Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

 

Ogham to Isaac

Thoughts from the Moone High Cross (2001)

Ogham Stones were probably erected by the Celts as memorials to historic events such as the wars with the Firbolgs. Ogham, the ancient alphabet of the Celts, was invented in Southern Ireland and spread across the British Isles. The alphabet is made up of straight and slanting lines carved onto blocks of wood and stone. Slant slant slant. Slash slash slash. The meaning of these slants and slashes is not known. We haven't a clue. Ireland is full of rock formations the purpose of which we don't understand. Outside Carlow Town is a dolmen which is to say a huge rock mounted on a number of other rocks. The one I'm talking about has a capstone of 100 tons. It is the biggest in Europe. If you assume a bus weighs 3 or 4 tons, then we are talking about 30 or 40 buses being lifted at once. Our forbears created these dolmens two or three thousand years ago. Nobody is quite sure when exactly which is why we dismiss it with a vague "two or three thousand years ago", happy to forget that the difference between two and three thousand years is about 365,000 days.

Dolmens are reckoned to be burial sites. I've stood in fields filled with standing stones. I've sat in a dozen dolmens and sung songs to myself. If you climb to the top of a hill in Ireland you will find that somebody else climbed the very same summit two or three thousand years ago and took a rock up with him. There are huge mounds of rocks - which we call cairns - on the summit of most Irish hills. Everywhere across this land there are stone circles, carefully built with granite or quartzite or limestone or sometimes even sandstone. They are carefully positioned to reflect the mood swings of the solar system above us. Likewise the passage graves, like Newgrange, huge underground tombs wonderfully decorated in squiggles and spirals and coils that, yet again, mean absolutely nothing to us. The tomb at Newgrange is the most famous in Ireland because its architects had the patience and sheer brilliance to build an underground tomb that would light up on one day of the year only - the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the 21st December. There is another passage grave on the west coast - at Carrowkeel in County Sligo - that only lights up on the longest day of the year, the 21st June, the summer solstice.

Everything about Stone Age people is utterly remarkable.

Lay Lines

Some 21st century people believe these ancients lived in accordance with lay lines. These are invisible paths of communication that stretch across the land, connecting stone circles and dolmens and ogham stones. A friend of mine called Johnny Mescal was with friends of his in a stone circle one day when their hair literally stood on end. There was some sort of discharge of static energy that brought this about. This doesn't necessarily mean that if you stand in a stone circle - or even that stone circle - your hair will stand on end. They happened to be in the right place at the right time and if it had happened to me I suspect I might have wet my pants with the shock of it all. But at one extreme we do have people, including astronomers and serious historians, who believe the Stone Age population of Ireland were somehow able to communicate through these lay lines. In other words, Mrs. Caveman living on the west coast could feasibly dash out the front door of her home, nip up to the nearest stone circle and clap her hands in the static for a while. Her husband, Mr. Caveman, standing in another stone circle fifty miles away could feasibly pick up this static clap action and interpret as "Darling, the Bogtrotters are coming to dinner tonight so can you pick up a couple of elk on your way home and do remember that Ethel's a vegan". It's an extreme but sometimes all you can do is guess!

We have to guess at the meaning of many things. We have to guess at the meaning of Ogham Stones. We don't have to guess at the meaning of the Moone High Cross but I hope to get onto that in a while. I'm trying to show you a connection between Ireland's pagan Stone Age past and the Christian high crosses which started to pop up about 14 or 1500 years ago. I believe high crosses are simply an evolution from these ogham stones. But what was written on the ogham stones? What do all these slashes mean? Perhaps they record some ancient hero or an important event, a battle, a victory, a coronation, a jubilee. Perhaps it's just poetry. Morse Code poetry. Morse code rap? Slant slant slant slant slant slash slash slash slash slant. Beautiful imagery! Stunning rhythm! I feel a sonnet coming on, time to whip out my pen knife and get etching. Ah, it'd make a grown man weep!
But who knows? Perhaps it was a way of scoring in early forms of cricket or baseball or football.

