Michael Gibbons, National Museum of Australia, 8 October 2008
MIKE SMITH: It is my pleasure to welcome everyone to today’s proceedings. I would like to especially welcome our speaker Michael Gibbons and also the Irish ambassador who we are very privileged to have with us today. From the vantage point of Australia, Ireland seems to have one of the most lively areas of archaeology in western Europe and a very well-organised public infrastructure for archaeology, at least from our perspective. I am doubly pleased to be able to welcome a fellow archaeologist to the Museum today and I look forward to hearing what Michael has to tell us. His visit is very short. It is a whistle-stop visit to Canberra, and he is sponsored by Culture Ireland. Before we proceed with Michael’s talk I would like to introduce Richard Reid who most of you know. He has been working with the Museum on an exhibition looking at Irish in Australia. Richard is really our connection to Ireland, and he will do the more formal introduction for our speaker Michael.
RICHARD REID: Thanks Mike. I like that thought: our connection to Ireland. I will have to work on that. Does that mean I can have a visit every couple of months or something?
It is my great pleasure to welcome Michael Gibbons here today and to tell you a little bit about him. When I first met Michael you have to imagine this character to my right here who, dressed in working clothes and boots, will throw himself into the centre of a bog quite literally and pick up a piece of peat and start talking to elderly Australians about the significance of the bogs of Ireland and the treasures that they contain.
Michael is one of the dynamic forces, as far as I can understand it, in archaeology in Ireland. One of the things that he has done - he may speak a bit more about this - and it bears reflecting upon given the nature of the way we come to work in the morning. We drive our cars or we get the bus or whatever it is. Michael for a period of four or five months was driving every day from Clifden in Galway, where he lives, to the foot of a mountain, Croagh Patrick Mountain, and walking up this very arduous trek right to the very top every day to excavate an ancient church there that I am sure he will tell you about that. There are not many of us who have that kind of background or experience. Mike was saying desert archaeology is full of pain and misery, but that kind or archaeology at the top of a mountain every morning is probably equally so.
We contacted the Irish embassy to try to get Michael out here because we have just been running a weekend conference out at St Clement’s, the monastery at Galong, to talk about the famine in Ireland and the sites in Ireland that are identified with the famine. One of the things that Michael is bringing to us here is the fact that there is a part of archaeology in Ireland that has been totally overlooked. Most of you would have in your mind ancient Celtic sites, sites of churches, sites of ancient fortresses - a whole range of things that are very familiar when you think of the ancient Celtic context of Ireland. What Michael is bringing to all this, living in the west of Ireland, is the fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of remains of the mid-nineteenth century of people who fled from the famine, who left their cabins, their villages and the places they were living in, and that by and large Irish archaeologists and historians ignored those sites up until the present day. Michael is one of the very few people who has begun to actually look at those places.
From an Australian point of view that is significant for us when we are looking at those sorts of places because it is the context out of which so many thousands and thousands of Irish people came to Australia in the nineteenth century. Although it might seem a little tenuous to talk about Irish archaeology, Irish archaeology of the nineteenth century can link very solidly into what we are trying to do here in the Museum in a couple of years, which is to put up an exhibition on the Irish in Australia. But you don’t want to hear from me; you want to hear from someone who knows about these places on the ground. I am sure he is going to touch on the famine. It is my great pleasure to introduce to you Michael Gibbons.
MICHAEL GIBBONS: It is a great pleasure to be here. I am going to talk today a little bit about the background. I worked for ten years directing a national survey program all over Ireland. Our task broadly was to map the antiquities of Ireland from the Mesolithic through to the seventeenth century using a variety of sources including oral history, seventeenth century accounts, early studies of the landscape, private memoirs, ordnance survey letters and a whole array of material. This was done immediately prior to the economic boom that we have been experiencing for the last 15 years - stuttering a little bit at the moment but up until last weekend. In advance of that boom there was a major government program of rapid surveys trying to collate a vast array of material on the landscape and from that material issuing planning constraint documents. It was very fortunate this was done because it happened before the boom happened.
In that process we documented over 100,000 monuments throughout the Irish landscape covering a vast array of material. You should never apply for a job that you don’t want because you might be offered it. When I applied for this job I was working on this particular island, the Aran Islands. I got the job I suppose because I came from a background of field archaeology and had been mapping the uplands and islands on the west coast in particular. These are islands and uplands which have a continuing living spiritual tradition in the pilgrimage tradition that survives today on these islands. We had uncovered a huge array of material previously unmapped in this area so we brought new techniques to map that.
Ireland today has a very large and deep archaeological infrastructure mostly in the private sector. Nine out of ten archaeologists in Ireland work in the private sector. We have a growing public sector but it has been overstripped. There are areas of Irish landscape in particular which had been ignored completely and which now there are major advances being made in. In particular I refer here to marine and intertidal zone archaeology which is a growing field in Ireland. After 10,000 years we have suddenly woken up to the fact that we live on an island, and scholarship at a very high level has been funded on some of these projects.
