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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