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 »

Salt is essential to human survival. In Central Europe, the Celts were among the very the first salt miners, and grew wealthy from establishing an international salt trade. So, where did the early Irish get their salt?

Sea Salt after the water has evaporated in a natural salt pan

Sea Salt after the water has evaporated
in a natural salt pan.
(credit: Devar via cc license on Flickr)

There’s a fascinating chapter on Celtic salt miners and the European salt trade in general in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book, Salt: A World History. He details how the Celts were innovators, who realized the importance of salt, and developed the means to mine it successfully in the Alps and other central European locations. They became very wealthy through the international salt trade, and their traders travelled all the way to the Middle East, North Africa, and China.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Hill of Slane is one of the major archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Ireland, but recent research has suggested that there may be more truth in the ancient legends about the site than previously thought.

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda (via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda
(via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

The traditional St. Patrick story holds that around 433AD Patrick built a bonfire on the hill to celebrate Easter. However, this coincided with the feast of Beltaine, the spring rite of renewal and rebirth in the Celtic world, and tradition held that all fires must be extinguished and relit from the King’s bonfire on Tara Hill — although in practice, there would likely have been many communal fires around the country, given that the Hill of Tara is not visible from everywhere in Ireland. Tara is visible from Slane Hill, however, and tradition holds that the High King, Laoire, sent for the person responsible for this break with tradition. His druids had warned him that if that fire was not extinguished there and then it would consume the whole kingdom, and figuratively that’s just what it did. Read the rest of this entry »

At Duleek, a small village near Drogheda, a large medieval bell tower stands by a ruined church on the outskirts of the town. The first thing you’ll likely notice about this site is there are two church towers side-by-side. The smaller one belongs to “The Spire” restaurant, which is housed in a deconsecrated church building much younger than the tower that looms over it. This tower marks the remains of Duleek Priory, a 12th century monastery built by the Augustinians. However the site itself is reputed to have been the location of the first stone church built in Ireland around about 472; founded by St. Cianan (c. 442-489), who was converted and consecrated a bishop by St. Patrick himself. Consequently, Duleek has in many ways as strong a claim to historical significance as the nearby monastic sites of Monasterboice and Slane.  The main interest of the site today, however, lies in the ghostly afterimages it retains of its own storied past.

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time. (Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time.
(Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

While the remains of the original stone church can be seen in very overgrown condition at the edge of the site (so overgrown that it’s really not possible to explore it anymore) the bulk of the ruins belong to the 12th century abbey built by the Augustinians. Most of one long side wall links the mostly-intact tower with the the skeleton of the great central window at the other end of the main building. A large sarcophagus-type tomb stands inside in what would have been the main alter area of the church. Near the top of the tower the original roof line can be seen, demonstrating by its height and the ornamentation of the windows how far the engineering ability of the Irish church had come since the early days of that first stone church. Near the spire restaurant you’ll find the remains of an old high cross, and throughout the church yard there are broken fragments of others; all suggesting the great center of learning and religious art this once was.

Walk around the corner of the bell tower you’ll note part of the wall is very uneven and dilapidated. However, change your perspective by walking over to the graveyard wall and the scar in the side of the tower might make more sense. Gently tapering to a conical point, the north wall of the tower shows the impression of a round tower, a ghostly image of a tower, carved in its side. Studies have suggested this was the original round tower on the site, which may have been the only part of the abbey still relatively intact after centuries of Viking raids had left the monastery without an abbott and possible uninhabited by the time the Augustinians were granted the land by Hugh de Lacy after the Norman conquest.

The churches annals record that the cloictheach (bell tower or round tower) of Duleek was hit by lightening in 1147 and the roof was demolished. Going by the impression left in the side of the 12th century bell tower, the roof may have been replaced sometime before the Abbey was constructed in 1182, and the builders simply incorporated the round tower into the wall of the much larger bell tower. In fairness, that repair could have been made as the new abbey was going up, but it’s hard to see why the builders would have incorporated a damaged and relatively short round tower into the new bell tower. The incorporation of a round tower into later construction of a bigger building is not completely unknown; the tower at Lusk in Co. Dublin was incorporated into the church there, and continues in use as a bell tower, but that building is no bigger than the original tower, so incorporating it would have saved time, expense and materials. Why the tower at Duleek was so adapted is a bit of a head scratcher.

It’s interesting to reflect that the height of the ghostly impression of the Duleek tower would have made this one of the shorter round towers in Ireland. Suggesting that the ground level surrounding the tower may have changed significantly since it was first constructed. Whether this was a change made during the building of the abbey (perhaps to afford direct access to the tower’s door?) or as a result of the cycle of destruction of earlier churches and monastic buildings is unknown, but the riddle of this ghost tower presents some intriguing possibilities.



You may be interested in my earlier post “When is a Round Tower Not a Round Tower?


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