I am going to talk today on one small project which will touch on aspects of early Christian, medieval and post-medieval landscapes. It is a project I was involved in, and still am, on the Aran Islands, which is a wonderful block of islands off the west coast. They are barrier islands midway around the western seaboard, and draped across them is that palimpsest of archaeology. This is Inis Mor, the big barrier reef of islands [shows image]. These are ribbed with a whole series of early field systems. Those field systems have their origins in some places in the Bronze Age, and that pattern laid down continues on in subsequent generations right out through and expanded in the nineteenth century. So it is one of the great archaeological landscapes of western Europe. It’s a continuation of the barren uplands. And overlaying that is an historic memory: there is an oral tradition on the island which is very old, very deep and multi-layered. I was fortunate in having grown up in this area and have had huge contact with the islanders who are comfortable with me as a Connemara person from across the water, and lots of sites come to light due to personal contact alone. There is a living oral heritage in the landscape here that traditional archaeologists prior to that often coming from a distant culture, if you like, didn’t get access to this material. There is an oral history and an Irish language survival here on the islands. I will be combining elements of those together in this presentation.
I am initially going to focus on the port of Aran, which was a great medieval harbour on the west coast of Ireland. This is a view out through the present harbour at Killeany from Cill Éinne, the church of St Enda. The Aran Islands is known in Irish as Ara na Naomh, ‘Aran of the Saints’. It was considered sacred ground in early historic times. There are about 15 early monastic sites scattered across it. There is a legendary dimension to the origins of early Christian Ireland.
This is a view of the island chain. This is one of the islands. The first thing that strikes you is that it has a very serrated edge with 100-metre high cliffs and then you have this grey sheet of rock. These are limestone reefs. The first settlement on the islands goes back to the Neolithic. Scattered across this landscape you have a series of Neolithic tombs. In the waters just to the north of it in inner Galway Bay - this is at the mouth of Galway Bay - a series of Mesolithic sites dating back between 6000 and 8000 years ago. Hunter gatherer populations being the earliest group we have in Ireland. Post Ice Age around 10,000 years ago we have the emergence of Mesolithic societies in Ireland, and for the next 4000 years there are very conservative indigenous hunter gatherer groups living in the world without any large mammals. An early Mesolithic settlement in Ireland is in a land with no large mammals - the largest thing is a wild boar - so a very unusual Mesolithic environment.
This island in the Neolithic would have been covered in a light tree cover. We have evidence of that from a series of pollen cores from Loch Mór [a large lake on Inisheer]. In the Neolithic there was a massive expansion of settlement. You have these waves of settlement right across the island. Many of the megalithic tombs on Ireland are known as [Irish], the bed of Dermot and Grania, two lovers that elope and are chased around the island. They are not known as boring megalithic tombs.
There is an oral history which interprets the monuments in a particular way. If you are open to that oral history, listen to it and hear it, you have an oblique angle in onto the landscape. When I was mapping this area we found about 50 previously unrecognised megalithic tombs mostly from following up oral history. This is why it is quite a fascinating landscape. You have this interface between a folklore dimension to it and the archaeology itself, which is still alive. This culture is not alive in most of the rest of Ireland. It is fading out fast.
There are a large amount of Neolithic sites here. In the subsequent Bronze Age there is another wave of settlement into these elements. You have these peaks and troughs through the Irish landscape. Because you have a culture of small farms and traditional belief systems there is a tremendous reluctance to damage or interfere with these monuments. So you have another protective mantle, if you like, placed on the landscape by a conservative small farming and fishing world that are fearful of interfering with these monuments.
As you go across Ireland, if you look at Ireland as the survival of aspects of European culture, the further up you go that is more to the west and more in the uplands you will see more traditional ways still surviving here. It means that we have unparallelled pre-historic landscapes surviving here. You have later settlements and another layer on top of that again. On Aran it is particularly important for you have an island with lots of stone and little soil. Some monuments just get built and rebuilt, rarely rubbed out.
In the middle there is a village associated with Liam O’Flaherty, Gort na gCapall. It is a tiny little settlement up against the crag. You have little pockets of soil where the modern settlement is located. These white dots are the modern settlement [shows map]. But the back of the island is cleaned out or scoured out but there is a skeletal framework of early field systems across that. Some of these are very early. This is the landscape when you look down on it [shows image]. The biggest artefacts on the Aran Islands are the later wall systems, and these are multi phased. The last big push here was in the nineteenth century when you had population expansion out of the villages where every corner and every inch of ground was enclosed and settled. Despite the fact there is no soil within a lot of these fields there is grazing. These are good grazing grounds. The island is radiating heat so there is a long growing season here. People from Connemara used to bring their cattle out to Aran to graze them for example. Within this field system you have early Christian, medieval, prehistoric and nineteenth century field systems all seamlessly running into one another.
On the north side you have some machair dunes, coastal dune sites. You have very shallow, fragile soil literally 20 centimetres deep, so you have some very interesting dune archaeology here. With eroding dunes and powerful storm surges you have the erosion of some of this softer coast line. Most of Ireland is not particularly soft, but in places where you have it you are getting a series of coastal dunes. In the west here the earliest description we have is 1837 with George Petrie [famous nineteenth century antiquarian] describing a great mound of sand being blown off and a Skara Brae [Neolithic settlement on Orkney] type village uncovered beneath the sands. The winds continue to blow and this ancient village gets covered in. So this green narrow strip is enclosed machair, something similar to what you get in the Outer Hebrides, and it is very rich in archaeology.
