On the heritage trail

16/07/2013. FREE TO USE IMAGE. Ireland’s Largest Heritage Trail Launched. Pictured at Well’s House in County Wexford launching Ireland’s largest Heritage Trail, the ‘Wexford Heritage Trail which offers a tour of thirty-two historic sites across the county. Pictured are Colm Morris, Bridget Murphy, Minister of State for Tourism & Sport Michael Ring, Louise Cullen as Lady Frances Ray Murphy and Paul Reck. Picture: Patrick Browne

At Well’s House in Co Wexford launching Ireland’s largest heritage trail are Colm Morris, Bridget Murphy, Minister of State for Tourism & Sport Michael Ring, Louise Cullen as Lady Frances Ray Murphy and Paul Reck. Picture: Patrick Browne

As I keep harping on about, history and heritage is everywhere, which is why the fact that Co Wexford now has the longest heritage trail in the country caught my eye.

The trail, officially launched this week, is a driving route that takes in 32 sites covering everything from landscape gems to cultural attractions.

A press release issued by the organisers detailed the sites:

Ferns Castle, Colclough Walled Garden, Tintern Abbey, Ballyhack Castle and Selskar Abbey; National Parks & Wildlife Service managed Wexford Wildfowl Reserve; Wexford County Council initiatives of Enniscorthy Castle, National 1798 Rebellion Centre, Vinegar Hill Battlefield, Irish National Heritage Park, Duncannon Fort, Browne Clayton Monument and Hook Lighthouse (in association with Commissioners of Irish Lights); Enniscorthy town, Fr. Murphy Centre, Gorey Town, Johnstown Castle (Teagasc) and the Irish Agricultural Museum, Wexford town, Our Ladies Island, Loftus Hall, Ros Tappestry, Dunbrody Famine Ship, New Ross Town, Dunbrody Abbey, Oulart Hill, Kilmore Quay and Saltee Islands, Ballymore Historical Features, Wells House, Tacumshane Windmill, Craanford Mill and The Kennedy Homestead.

It actually seems to have something for everyone, which makes me wonder why I haven’t been to the county yet.

Louise Cullen as Lady Frances and Naoise Murphy as Kathleen at Wells House.–

Louise Cullen as Lady Frances and Naoise Murphy as Kathleen at Wells House.–

Wexford is an important county from a historical point of view. Just a few weeks ago the visit of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK, to the family’s ancestral home in the county brought it back into the spotlight, though I’m sure the people of Wexford would say it’s always been in the spotlight.

Going much further back, Wexford was where the Normans landed to begin their invasion at the behest of Diarmaid Mac Murchada, who wanted help in retaking his kingship of Leinster. Diarmaid has a bad reputation in Irish history because of this, even though he was in reality just operating as any deposed king or lord of the medieval era would. It would have been standard practice to go into exile and seek aid from adventurers, landless knights, or anybody else willing to fight for the promise of riches and/or land. It just so happened that the Norman invasion of Leinster became the first part of the English conquest of Ireland under Henry II, though Diarmaid would not have contemplated such a thing happening.


Pikemen memorial in Wexford

In more recent centuries, Wexford was a major fighting ground during the 1798 rebellion, and many pikemen died battling British forces despite some initial successes. They were not all noble freedom fighters though; there were massacres by Catholics of Protestants, something which is often overlooked in the commemorations of the rebellion overall. The worst was at Scullabogue, where 150 Protestants, including woman and children, were slaughtered in a barn. It was the same day that the rebels had been crushed at New Ross, though I can’t remember correctly if historians have interpreted Scullabogue as a reaction to that defeat or if it just happened on the same day. Many rebels had died at New Ross and more would die after the town was captured.

One of the main battles was fought at Vinegar Hill. One of my college lecturers, Tom Dunne, grew up nearby and wrote a fascinating book about history and memory, using the 200th anniversary of the rebellion as a starting point. The book is as much a memoir as a historical textbook, dealing in parts with his own life and then historical debate about the rebellion (one of his ancestors died at New Ross), and particularly criticisms of historians who have tended to gloss over the less palatable aspects of the rebellion. You can read one of the earliest narratives of the overall rebellion here. A list of memorials is here.

Where else deserves a heritage trail? And should it mark the good as well as the ill?

Ancient treasure or vintage car spring?


Would you confuse this piece of gold with the spring from a vintage car? Well, one accidental treasure finder did (pic from The History Blog).

The torc, which has now gone on display in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, was found in a bog near Corrard, Co Fermanagh, which as far as I can tell is between Maguiresbridge and the Belle Isle Hotel. Google Maps is fairly blank on the region.