Personal Belief

I personally believe that these stones marked spots around which children and other interested parties would gather in order to hear the words of the chieftain, the prayers of the druids and the tales of the shannachie. The shannachie, the original Irish storyteller, a man completely and beautifully versed in the words and deeds and scripts and adventures of the legends. We all have legends. The Trojan Wars, Agamemnon, Theseus and the Minotaur. Noah's Ark. Adam and Eve. The Brothers Grimm. Has Christian Andersen. The Irish have their legends too, stories of powerful warriors and noble kings and treacherous princes and beautiful daughters that couldn't be controlled. They are wonderful stories and that is why they were passed down by word of mouth and then embellished with feather quills and pens and keyboards so that children still read them today. The Irish have always been a extraordinarily literate breed. - Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Seamus Heaney, Bono, Bob Geldof, Shane MacGowan, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, Patrick McCabe! I don't know quite where this literary prowess came from. It's more than an island mentality. Although there's something quite remarkable about this island.

The New Irish

Perhaps it's the fact we were the underdog for so long. Like many nations, we tend to shine when we're the underdog and we invariably blow it when everything's coming our way. We have been invaded by outsiders since the beginning of time. There have been dwarfs and giants, dragons and spiders, Vikings and Normans, British Redcoats, Spanish Catholics and French Republicans. Today we are being assaulted on all fronts. American capitalism rushes back 3000 miles across the Atlantic to engulf us. We sometimes wonder are we the 52nd state? From the east, European politics thrusts its policies and refugees and currency at us with growing insistence. This is fine. Times are changing. The Irish people are - apparently - quite willing to accept change. I personally think the new coins and certainly the notes we've been given are disgraceful. The old Irish notes were magnificent artistic creations. They bore the faces of Ireland's heroes - Yeats, Swift, Joyce, Daniel O'Connell who liberated the Irish Catholics, Douglas Hyde the first president, the beautiful Hazel Lavery as our watermark … and our coins had the harp on one side and on the other a series of animals symbolic of the legends - the salmon of knowledge, the red bull of Louth, the great jutting stag and the horse and the paycock. I was sorry to see them go. But I was even sorrier to see the notes replaced by such utterly characterless notes depicting a bunch of buildings that don't even exist.

The Irish are an old race. The genes ain't what they used to be! In fact, I'd say there's less than a hundred families in this country who can honestly claim that their blood is free from the blood of, say, a dwarf or a giant or a Viking marauder or a Norman knight or a British Redcoat or a Spanish Catholic or a French Republican! Today we see Poles and Nigerians and Arabs and Americans and Chinese and Argentinian and Germans and Swiss and Dutch. The Irish are diluted. This is why to qualify for a position on the Irish football team all you really need is to have a grandmother who once owned an Irish wolfhound.

The Great Flood

Our legends date back to the very dawning of time when the slash slash slash lines represented the ancient Celtic alphabet. This alphabet started in the south west of Ireland and spread east into Britain and France. In the south west, tradition states that we evolved from Cessia, a granddaughter of Noah, Noah of the Ark. She is said to have arrived in Kerry during the latter stages of the Great Flood. Many people laugh about this. But attempts to discredit this theory have themselves been discredited by the discovery of Egyptian relics in the tombs at Newgrange. And so history confounds us yet again! Nothing is as it seems and when it is, it isn't! I think the Flood theory quite plausible. Every culture I can think of has a Flood. The Chinese had a flood. The Arabs had a flood. The Africans talk of a flood. Even the Aborigines attribute their earliest origins to the coming of a flood. There are certain things, certain events, which go across the board. The Celts believed in fire-breathing dragons and indulged in human sacrifice to please their Gods. The Chinese believed in fire-breathing dragons and indulged in human sacrifice to please their Gods. The Arabs believed in fire-breathing dragons and indulged in human sacrifice to please their Gods. So did the Aztecs and the Maoris and the Vikings and the Eskimos and probaby the Germans and the Dutch and the Swiss and the Spanish. Certain things are common to all. Dragons, sacrifice and floods.

That's one reason why I'm willing to tolerate the tale of Noah's granddaughter fetching up in County Kerry 8000 years ago. There is, of course, the slight problem that Noah didn't exist in Irish - or rather Celtic - eyes until about 1000 years ago when the Bible got translated but never mind.

