Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Grianán of Aileach

Further adventures on holiday...

After being generously indulged with all things archaeological on our last holiday to Ireland, back in 2014, this time around the only thing I really really wanted to do, besides visiting the statue of Manannán, was a trip to the Grianán of Aileach (the 'Sunny Place' of Aileach), which is situated just across the Irish border in Co. Donegal:

Credit to Mark McGaughey via Wikimedia Commons

As you can see from this overhead shot (most definitely not taken by me) it's an impressive stone hillfort with really thick walls – they're about 4.5m thick, or nearly 15ft for you imperialists.

Historically speaking, the site is thought to have been occupied as a hill-fort of some sort or another from as early as the Bronze or Iron Age, although evidence of activity may go back as far as the Neolithic. It's situated at the top of a hill that commands an impressive view. To one side there's a view of Lough Swilly, while to another there's a view of Lough Foyle, which heads off towards the Atlantic.

The walls as they stand today are thought to have originally been built some time in the sixth or seventh century, and the place was occupied for several centuries until it was destroyed in 1101 by Muirchertach Ua Briain, the king of Munster (and self-proclaimed king of Ireland at the time). By the nineteenth century it was in a state of disrepair, and restoration work was undertaken in 1874-1875. After the walls partially collapsed in the early 2000s, further restoration was undertaken, which proved rather controversial.

Given how exposed its situation is, the walls do a good job of protecting the interior of the fort from the elements.

There's only one entrance, so it's pretty good for defence, too.

The hillfort served as a royal capital for the Cenél nEógain ('the Kindred of Eógain,' or 'Owen' as the name is Anglicised), a branch of the Uí Néill ('Descendants of Niall'), but it's the mythology that's attached to the site that interests me. There are several Dindshenchas ('Placename Lore') stories that explain the origins of the site and how it got its name, and even within these stories there are several explanations that may be given.   

The main version of the story tells of how a son of the Dagda, Áed, had an affair with a married woman. The name of the woman is apparently irrelevant because we're never told it, but her husband, Corrcend, is not a particularly happy bunny upon discovery of the news. He murders Áed in cold blood and then decides to leg it right quick in order to avoid the consequences. The Dagda, however, being king at the time, marshals his resources and sends out a search party or two. Corrcend is eventually found and brought before the grieving king.

The Dagda decides to punish Corrcend for his crime and orders him to build a suitable grave for his son. Corrcend is forced to trudge down to one of the local loughs where he must then carry rocks back up to the top of the hill in order to build a grave-mound for Áed. As the grave is very near its completion, Corrcend carries an especially large rock up the hill. By this point Corrcend is exhausted and using every last ounce of strength in his reserves, but soon he finds he can't take it any more. As he reaches the top, he cries out from his exertions. First he shouts "Ail!" which pretty much means "the rock!" and then he shouts "Ach!" which pretty much means "ach!" And Corrcend's heart gives out and he dies on the spot.

The Dagda, evidently having a sense of humour even in the midst of a personal tragedy, declares that Corrcend has given the place a fitting name, and announces that Ailech shall be the name of his son's grave from that point onwards. Ailech, as it happens, can either refer to a pile of rocks, or else it can refer to a type of satire or an invective. By coincidence, the word aílech may refer to dung or manure.

So Corrcend's famous last words could effectively be interpreted as a rather stilted exclamation of "Shit!"

The Dagda then employs a couple of stonemasons to build a hillfort on top of the grave. When the hillfort is finished, the Dagda gives it to Néit and his wife Nemain.

A while later, after what we can only presume is a glorious reign because we know pretty much nothing about Néit's life, Néit is killed by Nemtuir the Red, a Fomorian. This is during the reign of Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht and Mac Gréine, the three sons of Cermait Milbél, another of the Dagda's sons, and their reign was long after the Tuatha Dé Danann defeated the Fomorians at the second battle of Mag Tuired. The fact that a member of the Fomorians is causing trouble – breaking the peace treaty that was agreed upon after the Tuatha Dé Danann won the battle – is a bad sign.

Upon hearing the news of Néit's death, the three kings make haste to the Grianán of Aileach, having heard rumours of a crap ton of treasure being up for grabs. There's no indication that the kings made any effort to retaliate or seek justice for Néit's death, their only concern is treasure and this is another bad sign – a king's job is to demonstrate good judgement and ensure justice is done (amongst other things, of course), but to all intents and purposes neither Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, nor Mac Gréine have shown any concern in this. As traditional narratives go, this is a pretty big sign of impending doom...

While they're at the Grianán of Ailech, a member of the Milesians, Íth son of Breogán, arrives from Spain. Íth is the first of the Milesians to arrive in Ireland, having spotted land in the far distance while looking out to sea from the top of a great tower his father had built, and he decides then and there to sail over to this new land and see what it might have to offer. Having made his way to the Grianán, Íth finds the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann still bickering about the treasure, although they stop for a moment to welcome their new guest. During his stay, Íth acts as a peace broker, settling the matter once and for all.