Anyway, Ronnie Johnston dug it up there, cleaned it off, and kept it in a cupboard for two years until he saw a picture of a torc in a magazine and thought it looked like the piece of twisted metal he had stashed away. His find is about 3,000 years old.

A coroner’s court agree it was treasure, and it was subsequently bought by Northern Ireland’s department of culture. The style links it to other finds in Ireland, the UK, and France, so it may suggest a cultural or trade link with those areas, or even the possibility that the owner came from there. We’ll never know, much as we’ll never know how it ended up in a bog (an offering, I suppose).

According to the Press Association:

Many mysteries still surround this gold torc. In its present condition the torc could not be worn as it has been deliberately coiled, appearing rather like a large spring. But the torc was originally designed to form a large circular hoop with two solid connections at either end. These are believed to have acted as interlocking clasps to allow the torc to be fastened and unfastened.

For me the main mystery is how somebody would confuse something that is clearly gold and not at all rusted with a piece of metal from a car. Or am I being cruel?

Resurrecting forgotten talent


(Pic: Copyright Crawford Art Gallery)

My friend and fellow medievalist Shane Lordan is involved in a project to generate awareness of and appreciation for the Cork artist Samuel Forde. Forde’s Fall of the Rebel Angels is actually one of the finest pieces in the Crawford Art Gallery and if you are ever in the city you should swing by for a quick look. In the meantime, check out the Samuel Forde project and discover a short-lived genius.

History: Under construction

I have neglected this blog terribly. It’s not by design, more that life has got in the way. I’m still researching my PhD on Bede and eschatology, but a full-time job and other responsibilities mean I haven’t blogged at all.

I’ve been bitten by the bug again, though, and hope it will make me a more productive writer overall. So it’s fitting that I resume building up my blog with a note about somebody who is literally building history.

Bert Geuten has broken ground on a ninth-century monastic settlement in his native Germany. Yes, a ninth-century one. And it won’t be built in double-quick time, either; it’s envisaged as a 40-year project that will only use the tools available in the time. Geuten is dreaming big – not only will it be a village, but if all goes to plan it will have a 2,000-seater cathedral too.

His team is clearing a site and trying to do things in roughly the same order that the monks would have done. He told The Local:

In the ninth century the monks would have built a small church first – they didn’t want to wait until the cathedral was ready to be able to pray. So we’re doing the same.

The plan is for it to be a tourist attraction, which will allow people to see the site come together and learn about how medieval craftsmen went about their business. One of the things I like is that they will only be serving food that would have been eaten at the time.

I hope this works out. There was a similar project in the US, Ozark fortress, has run into serious financial issues and so has not opened, though its supporters continue to seek new funding on the official website. One wonders what sort of finances would be required to build the likes of House Stark’s seat, Winterfell, for real rather than just the CGI below.


A more successful experiment is that in Guédelon, France, where a 13th-century castle has been under construction for about 15 years.


Guédelon, pictured above in 2009, attracts about 300,000 people a year, which is nothing to be sniffed at.

I’ve always been fascinated by living history buffs and experimental archaeology. For people in those fields, it’s not enough just to learn about history, they want to experience what it was like for themselves, or at least as close as one can get in the 21st century.

The whole idea of building medieval structures also catches my imagination. I’ve been to sites like Carcassonne and Urbino, where the modern mingles with the medieval, and I’ve always been struck not just by the style of architecture but how it has endured and been adapted over the centuries.

I’m not sure where my love of architecture comes from. I’ve always liked the combination of form and function. Part of me wonders if it’s a consequence of, or an attempt to foster the memory of, my father’s father, who was an architect but who died before I was born.

There’s also the sense of imposing on the landscape, of effectively becoming the landscape once the structure has been there for a particular length of time. There are certainly any number of medieval sites scattered across Ireland, some like Ross Castle in Co Kerry or the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary as established tourist attractions, others less so. The blog Time Travel Ireland profiles many of those sites off the beaten track and is well worth having a poke through.

I must do more on historical sites and the various books I have about them. History actually is all around us. In some places you have to look a little bit harder than others, but what you might find can be very rewarding.

Crucifixion corpus

While on the subject of digital databases, a project at my own university this week launched a collection of images and information concerning representations of the Crucifixion in Ireland between AD800 and 1200. The site, COIRP, is in its infancy but the team aim to update the images and categories in the near future. This should prove to be a great resource for art and cultural historians of the early medieval period.

