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“…in the powerful approach of spring, joyfully penetrating the whole of nature, those Dionysiac urges are awakened, and as they grow more intense, subjectivity becomes a complete forgetting of the self.”
From The Birth of Tragedy, by Friedrich Nietzsche (Whiteside (trans.) 1993, 17)
The recent Tara symposium contained a paper entitled; “A study of the morphology, metrology and archaeoastronomy of the Iron Age enclosure, Lismullin, Co. Meath”, given by Frank Prendergast, of the Dublin Institute of Technology. Frank Prendergast is an authority on the archaeoastronomy of Irish monuments, that is, the ways in which they may have been concerned with the movement, or more usually the setting and rising positions, of the sun, moon, or other heavenly bodies.
A useful way to understand the basis of this concept, is to imagine yourself as standing inside a great hemisphere, formed by the firmament above your head. Then, looking up and holding concentration for a few hours, noting that all the heavenly bodies appear to move very gradually, on girdling lines like global latitude, from east to west, pivoting around a point in the northern sky. By calculating the exact line of this celestial latitude, or declination, that touches the horizon on which your monument is orientated, you can ascertain, without ever having witnessed the event, if it indicates, or rather, indicated, a setting or rising point at, for example, solstice, equinox, or a limiting position of the moon.
Thus, on the shortest day of the year, December 21st and for the last number of years, I have been going to a small five-stone circle in the hills of West Cork. Its axial declination, in line with a pronounced ‘v‘ between the two facing hills to the south-west, was once measured, just so, by Jon Patrick, at -24.3 degrees*. Close to the exact setting point of the Bronze Age solstice sun and effective, although merely an ascribed value, in allowing a mind to imagine the fires, rituals and abandon of some wetter, western Saturnalia.
But how much more potent it is to stand there then, with the gooseflesh tingling on your cheeks and watch what the builders would have watched, at the time that they would have watched it, fastened, intoxicated, as the red-glowing weight of the sun sinks exactly where they had indicated, with their circle of stone, that it should. I deeply regret that I missed the web cast of this paper and failed to find out more, at least in that first respect, about the doomed enclosure at Lismullin.
“I passed here often when young, tired and bored
After another long day at the strand
And never looked past the gate, or did and
Saw only cattle rubbing against a post.
It would be thirty years before I knew,
Of the cobwebs spun in the morning dew.”
*Significant, although rough (allowable error of one degree), solar and lunar orientations of measured Cork/Kerry axial stone circles. The declination given for each is the most recently calculated. On the rare instances where Ruggles (1999. 217) and Patrick & Freeman (1983, 51-52) diverge over choice of axis for a site, I have used the Ruggles figure in deciding significance. ‘Target’ figures, also from Ruggles (1999, 57), are for 1000 BCE.
Winter Solstice Sunset (-23.8)
Equinox Sunset (+0.5)
Lunar Southern Minor Limit (-19.5)
Lunar Southern Major Limit (-29.85)
Patrick J. & Freeman P.R. 1983 Revised Surveys of Cork-Kerry Stone Circles Archaeoastronomy No.5 JHA xiv
Ruggles C. 1999 Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland Yale
On June 20th 1884 – two years after parliament passed John Lubbock’s Ancient Monuments Act, and a mere 12 days after General Augustus Pitt Rivers visited the site to assess its suitability – the great exposed neolithic burial chamber at Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire, became Wales’s first scheduled ancient monument. On June 20th two centuries later, a party of archaeologists gathered under the capstone to celebrate the general’s decision and the present system of protection that evolved from Lubbock’s act……
Arriving rather late for the party at Pentre Ifan, but it is rather interesting to note that this very elegant monument had a birthday this year. It became the first scheduled Welsh monument in 1884, to be protected by law. Obviously saved for its dramatic beauty in the Welsh countryside it seems a pity that other such sites around the country cannot always have the same protection.
by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
“Taillte and Nás Laighean of the slopes,
Aileach and Eamhain, red with wine
- no man leaves them sorrowful -
Uisneach and Cruachain and Caiseal.”
Translated from a poem by Giolla Brighde na Con Midhe, 13th Century (Smyth 1988, 163).
Just pondering on the Unesco tentative list’s ‘royal sites of Ireland‘, so-called because of their identification as such in early Irish literature; Tara (Temair), Cashel, Knockaulin (Dún Áilinne), Rathcrogan (Cruachain) and the Hill of Uisneach. Steve White, in a comment on an earlier article, and Tarawatch, have suggested properly completing the set, by including Navan Fort (Emain Macha), in Northern Ireland, in a new trans-boundary nomination with the other Irish royal sites.