Íth also comments on how rich and wonderful Ireland is, how pleasant the climate is, and how the country has everything one could want a home to offer. Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, and Mac Gréine hatch a plan to kill Íth, seeing him as a threat. He hasn't made any threats outright, but his comments clearly imply an interest in muscling in on everything Ireland has to offer, and naturally Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, and Mac Gréine aren't interested in sharing. Íth is killed on his way back to his ship, the site of his death then taking his name, Mag Ítha, or 'the Plain of Íth.'

The mysterious disappearance of their beloved relative prompts the sons of Míl, Eber, Donn, and Éremón to sail over from Spain in order to see what's going on. This ultimately ends up in a battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians over Ireland's sovereignty, which is fought at Tailltiu. In spite of the Tuatha Dé Danann's best efforts to fend off the invaders, the Milesians win, and the three sons of Cermait Milbél are killed. The impending doom that's foreshadowed by the three kings' bad behaviour is fulfilled. In the resulting peace agreement, the Tuatha Dé Danann take to the hills and the otherworldly síde, and Ireland is handed over to the realm of human mortals.

As it happens, the fort does appear to have been built on top of a Neolithic grave mound, which might have influenced the story of Corrcend. That's assuming the site's identification with Ailech is correct, however; since Ailech was originally destroyed in 1101, the place remained a symbol of political power in the area, and poets linked named various different places as being the 'real' Ailech, which has confused matters somewhat. In recent decades, a number of other sites have now been suggested as the possibly 'original' Ailech, but – as yet – these proposals have yet to gain much traction.

Whatever the case may be, it's a beautiful and unique place and well worth the visit. If you ever get the chance, go!

Ailech I in the Metrical Dindshenchas
Ailech II in the Metrical Dindshenchas
Ailech III in the Metrical Dindshenchas
Ailech in the Prose Tales of the Rennes Dindshenchas
Lebor Gabála Érenn Part V

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Visiting Manannán mac Lir

It's been a while...

Back in January 2015, if you recall, news broke that a statue of Manannán mac Lir, which had been erected at Gortmore Viewing Point on Binevenagh Mountain, near Limavady, just one year previously, had been stolen. After removing the statue (apparently using an angle grinder), the thieves left a large wooden cross in its place, which read 'You shall have no other gods before me.'

The theft, which appears to have been religiously motivated, received a huge amount of attention, both locally and internationally, and even prompted a (rather tongue in cheek) missing person's appeal by police to help raise awareness. Although the people responsible for the theft and vandalism of the site have never been caught, the statue was eventually found by a group of ramblers – exactly one month after its disappearance – just 300m from its original position. Aside from having been cut from its platform right at the feet, the thieves had tried to remove the head. It was decided the statue was beyond repair, and after some debate (with some vocal opposition railing against restoring the 'paganistic monument'), local councillors agreed to commission a replacement from the original sculptor, Darren Sutton. Just over a year after the original statue's theft, the new statue (which was made with additional reinforcements to make any future attempts at a repeat more difficult) was put in its rightful place. 

Back in 2014, Mr Seren and I took the kids on holiday to Ireland, basing ourselves in Dublin and taking in the Newgrange complex, Kildare, and Tara, amongst other things. In July this year, we decided to take a trip back over the water, and this time we based ourselves in Portrush, right in the far north near the Giant's Causeway and not too far a trek from Binevenagh Mountain itself. It's an amazingly beautiful area and we somehow managed to pick one of the hottest – and sunniest – weeks of the year to do it all, which was incredibly lucky. Being so close, the chance of visiting the statue was too much to resist, so one evening (on our 16th wedding anniversary) we took a drive up, an hour or two before sunset.

Close up it somehow seemed smaller than what I was expecting, just from having seen photos of it. The details and craftsmanship of the statue itself is absolutely breathtaking, though, from every angle.

Unfortunately, as you can see in the picture below, there's some minor damage to the statue, including what appears to be a gouge mark on the right leg.

I couldn't say if this is the result of deliberate, malicious attempts to damage it (again), or if it's accidental, though.

The statue was erected at the site because of Manannán's reputed connections to the local area; storms and rough seas are said to be the result of his fury. From the viewing point where the statue stands, you can see Lough Foyle as it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

 Looking out to sea it's absolutely stunning, and turning further inland isn't bad, either. 

The statue of Manannán himself stands on a ship, or part of it, at least. At the back of the ship, the sculptor has detailed some of the most iconic items that were found with the Broighter Hoard, which was discovered in a field near Limavady in the late nineteenth century:

You can see here the torcs and chains, collar, bowl (possibly representing a cauldron), and the miniature boat (replete with tiny oars, benches, and mast), which were all made out of gold.