When you look at the island from the air, when we were mapping we used very traditional survey methods and we also went back to basics. We got the earliest vertical aerial photography, and in Ireland we have very good vertical photography from the 1940s. This material had been considered too high, too coarse, to be of any use for settlement studies - a famous quote from David Wilson [Director of the Cambridge Aerial Archaeological Unit]. But he was looking at it wrongly - he had no proper optics. We did a lot of our mapping using 1940s vertical photography. This is a vertical view down on to Killeany harbour [shows image] where you have a modern settlement and then the field systems running back across it. This is the only sheltered anchorage along this entire stretch of coast. Tá fáscadh le fail ann (Irish for there’s shelter to be had here). This was the key site throughout the last 1500 years on this island chain. The island’s location is midway along the west coast of Ireland and 15 miles offshore. Nothing moving up and down past these islands since the Neolithic would have gone out without either landing or having to deal with whoever was occupying these islands. It is like a choke chain on this. Nothing goes in and out through these islands without the islanders have a say in what is happening.
In earliest Christian times the Aran Islands located off the west coast of Ireland are a major source of pilgrimage. In early historic times Ireland becomes Christian in the fifth century from contact with Roman Britain. Patrick is the most famous character associated with this event, ‘Patrick of Britain’. He is Romanised and comes to Ireland, but Palladius is there in 431 and there is a whole raft of others such as Secundus and Auxilius from the fifth century or thereabouts. The Romans don’t occupy Ireland, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t Roman influence in Ireland. You have to imagine parts of the east and south of Ireland have been in contact with Roman Britain over four centuries and so have been partially Romanised, and then the further west the wilder Irish, if you like. So you don’t have to have a direct occupation to have an influence, and Christianity comes to Ireland in that contact phase between Ireland and now Christian Britain. But the Irish, of course, go against the trend. Roman legions are pulled out of Britain. The Franks are overrunning Gaul and the Irish are adopting the religious culture of a failed experiment of four centuries of Roman occupation.
Christianity takes deep roots in the Irish landscape very fast. This is something that we are not sure what happens. It takes roots in a world of a plethora of local saints and local deities. The most powerful saint in this area, for example, is Mac Dara, the ‘son of oak’ which is a fox or a wolf. [Shows map] These dots represent some of the 3000 early Christian monasteries in Ireland have in their origins pre-Christian deities but just immediately pre-Christian; they are not from the deep past. But throughout early texts the Aran Islands figure prominently in them, and it is because of their location on the western seaboard.
In later early historic times you have this amazing array of fortified settlements. You have them in the high mountain tops and you have them all along the coast from Brittany up to the Shetland Islands, and these are coastal promontory forts. This is one of the more spectacular of them [shows image] called Dún Dúchathair, the Black Fort. It has a massive rampart, houses within it and a series of houses further back. None of this has been excavated so the dates are a little bit tentative. A similar site to this at Dún Aonghasa has been dated to the late Bronze Age around 1200 BC, and a later reuse of the site in around the seventh and eighth century. So this main rampart may well date to the eighth or ninth century in a sort of reuse of it. Here is the remains of a village with oval-shaped houses, some of which have been partially restored in the nineteenth century, and outside of it a ‘cheveux de friese’, a very interesting feature. This is a barrier of upright stones, some partially rubbed out now, to provide a block against on rushing troops on foot or on horse.
People try to get their heads around this feature: Why would you need all of this on an island that is already incredibly difficult to walk across? When this site was built there was probably a thin sod, so this is like a heath on the island. This island dates possibly to the late Bronze Age and then reused in the early Christian period. The islands at this stage have seven of these great forts right across forming an incredible chain across the islands. So there is someone in control of the islands. They are barrier islands and are strategically significant. There are high status sites that have been fortified.
The other dynamic on these islands and all along the west coast is that there has been 10 metres of sea level rise on the west coast of Ireland. That is a massive amount of land. There is a huge array that has recently been recognised within the intertidal zone. There are whole landscapes literally emerging as we speak. This is an area I have been doing some work on in Galway Bay which is a very large and tortuous coastline [shows image]. Underneath the plane where the body of water is you may be able to see the remains of a coaxial or, as [Andrew] Fleming calls it, ‘terrain oblivious’ field system coming out. There is a cross wall here [indicates]. This is a landscape that has emerged as the sea has risen and ate its way into this coastal dune system. You can trace those walls under the dunes on through the so-called modern fields right out on to the edge of cliffs. Unfortunately we don’t have a date on them. The date of these field systems on the west coast of Ireland go back as far as early Neolithic, so this one is still floating in time and space, if you like. But we have good evidence for Bronze Age field systems like this on the barren adjacent to it, and early Christian ones also. These walls are coming up, and this is what you are finding. On every links course in Ireland and probably in Scotland has features like this immediately underneath it. Some of the work I have been doing is with golf courses trying to get them to avoid this type of stuff or mitigate the impacts, because this is a thin sod. As it is getting blown out - there is lot of evidence for increased wind speeds on the west coast - this is what is happening to some of these very fragile ecosystems. But this is part of that intertidal field system. It covers an area of about 700 acres, the whole east end of the island.