The project, Christ on the Cross, has been studying how Irish art and literature represented and dealt with Christ’s crucifixion, both in an aesthetic and liturgical sense. The database takes its name from the Irish word for “body”. At the launch, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, one of the investigators, said it was a play on corpus, the Latin for “body” but which is also shorthand for the figure of Christ on the cross as well as a body of work. Initially, they had tried to avoid puns related to corpus, but it was too suitable to ignore. They then managed to make it an acronym of sorts: Corpus Of Irish Representations of the Passion.

I was at a conference organised by CotC last year, Croch Saithair: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West, that was fascinating and intense. I look forward to seeing what else will come from the project.

What a mistake to make

The editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica look to be hanging their heads in shame at an almighty blunder regarding Irish history. As the Press Association reports:

A concise version of Encyclopaedia Britannica which was first published seven years ago wrongly described the 1922 conflict over partition as a war between Catholics in the south and Protestants in the north.

Encyclopaedia Britannica managing director Ian Grant said the offending article may have been wrongly compiled by an editor attempting to condense complex history. “This is very rare,” he said.

The error was carried on a hand-held device first sold six or seven years ago by Japanese firm Seiko but was only spotted this week.

The online and print editions are apparently unaffected, but it really undermines my confidence in the publication. For those unaware, the conflict would more accurately be described as being between those favouring the treaty with Britain that lead to partition of the island and creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, and those who opposed it and sought more. But even that is an almost gross summarisation of a conflict the effects of which can still be felt in Irish society. However, it was certainly not a conflict between Catholics in the south and Protestants in the north.

It also begs the question of why it took seven years for the mistake to be noticed: Did people not look at the article or did they just assume it was right?

University’s medieval projects

My research (and I will start posting a series of research diaries soon) in part concerns representations of death and the afterlife, with a particular focus on how fears about and ideas of the end of the world influenced the writing of history. I am preparing a paper and article of the vision of Dryhthelm, who Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian writing in the eight century, tells us came back from the dead. The vision itself is quite rooted in apocryphal and early Christian images of heaven and hell.

But while I am focussing on the Anglo-Saxons, the university’s Department of Early and Medieval Irish is working on a major project examining Irish representations of the afterlife. De Finibus (On the ends) has been on the go for a few months and the website provides an introduction to the project, the people involved and, in time, a bibliography of relevant secondary literature. The team is working on editions of key Irish eschatological texts, and also aim to produce a sourcebook of the main literature.

Over at Christ on the Cross, meanwhile, members of UCC’s English and Art History departments are hard at work evaluating Irish representations of the crucifixion, both literary and material. It’s just a small bit outside my own research era (the project is focussed on AD800-1200 and I’m meandering through the 700s and earlier) but is still of huge relevance. The project’s mission statement is here, and the upcoming conference on March 29-30 looks like it will be a very interesting one indeed.


St Brigid of Kildare

A text from my local pizza place reminded me that it’s St Brigid’s Day on February 1 (yes, Pizza Plus really did text me with a special offer for the weekend: for the record, it’s buy any medium or large pizza or a meal deal and get a free Arctic roll).

Poor Brigid (aka Brigit, Bridget, Bríd, and so forth). Most people don’t realise that she’s one of the patron saints of Ireland, along with Columba and that Patrick fellow. And to be fair, she was kind of a big deal in her day, easily the equal of any male monastic founder. She’s still quite busy: according to the Patron Saints’ Index, as well as a patron saint of Ireland, Douglas in Scotland, and of Ivrea, Italy, she’s the patron saint of: babies; blacksmiths; boatmen; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers; and watermen.

So no matter what your field of endeavour, you’ll probably find a way for Brigid to put in a good word for you.

That said, she is easily confused and has probably been conflated to a degree with the Brigit of Celtic mythology, the Brigit who was part of a triple war goddess. While it’s quite possible that the saint was named for the goddess or simply shared the name, it could also be seen as the taming of Celtic religion or a way the new religion, Christianity, made itself intelligible to a new population and culture.

Here’s what today’s issue of The Irish Times had to say about her:

The daughter of an Irish chieftain and a slave from his court, legend and lore link St Brigid to St Patrick, though her personal achievements include founding the famed convent of Cill Dara, which went on to become a renowned centre for learning. In many ways, she was a woman ahead of her time, standing up to the patriarchy and refusing at least one arranged marriage while instead devoting her life to founding convents all over Ireland, as well as a school of art, and in the process ensuring an education for young women uninspired by the child-bearing alternative.

And, seeing as I can remember it somewhere being a feature of my education in the 1980s, here’s a five-minute (yes five-minute) video on how to make one, as recommended by the above IT article.