To quote John Waddell, on their connection (1998, 325); “A number of celebrated ‘royal sites’ figure prominently in early Irish literature and four, Tara, Navan, Rathcrogan and Knockaulin are identified as pre-Christian centres in the calendar of saints known as Félire Óengusso which dates to about 830 AD… In a variety of early Medieval sources these sites are variously remembered as royal settlements or forts, cemeteries and assembly places… Survey and excavation now shows that these sites are related at least in so far as each of them has had a complex history of ceremonial and ritual activity in later prehistoric times.” A later figure, also provided by Waddell (1998, 346), shows a tantalising similarity between Navan Fort, ’capital’ of Ulster (phase 3ii) and Knockaulin, ‘capital’ of Leinster (’Rose’ phase).
The Unesco criteria demand that the site(s) must be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, not merely of value in an Irish context, but presumably of relevance in the decisive criteria are:
“1) must bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition/civilization which is living or has disappeared”
“6) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)”
Of course, any such nomination would also have to deal with Unesco’s stipulation that “it must be demonstrated that a comprehensive Management Plan and legislative protections are in place for the site”, or rather, how Tara, ‘capital’ of Meath, and its recent invasive alterations would be viewed in the light of it. This, depending on how monument boundaries will be defined, or how much destruction can be brushed under the concrete, may finish it even before it begins.
If we do venture to ignore this last issue, however, there would seem to be a strong case for Waddell’s four sites, if considered as a unit and probed with the two criteria; the complex, ‘kingly’ capitals of an ancient Iron Age European warrior tradition, uniquely and specifically documented in a large body of ancient myth, saga and literature.
You may note, however, that Uisneach, although an important ritual site of fires and assemblies, symbolic of the centre of the country, is not often recognised with the other four as ‘royal’. Smyth (1988, 178) quotes the Lebor Gabála as to its function;
“About the stone in cold Uisneach
In the plains of Mide of the horseman-bands,
On its top – it is a fair co-division -
Is the co-division of every province.”
It does, nonetheless, feature in the same literary sources. Cashel, a later site, presents more of a problem. In the early literature Munster was ruled, not from Tipperary, but from Temair Luachra, in Kerry, the seat, depending on the tale you read, of Eochaid, or the hound-king, Cú Roi. According to ‘The Intoxication of the Ulaid’ (trans. Gantz 1981, 198);
“…Temuir Lúachra lies on the slope of Irlúachair…”,
a mysterious, impregnable place;
“Whatever part of the world Cú Roi might be in, he sang a spell over his stronghold each night; it would then revolve as swiftly as a mill wheel turns, so that its entrance was never found after sunset.”
(‘Bricriu’s Feast’, trans. Gantz 1981, 247)
Cashel‘s sturdy contours would never need such an imagination to fill them in.
Consider the conflict in the Táin Bó Cualigne, in the context of this ‘warrior tradition‘, “the oldest vernacular epic in Western Literature”, according to the poet Thomas Kinsella (1969, vii), a struggle between two of the ‘royal sites‘; Emain Macha, in Ulster and Cruachain, in Connaught. At the very beginning of the tale, Queen Medb, in Rathcrogan fort, mentions all the kingdoms while reminiscing (Kinsella 1969, 53);
“My father gave me a whole province of Ireland, this province ruled from Cruachan, which is why I am called “Medb of Cruachan.” And they came from Finn the king of Leinster, Ros Ruad’s son to woo me, and from Coirpre Niafer the king of Temair, another of Rus Ruad’s sons. They came from Conchobor, king of Ulster, son of Fachtna, and they came from Eochaid Bec, and I wouldn’t go. For I asked a harder wedding gift than any woman ever asked before from a man in Ireland – the absence of meanness and jealousy and fear.”
O’Kelly (1989, 254), however, urges caution in running too fast with evidence from such epics. Their evocations of a heroic age may have come from universal sources. Although based on ancient oral traditions, they were written down hundreds of years later and inevitably influenced by the writers’ knowledge and surroundings; “Very little material has been found that is consonant with the rich aristocratic warlike peoples portrayed in the heroic literature as occupying these sites,..” Waddell (1998, 304) refers to comparisons between actual Iron Age swords and those described in the Táin, which found the latter to be, in fact, the same as contemporary early Medieval weapons.
Conversely, we could recognise the prominence with which the sites figure in the literature, as mentioned in the initial quotation from Waddell, then turn to Francis Pryor (2003, 377), as he proceeds to join actual features at Emain Macha to those mentioned when Cúchulainn’s father rallies Ulster, in The Táin;
“… a heroic world, peopled by legendary warriors. The Cattle Raid of Cooley (The Táin) gives us a glimpse of this world. They are extraordinary words from a vanished age:
“Sualtaim went to Emain, and cried out to the men of Ulster: ’Men have been murdered, women stolen, cattle plundered!’ He gave his first cry from the slope of the enclosure, his second beside the fort, and the third cry from the Mound of the Hostages inside Emain itself.”
… It must have been an extraordinary, awe-inspiring and mysterious place.”