[Shows image] Further over on the right is Dún Aonghasa. This is our control site, if you like, on Aran. It is the only site where that has been substantial excavations on it. It is multi-valeted ramparted fortress. During the early survey that we carried out we found about 30 of these monuments. Duangus is about 12 acres in area, the site on the top right of the screen. But some of the sites we came on were up to 300 acres in area. There is a famous site in west Wicklow: Knock na Shee, the hill of the fairies, a wonderful site in Tobbercurry in central Sligo, an enormous hill fort of 54 acres. Some of the sites we are identifying in the landscape have been too big that we missed them before or are very small and subtle landscapes that we never even bothered to look at. Our eyes weren’t open to the potential that these sites have. This site has been partially published recently by Claire Cotter.
This is the island chain and you can see a great group of these storm forts scattered right across the Aran Islands. These are mirrored on the mainland. You have similar sites on some of our lakes in the form of stone caches or island forts, stone built on some of the western lakes. These are similar to the ones you get in the Outer Hebrides, for example.
Overlooking Killeany in particular you have this iconic church that is right on the bluff of the hill [shows image]. It is marking a line of sight to give you access straight into the harbour of Killeany and dates from the tenth century. It is a very spectacular site. You can see it from the mainland 12 miles away.
This is a small chapel [shows image]. Within the early Christian church you have a tremendous variety and a lot of small chapels were being built as private chapels or shrines for relics. If you need an extra chapel in an early marsh you build an extra one, so often you get multiple churches and private chapels. Church sites fulfill all sorts of different functions in society. One of them interestingly is an old focus home for clapped-out Gaelic lords past their sell-by date who are often elbowed out of power by more ambitious younger sons - ‘holy orders Dad while we get on with the business of expanding the territory of the lords’.
On Aran the family in charge in the early historic period are the Eoghanacht, the people of Munster, and one of these great forts is called Dun Eoghanacht, this great province in the south of Ireland. The O’Briens later emerge as the big powerful family from that sept. Aran in the twelfth century onwards is controlled by the O’Brien sept. Having an island associated with St Enda, one of the founder figures of the early church in Ireland, has huge status attached to it. So control of Ireland is not just for strategic, military and political reasons, it is also for religious reasons. Having one of these powerful saints as part of your intellectual armory is very significant because if you are a minor sept and you are rising up through the ranks of early Christian Ireland, you are nobody even though you are growing powerful militarily. What you have to do is commission a saint’s life. This is the first item on the agenda of an ambitious young sept. You cannibalise the life of Bridget, Patrick, Finbar or anyone else you can get your hands on and you concoct a whole new saint’s life. In Ireland we have lots of early texts and some of them are saints’ lives. But saint’s lives are a bit like the science fiction of the early ages. Elements of it you can see into the landscapes and they give insights into the culture but they are not really history.
On Aran we have the saint’s life of St Enda, which is hugely interesting. This is twelfth century life describing Ireland, ‘No one but God alone knows the number of saints buried there’. So in the early church Aran is a special place.
The oral and hagiographic evidence combine to create a parallel geography which overlaps and complements the more mundane one. This is what is fascinating. Unusual aspects of the marine landscape were interpreted by reference to traditions arranged around the Christianisation of the islands.
So in an island that is all limestone, what does that mean? It means if you have a great big glacial erratic made of granite deposited 15,000 years by a glacier, these are known in Aran as [Irish] ‘strangers from Connemara’. They are strangers because they came from the last ice age but a number of them have been interpreted in a very specific way as stone boats. You have this tradition in north-western Europe of stone boats associated with saints: St Enda on Aran, St Columbkille and of course most famously with St James. There are lots of legends about floating boats and James arriving in Santiago in one of them. These traditions are still practised and believed in the some of the coastal communities in Cois Fharraige and on the Aran Islands . Enda is one of these figures.
This is what a stone boat would look like [shows image]. I have been mapping these stone boats. Marine archaeologists have difficulty accepting these as part of marine archaeology, but I have no problem taking it because they are in the oral history that this is a boat. There is ribbing there. It looks a bit ragged. It has gone through many a storm. But this stone in the form of a boat is what brought Christianity to Ireland. [Irish] According to the tradition Enda arrived on Aran in a stone boat. Caught between a rock and a hard place, and they were stuck on this cliff-bound island, and an angel with a flaming sword gouged out a natural entrance into the island. When you look at it from the air [shows image] you have this perfect natural entrance running in to the island. You have this wonderful correspondence but the physical reality and an oral history which still points it out. If you go to Aran today and ask for Bàd Colmcille [Colmcille’s boat] or Bàd Naomh Enda [Enda’s boat], they will point out the stone boat to you. On the Cois Fharraige coast where I was recently, an old lady pointed out to me all the ribbing, the rigging and the anchor, everything on this massive boat on the shore at Cloghmore on the opposite coast. So occasionally they would have a boat in reserve. Linking these boats you also have Cosána Naomh [Irish for the footpath of the saints], and you have sub-sea roads in addition to stone boats. So you have all sorts of angelic engineering going on.