Noah's Vineyard

We must also bear in mind that Noah was a drunkard. Not many people know this but its all their in the Bible. The old boy ran a lucrative vineyard and, like many a modern day Irishman, suffered the inevitable burden of wanting to drink, down and devour his succulent creations from dusk till dusk. By early evenings he was a horrendous mess, dribbling poetic nonsense from his beard, flailing his arms in a futile attempt to beat up his children, wrapping his vocal chords around a series of incomprehensible revolutionary songs and generally cursing the God that created him. This, in many ways, was the prototype of the 20th century Irishman. A colourful and defiant man who sings and dribbles and roars and chants and jokes and laughs and curses and sometimes cries.

The End of an Age

The Moone High Cross is one of 200 high crosses scattered across Ireland but it is one of the better ones. It's condition is good. It dates to the 9th century although the abbey is said to have been built about 200 years earlier. What makes a high cross so important is the fact that they all have little stories carved onto them. They were funded by the local chieftains who, since the time of Saint Patrick in the early 5th century, were lead to believe that if they behaved in a good Christian manner they would be rewarded with happiness in heaven. By the 9th century, when this cross was erected, this message had been unfortunately amended by the Roman Catholic Church so that if one didn't behave in a good Christian manner one would be rewarded with eternity in hell. In later years a Swiss chap named Calvin suggested that Earth was Hell and everyone's doomed to eternal damnation whatever they do. Religion is a funny game. And in Ireland, it's over. Or very nearly. The Catholic Church has fallen from power. Astonishingly. They are on the way out unless something miraculous happens. The people have grown bored. 90% of our people are technically Catholic. But they are losing faith at great speed. There have been to many scandals and lies. It's extraordinary and its sometimes rather daunting but I won't go into that here.

When Rome burned and the empire of the Caesars collapsed, Europe was overrun with barbarian hordes. But somehow Christianity survived. Somehow the stories of the Old and New Testament survived. Many believe this survival depended entirely on the sheer faith and persistence of the Celtic missionaries operating out of Ireland and Britain between, say, the 5th and 9th centuries. Thereafter the religion became increasingly popular with the elite of Europe and rival kings even joined forces to command armies hell bent on ridding the world of Islam. My how we've changed.

The Moone High Cross

The abbey at Moone was apparently founded in the 6th century by Saint Columba, one of Ireland's most influential missionaries. The landscape around would have been woodland, forestry, trees, oaks. Rivers were a principle means of access. The monastery would have been a centre for people to gather around, a relatively secure base for education, health and worship. Many monasteries and churches and abbeys are actually sited on land that was formerly pagan territory. Christianity in Ireland evolved out of pagan beliefs. The ancient festivals of the pagan Gods were taken over by the Christians and made their own. Christmas, Halloween, Easter, all the saint's days … they all fall on days which the ancients would have recognized as special feast days when, say, the seasons changed or the stars shifted or the moon turned back the front. The early Christians - Celtic Christians - didn't believe in the Immaculate Conception or Eternal Damnation. They were much more practical than that. A practicality born of their understanding of astronomy and mathematics. The Church of Rome took over the adminsitration of the Church in Ireland in 664AD. Thereafter a new era of Christianity occurred. In order to satisfy the Celtic custom of worshipping female Goddesses, the Virgin Mary was introduced as quite the most remarkable woman in the world. Mary is still one of the most common names in Ireland. Statues of the Virgin Mary are to be found in nearly every town. Some of them have been known to weep. One of them wept so impressively that the Government funded the building of an airport to cater to the thousands of pilgrims who flock to see the statue every year. Such is the way of this world of ours but who is to say that a weeping statue is any less likely than one's hair standing on end when walking through a stone circle.

I have one final thought on this cross and that concerns the image carved thereon of Abraham laying his only son Isaac on a rocky slab with a view to killing him as a show of his devotion to God. In the story, Abraham, distraught but determined, is suddenly surprised by an angel who tells him to relax, there is no need to kill your son to prove you love. Instead the angel directs Abraham's attention to a fluffy little lamb who happens to be grazing nearby so Abe grabs the lamb and slays it instead. However, the point, I believe, is that Celtic Christianity was successfully marketing itself as an all new super-tolerant and liberal religion where, guess what, you didn't have to perform human sacrifice to prove your devotion to God. Every ancient cult had a frightening thirst for human sacrifice be it Celtic, Viking, Mongol, Aztec or African. That's what made Christianity different. In the beginning at any rate, for its hard not to regard certain crusades or even the Great War as a blatant sacrifice. Anyway, that's my interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac carving and I'm sticking to it.


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