When they were originally discovered, the items were squashed and badly damaged by the plough that had brought them up to the surface, and the finders – two men working the field, James Morrow and Thomas Nicholl – sold the hoard to the landowner (and their employer), Joseph Gibson, for just £5. At the time, items like this were often sold for scrap; their great age and significance wasn't really understood or appreciated so it wasn't unusual for old gold like this to end up being melted down and turned into something shiny and new, the original form of the items lost for good. Who knows what's been lost because of this, but luckily in this instance the hoard was saved from this sort of fate. It was sold to a private collector, Robert Day, who then had the items restored by an experienced goldsmith. It was only at this point that the form and intricacy of the boat was uncovered (for one), and Day then sold the whole lot to the British Museum for £600.

The Royal Irish Academy, who had become increasingly invested in rescuing items of this nature by this point in time, had tried to secure the hoard for themselves, but it had already been sold before a full inquest had been carried out to establish whether or not it qualified as treasure trove. The RIA believed it did, and were less than pleased that the British Museum had snapped the gold up for themselves. The dispute eventually ended up in court where it was argued the British Museum had bought the hoard unlawfully, because as treasure trove the hoard would belong to the Crown, not Robert Day himself.

The key point in the case was in deciding whether or not the person (or people) who had left the hoard in the field ever intended to recover the items. If the judge ruled that there had been the intention to recover the hoard (say if they'd been buried temporarily, for safekeeping), then they would qualify as treasure trove and the hoard would belong to the Crown. The British Museum would have to give up the gold, and that would pretty much suck for them. If they managed to argue that the items were never intended to have been recovered by the original owner(s) (or a rightful heir), however, the hoard would not be treasure trove and the British Museum would be able to keep them and do with them as they wished.

The British Museum set out to argue that the hoard had been deposited as a votive offering to an Irish sea god, and they brought in an expert to confirm to the judge that there was indeed such a deity – a 'mythical Irish Neptune,' as the judge later referred to him in his ruling – in the form of Manannán, who (crucially) was well-known in local legend. The British Museum also brought in experts who testified that the field in which the items had been found would have been under sea at the time of their deposition, some time in the first century B.C.E., and they further suggested that in order to deposit the items in that particular spot, they would have had to have done so from a boat. As an offering, then, there was no way anyone ever intended to recover them at a later date and that meant the hoard couldn't be considered to be treasure trove.

Hedging their bets a little, the British Museum then also argued that if the court accepted their argument that the hoard was a votive offering, then it couldn't be viewed as having been abandoned because clearly it did have an owner now – Manannán himself! This would mean the hoard couldn't be viewed as treasure trove on two accounts.

The judge, however, had little time or patience for any of this. He dismissed the whole idea as 'fanciful,' and instead accepted the ‘commonplace but natural inference that these articles were… hidden for safety in a land disturbed by frequent raids.’ The hoard was subsequently ruled to be treasure trove and the British Museum were instructed to turn the hoard over to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Except for the occasional tour or loan, the hoard is still on display there today.

Since the court case in 1903, however, the controversy over the true nature of the hoard has continued. Rumours emerged that the hoard was not an ancient deposit at all – votive or otherwise – but had, in fact, been discovered wrapped up in a very modern umbrella, possibly having been hastily stashed after a robbery. Claims were also made that the bulk of the hoard was not Irish in origin (except, perhaps, the ornate collar), but had been imported from India. At around the same time as these claims were gaining traction, another gold hoard at the museum that had ultimately been revealed to be a fake was melted down. As doubts grew about the Broighter hoard, it could have easily suffered the same fate.

In more recent decades, studies have concluded that the hoard really is genuine. The gold itself is not local, and some of the items may be Roman in origin, but none of it is Indian in origin. The craftsmanship of the torcs and the gold collar are clearly Irish, and were probably made in the same area they were ultimately deposited in, around the first century B.C.E. The bowl and boat are so unique there is nothing really to compare them to, but the boat in particular appears to represent a large currach. The rings on the bowl suggest it was meant to have been suspended, just like a cauldron, although its shape doesn't appear to reflect any local examples of that period. Analysis of the local landscape has shown that while the place in which the hoard was deposited wasn't permanently underwater, it would most certainly have been intermittently flooded, and otherwise marshy.

Based on comparisons with other depositions from similar sorts of sites around Ireland, it now seems clear that the Broighter Hoard really was a votive deposit. Whether they were actually intended for Manannán himself is not something we can ever really know, but I think it's rather striking that these repeated controversies (and attitudes of religious intolerance, or dismissiveness towards anything pagan) have worked in favour of raising Manannán's profile so effectively on more than one occasion. Had the statue never been stolen by bigots, I don't think so many people would have heard about the statue in the first place – I certainly didn't know about it until the news broke, for sure. Clearly, Manannán wants to be seen.