This is the entrance [shows image]. It looks like it has been cut giving access into a wonderful lagoon. This is again one of the early texts. Port Daibhche is the name of the little harbour at the eastern end of the island and this is the explanation as to what happened here. Enda in a cask transported itself to the island. This duly happened and of course Corban, the giant, heads off at this miraculous arrival. Invariably these saints are in opposition to what is perceived as a pagan deity prior to it. This landscape has been incredibly well read and documented by a marvellous scholar called Tim Robinson, who I have worked with on this island and on Connemara over many years.
Enda is an extreme edge of the early Christian world. He instructs his disciples to go naked into the frame of a currach. If water entered they were said to be in a state of sin. So the early Irish church has a fundamentalist edge to it. They are into all sorts of extreme pain in carrying out all sorts of purges on themselves.
This is a currach [shows image], a traditional boat still in use on the west coast. These are part of the maritime history and archaeology that is still made and still used. They are in use because they are valuable. They’re not kept; they don’t fish lobster off these cliffs because they like the look of the boat; there are very practical reasons for it.
In this landscape we have series of accounts from the annals. We have early texts, written diary accounts, in Ireland going back to the seventh century giving year-by-year blows of what is happening. Some areas are well documented. Aran is quite well documented. There were Viking raids on Aran from 795 but then later raids, probably coming from the Hebrides, into the eleventh century. Why are they attacking Aran? Because it is strategically important. It is also religiously significant. It is like robbing the bank: there is wealth concentrated. These are sites of tremendous patronage. The Gaelic lords, the O’Briens, are patronised and they are commissioning works of art. So these are wealthy monasteries.
There is contact in the early period with France and with Gaul. We know that from E-Ware pottery (a type of late Roman pottery) imported into places like Reask in the south-west. In this period Ireland has a thriving population. The population is rising in early Christian Ireland because the economy switches to a dairying economy. There is contact but not as much as you would think. But Aran is a major religious destination within Ireland. That tradition survives today on an island immediately opposite. Now Islanders go ironically on pilgrimage to an adjacent island Mac Dara, the son of the oak.
We have been looking at maritime pilgrimages. I am involved in a research project on maritime and mountain pilgrimages in the west. There are seven or eight of these mountain and island pilgrimages. This is the west coast as depicted in the earliest maps we have for this partarmia site. These are fourteenth century maps [shows image]. The Aran Islands are very accurately depicted location wise, but Galway City isn’t on the map. Galway City is a medieval Normandy state. So the islands are very important and significant. Although the cartography has a lot to answer for, the islands themselves are clearly picked out because these are maritime charts that have been passed back and up.
Looking at the medieval history of the island, the island is in a cockpit between three major forces: there are the O’Flaherty lords on the mainland; there are the O’Brien lords in Munster and increasingly there was an English encroachment to the west. Galway city is a little city state. So these islands are caught in the mix, if you like, and these islands are sought after. The O’Briens are elbowed out gradually by the O’Flaherty lords of Connemara, their long-term enemies to the north.
[Shows image] Galway city is the rich city medieval state. This is a wonderful map of it from the mid-seventeenth century showing a walled-town with bastion corners and jousting on it. Galway was an old-fashioned town in the seventeenth century. Jousting had died out in medieval England years ago. Galway has now re-invented itself as the sort of heartbeat of Gaelic Ireland. In the medieval times ‘neither O nor Mac shall strut or swagger through the streets of Galway’. They weren’t allowed inside the gates. In an Irish town the cladagh was outside it. But as you can see from the harbour, it is a very important harbour, with direct trade with Spain, direct trade with the continent and more importantly with Bristol. This is the only decent-sized Norman town on the west coast. A lot of it is still preserved. It is very interesting site. So control of Aran and trade into Galway from the Aran Islands becomes more important into the Middle Ages. To get into this rich city state, which is the lifeblood of trade, the Aran Islands control it. So you have to bribe the O’Flahertys or the O’Briens. So there is tribute paid to Gaelic lords to protect the shipping routes, or as straight-off bribes. [shows image] So you have the Aran Islands to the south, O’Brien country to the right and O’Flaherty country to the north. [shows image] These are the trade links with the towns of Britain and further down into France. They are isolated in some ways and modernised, but in medieval times they are not. These are in trade up and down the west coast.
The De Burgo Lords are vying for it. They are paying 12 tuns of wine as tribute here [a tun was an old English unit of wine cask volume, holding about 954 litres, almost a cubic metre]. There is a lot of conflict going on in the west. The Gaelic lords and the now Gaelicised Anglo Normans are vying for control of the islands. The accounts are coming back through official records which is reflecting the difficult position Aran is. Aran was said in London to ‘always lie full of galleys to ensnare, capture and plunder our liege English’. This is when you get the accounts of the Irish being pirates emerging - the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys. They are not pirates, of course. These are tribal lands and tribal waters. Anyone in and out of these areas without negotiating their way in are fair game. Their stuff is sold off. But from a feudal point of view these chiefs have surrendered to their liege lord two centuries ago and these are in open rebellion. So they are seen as piracy but the local Gaelic lords are not seeing it as piracy. So there are two totally different views of what the legal position is.