To my mind, there are one or two key questions that must therefore be addressed, beyond any issues about the appropriacy of the Hill of Uisneach and Cashel and if the literary route is followed. Firstly, did these sites, multi-period and of fascinating complexity, have the type of Iron Age cultural tradition, or civilisation, laid out in the ancient literature? Secondly and if not, does the fact that they feature prominently and regularly in the events of such an important body of work, allow them to testify for the cultural traditions contained within it?
For those who fought to keep Tara intact and grew frustrated at the inaction of an environment minister who had previously been against the motorway, these other words of Pryor’s (2003, 369), describing the danger faced by Emain Macha in the 1980s, may prove depressing in their contrast;
“The operators of the quarry next to the site wanted to expand, and ultimately to engulf it. A planning inquiry was convened in 1986. The Friends of Navan put a strong case, and we supported Barry Cunliffe, whose evidence left the inquiry in no doubt of the site’s international importance. Despite this, the commissioner conducting the inquiry ruled that the quarry could not be halted. Then, the following year, 1987, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland overruled the commissioner at the last minute, and the quarry, which now survives as a pool eighty feet deep, was stopped.”
Gantz, J. (trans.) 1981 Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Penguin ISBN 0-14-044397-5
Kinsella, T. (trans.) 1969 The Táin. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-280373-5
O’Kelly, M.J. 1989 Early Ireland. Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-33687-2
Pryor, F. 2003 Britain BC. Harper Perennial ISBN 0-00-712693-4
Smyth, D. 1988 A Guide to Irish Mythology. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-2612-4
Waddell, J. 1998 The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland ISBN 1-869857-39-9
Hot on the heels of the story about the Bronze Age barrow at Stedham, about to be respectfully smashed to pieces at the behest of people that require the unexceptional few lorry-loads of sand that it sits on….
comes this story of another two Bronze Age barrows at Woking that don’t have sand under them and are therefore being treated quite differently!
How can the first monument be treated with utter contempt and the other, identical ones be cared for so well? Beats us.
All we can do is guess that the first one was just a bit unlucky.
As the great William Stukeley might have said of it …..
“And this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, hath fallen a sacrifice to wretched ignorance and avarice….”
A sand quarry needs to extend to obtain more sand (sand being such a rare resource!), a Bronze Age barrow is in the way, so a choice has to be made.
“Councillors heard that, depending on the results of the investigations, it would be decided if the barrow should be left undisturbed or preserved ‘by record’, where the barrow would be extensively photographed and described by archaeology specialists and then allowed to be destroyed.”
Anyone care to guess what the decision will be?
[CLUE: what is almost invariably the decision in such cases? ]
No prizes for guessing. After all, almost weekly comes evidence that quarry companies, local authorities and statutory heritage guardians are in effective cahoots to allow money to prevail over preservation while still mouthing words that suggest there’s no problem. WHAT WORDS ARE USED? Simple. “Preservation by Record”! So long as someone has written down that the barrow used to exist, says the story, then it’s fine to destroy it.
The same goes for St Pauls, Magna Carta and the Mona Lisa after all. No problem smashing them up to sell the debris for money as they’ll still be preserved by record.
Or does shamefully surrendering treasures to those who want to make money only apply to prehistoric monuments?
So it would seem.
See also this Wikipedia article on Cissbury, which gives a map of the threatened area of the hill fort, two thirds down into the article.
by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
The Tarawatch website has reported a recent briefing, from the National Roads Authority to Meath County Council, about another tolled motorway; the Leinster Orbital Route. The proposed road would circle the outer Dublin area for 80km, all the way from County Meath down to County Wicklow and cut, once again, through the area around the Hill of Tara. Furthermore, according to Tarawatch, the feasibility study indicates that the controversial Blundelstown interchange, a vast 50 acre tattoo on one side of the hill, was originally conceived with this route in mind.
Of course, archaeology and the sanctity of Ireland’s ancient heritage were far from the minds of some of the local councillors, when they were presented with news of the proposal. According to the Meath Chronicle; “serious doubts were raised over the need to keep a 2km-wide corridor of land open while consultations take place over the choosing of a final route for the motorway.” Indeed and how can you be expected to get planning permission sorted for houses and development, if you don’t know exactly where the road is going to be?
“Councillor Tommy Reilly said that he had been shouting for 10 years about the need for an outer orbital route. The motorway would “open up the county” and bring development, a regional college, hospitals and industries. He hoped there would be a quick decision on the selection of final route.”
I’m sure that he does.
Still only a ripple on the water, but ripples will turn into waves. In the words of the feasibility report; “ready and available for implementation at any stage in the future, when required.”
According to the International Energy Agency ; “a continuation of current trends in energy use puts the world on track for a rise in temperature of up to 6°C and poses serious threats to global energy security.” In what position does that analysis place our road/development obsession?