The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys are constantly at war. The Elizabethans come into the mix and during the Reformation they confiscate all church lands. Conveniently Aran is Ára na Naoimh, Aran of the Saints, so the whole island chain is grabbed by the Elizabethans and they garrison it from the end of the sixteenth century. There is an English garrison planted out here, which is very unusual. They built a fort at Arkin replacing an O’Brien castle, which was later replaced itself. During the English civil war and the great civil war that convulsed Ireland these become important. The islands pass in and out of various people’s hands.
A fortress is built incorporating a medieval castle and there was a harbour being built. Our work on the harbour has revealed whole series of material. They were cannibalising. The later fort is robbing liberally from an early church, from an early castle, from a Franciscan friary and they are cobbling it together and building it into the stonework of the new fort.
This is a little fragment of a Romanesque church [shows image]. To have a Romanesque church is of high status so there was wealth. This is twelfth century stonework in a seventeenth century building. In the work we did this summer we have revealed an array of additional fragments from this period. The harbour is built as a classic seventeenth century fort, with flanking towers around a square centre.
In the seventeenth century the island is used as a prison for captured catholic clergy, some of which were shipped off elsewhere later. In the Crimean wars it is a hugely important place because the Cromwellians’ use of the navy is one of the keys to their successes. The Irish are expelled from the coast: ‘The state shall suffer no Irish to keep any boats on the coast of Iar Connacht and the adjacent islands’. For a maritime island this is pretty serious - you can’t move without your boats.
In this period we were doing some field work on the other islands and we began to identify a number of forts and harbour features associated with these. One of the harbours we picked out the remains of and have tracked back because there is ready reference to this in the documentation. Some of the earliest maps we had mention a harbour, but that can be a built harbour or anchorage.
This French map of 1684 shows a crude representation of a fort and a harbour [shows image]. You can see to the right the Aran Islands with a big star-shaped fort in the middle of it. This is during the seventeenth century when the Irish are now broken but not completely gone yet to negotiate with the Duke of Lorraine for assistance, for money, for troops which does come. So you have a lot of interest in fortifications of various sorts in and around the bay.
This is 1690 [shows image] and again the French are patrolling the coast looking for good charts in anticipation of landing on the west coast. Aran and Killeany is here [indicates]. In that Killeany harbour a detail comes up, marking a projection out into the water and a square red structure. This is what we think it represented: the corner bastion of the seventeenth century fort. As you look down onto the harbour, it looks fairly unpromising but revealed in the water in the intertidal zone is this larger harbour faintly visible. [shows image] Like a lot of things it is faintly visible with the eye of faith, because the harbour, which was quite a substantial building, was substantially rubbed out in the 1820s when, in the period of distress as it is called, an early nineteenth-century harbour was build. Modern harbours are a disaster where they are built near old works they rob left, right and centre all around the country.
We were able to pick out this wall, [shows image] for example, running for 50 metres around the bluff of the cliff. Further along some cut stone in the intertidal zone. This is an early fifteenth or sixteenth century doorway, for example. This is where we found the remains of a market cross from around 1550 which would have stood in the middle of then Killeany village before the fort was built. So the whole intertidal zone is just littered with artefacts from the seventeenth century going back to the Middle Ages, with one phase is robbing out the other. There you might get the faint idea of a line of walling along here [shows image]. Again this is the base of wall of quite a large ashlar [dressed stone work of any type of stone] or block quay front, which is very rare. It is one of only two harbours that survived that were built around along the west coast. This is the later harbour on the top of the picture [shows image]. This cannibalises not just the seventeenth century harbour but the medieval one and it also rubs out a round tower which was 90ft tall. It just strips the whole lot. The harbour contains the remains of the round tower, a medieval castle, Franciscan abbey and a whole lot of other stuff. There is a huge array of material in this intertidal zone.
I will take some questions and then look at how this whole new work of intertidal zone archaeology is fitting into the other sort of structure. This is part of that harbour [shows image]. We have cleaned it back, taken the weed off it and can see more internal features inside. It is quite an elaborate structure. We worked on it in late August so I haven’t got the latest plan on it, but hopefully it is going into the Nautical Archaeology journal later on this year or next year.
I have been at this site 20 times and missed the Romanesque church. I had missed the fragments of an early Christian church and had also missed the loops here [indicates], which are late medieval mooring loops used to moor the boats tight up against the edge. Most of my work involved mapping upland houses, cairns, field systems and tombs. So on the intertidal zone sometimes you do miss stuff, and it takes someone with a pair of fresh eyes. Jim Higgins is an expert in early Christian art. He was five minutes looking at this wall and the whole thing just came alive, a wall that I had been looking at for several years and not seen it.
We occasionally use colour infrared photography. There you can have the points marking the entrance in [shows image of the harbour and village]. This has been very useful tool for mapping some of the intertidal causeways which we have also found. Some of these are a kilometre long on the islands on the opposite shore where there is a whole array of other intertidal archaeology. We are using traditional survey techniques along with some newer survey methods including Lidar Survey [Lidar is light detection and ranging - like radar but with light], which is beginning to be used in Ireland fairly extensively but on specific projects.
Solid documentary research is hugely important so you should go back over sources where other people may have missed it. In this case in Robertson’s plan of 1780 he marks the harbour [shows image]. This plan was published with the archaeologist at the time not looking at the intertidal zone - did not even notice that there was a harbour. We have reassessed some of the features. Twinned to this island was Inishbofin Island 50 miles away. This island, similarly strategically important although not quite in the scale of Aran, has a fabulous star-shaped fort with its own harbour adjacent to it [shows image]. This is a crescent shaped harbour about 90 metres across. There is a whole series of buildings that has come out. This intertidal zone, having been ignored completely, after the realisation there is something interesting in it has proven to be hugely productive. Strangford Lough [large sea lough on the north-east coast of County Down] is a very difficult environment but an enormous array from the Mesolithic to the nineteenth century has been turning up there in the mud flats resulting in a major publication by Tom Mcerlaine, Aidan O’Sullivan and his team up there.
This is a galley image from Limerick showing a representation of how this site may well have looked. You can see a galley with a chain guarding the mouth. Limerick was a rich city in the medieval period. We are looking at some of the evidence from the seventeenth century for other harbours around.
A presumption was that the native Irish built galleys but didn’t build any harbours. This was one of these peculiar rooted notions that the Irish didn’t build any harbours. But we have found loads of them right across. An early image of the fort, a conjectural plan unfinished, shows how the harbour feature might have looked. You have an outer natural harbour and an inner sheltered harbour inside.
In the eighteenth century these harbours again changed as they become major aspects of smuggling trade. There is big eighteenth century maritime history that changes the use of these islands again. The remains of the tower inside it [shows image].
In the eighteenth the century there is an enormous growth in population all along this coast line, some of this growth leading to robbing off some of the features and in addition a whole array of other features. In Galway Bay and the islands around it you have intertidal track ways, intertidal mills, biggest mill complex on the Irish west coast we have identified in inner Galway Bay. A good deal of Bronze Age sites are coming to light in the intertidal peat that is eroding out. And one Bronze Age stone row which I found recently at Ballynakill Bay. Some of the intertidal zone archaeology is mirroring what you find on the land in terms of the form and shapes of it. But then there are other features such as fish traps, for example, which we didn’t identify before and we are now identifying them in large numbers.
To conclude, that is just one example of one small project in an Ireland that is very dynamic in terms of the reach. I do a lot of work on upland archaeology. The intertidal zone is a new frontier in Irish archaeology and one that a lot of new energy and exciting work is being done in. I thought I would give you an insight into one particular small project which touches on lots of areas hopefully. Thank you very much.
MIKE SMITH: That was a fascinating longitudinal perspective of a landscape. I am sure Michael will field a few questions if anyone would like to ask him.
QUESTION: You said that the sea levels have risen 10 metres, over what period? Was it more than the last 1000 years or less than the last 1000 years?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: It has been in episodic bursts; it has not been an even one. The evidence we have is from Loch More, just published by Professor Mick O’Connell. It is the only lake in the Aran Islands. We see a substantial rise immediately post-glacial. Then at the end of the Bronze Age another rise and in the early historic period another jump up. Then there has been a much slower rise since then. There have been three episodes of it.
QUESTION: When you say early historic period, what is that for us?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: It is the fifth-sixth century, the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland.
QUESTION: Is there any evidence that it went down again in the medieval period when there was a little Ice Age on?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: No, but again this is all new. Some of these questions haven’t been asked yet. We don’t think so. With medieval harbours such as this one [shows image] for example, you could argue there is evidence that it did go down but it could also be siltation of the bay. We don’t know a straight answer to that.
MIKE SMITH: Some of these sea level changes presumably are also isostatic as the land is rebounding or tipping?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: Off the Cork coast Baltimore is a lovely little town sacked by the moors in the sixteenth century. From some archaeology done there, a tomb was found below the highwater mark in the middle of the bay. The whole of the south-western coast is a drowned landscape - the Mesolithic landscapes are completely gone. In the Antrim plateau the Mesolithic sites are 10 metres above the present highwater mark. So you have quite a dramatic difference from east to west and from north to south.
QUESTION: You mentioned that oral history is important. How far back did that oral history take you?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: That is very interesting. I illustrated the last megalithic tomb that I found - or identified; it has been there forever - because I met a woman one day on the side of the road. I had spotted what I thought might be the side stones of a megalithic tomb at the end of a lane about 400 metres back from the sea. Mrs Roche was driving her cow from her thatched house, the last hatched house on the peninsula, and I asked her before I headed in what was the name of this glen. She said ‘poll uaimhín’ which is the Irish for the hole of the graves. I asked her what was up there and she says, ‘Never been up there’. I say, ‘Why not?’ She said it was alive with ‘síoigí’, which is the Irish word for a spirit or fairy. She didn’t know it was a megalithic tomb but the place name referred to either a cleft in the rock or it is often used in reference to a grave. She didn’t know what a megalithic tomb was, but there was an aura in this particular valley that this was somewhere associated with the other world or the spirit world. That is a direct transmission or an indirect one - we are not sure.
There is a strong association with this belief in the spirit world, the association of individual places with the spirit world and in this case with prehistoric sites. We don’t know what date the sites are. They can be Bronze Age sites and they are often early Christian sites from the eighth and ninth centuries. So the oral history is very important. Most of the megalithic tombs are called Leaba Dhiarmuid agus Gráinne, the bed of Dermot and Grania, two figures from the seventh and eighth centuries. The ancient archaeologies are very often associated with Na Lochlannaigh [Irish - the Vikings]. Oral history will interpret certain things in terms of myths and legends that are already current and projecting them on to material culture that they don’t fully understand. It is difficult to say specifically.
There is an Armada wreck site which I am chasing and which we haven’t located yet. But we know it is there. The location of it we recently got from a farmer - I was up on Tully Mountain doing some field work mapping a Bronze Age site - and I mentioned this site. He said, ‘We were drawing tar ropes off it for a week before it sunk’. Now this sank in October 1588, and this man told me where they went when it sank, the village they went to - which I went to and it is still there. It is an abandoned ruined village raided by Bingham [late sixteenth century Elizabethan governor of the area] in the subsequent year and described the journey around to Renvyle Castle. He had no knowledge of history. This was a strong oral tradition. What was authentic about it was the ropes. He didn’t mention cannon, gold - it was tar ropes which in the fishing family world is something valuable, something that would be passed on through the generations. It was wrecked off ,em>Carraig Leathan [Irish - broad rock]. That ,em>carraig [Irish - rock] is a site that we hope to dive on soon but it is high energy coast so if there was anything left we would be lucky.
Oral history is an important resource. It is not straight history but it is hugely important. We have a vast array of it collected since the 1930s in Ireland. It is often not used by archaeologists because we don’t study anthropology in Ireland, which is one of the great losses. We look at the landscape with very traditional eyes, if you like. Whereas that anthropological view which the new world has would value this material more. But I just happened to grow up in a background where this was a common part of my upbringing. Oral history was what we grew up with. It wasn’t anything different or unusual. So I was always much more receptive to following echoes in the oral tradition back into the landscape with tremendous results.
MIKE SMITH: I am intrigued by the continuity and oral tradition here. They look to be quite small islands. Do you have a sense of what size of population we are dealing with and whether the genetics of the island have been quite stable? Has there been a lot of disruption?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: You don’t look for a stable population on the islands in Ireland. In the nineteenth century a great series of articles were written by scholars from Trinity - Brown, and I forget the other guy’s name - when cranology [scientific study of the skulls of various human races] was all the rage at the time. All these islands had the most detailed forensic studies done on heads, skulls and everywhere was measured in order to look for the Aboriginal Irish. There is this marvellous set of articles published on all these islands from 1895 to the 1900s. Cranology now is dismissed as useless science. They were looking at the islands without any historical background. So they had no knowledge of its medieval history. They had no knowledge of them being the garrison islands. A lot of these islands were garrisoned from Elizabethan times. There were Viking raids on them periodically. So genetically they are more mixed than the mainland because of the nature. People are going to Santiago on pilgrimage. There are shipwrecks happening.
Rather than being seen as an unmoving, stable society, the island cultures are actually dynamic in who they will marry out. As islander will often marry out of the island to Connemara to the north or to the Burren to the east. So you have more mixing of a population on an island than you will have in most societies on the west coast. While they are traditional, they are also more open. They are less conservative socially, for example, because they have been there. They have been in the royal navy. Historically they have had contacts with the sea and all that that implies.
MIKE SMITH: And yet such continuity in oral tradition.
MICHAEL GIBBONS: Oh, yes, there would always have been a core stable population. Reachlainn (or Rathlin) Island is the rare exception. There were repeated massacres of the people on Ratlan where you have a whole new group of people coming in. But generally you would have elites coming in and out. The O’Flahertys coming from Connemara wipe out and murder all the O’Briens. The Elizabethan fort is thrown out, the Cromwellian occupation periodically, and then the islands are abandoned by the elite for two and a half centuries. But then you have a smuggling trade going on. The oral history is important in that you do have a core population. The elites come and go - native Irish, English or whoever they happen to be - but there is a core population, added to periodically but it is still relatively stable. So oral history particularly anywhere from the Uplands all the way along the west coast is a very important source while not a static source, if you like.
QUESTION: Michael, you have spoken a lot about what is ancient history, prehistory, medieval history et cetera. If you bring these islands up a bit more into the modern period, one of the ways this place gets picked up in the late nineteenth century is that this part of Ireland is where you will find the real Ireland. You get things like John Millington Synge going out there writing plays such as Playboy of the Western World and his book The Aran Islands. You can talk about the survival of the language out there. Could you speak a bit about how Aran becomes this symbolic place rather than just a place that you know where you can study all these various layers of it? What happens in terms of the symbolic presentation of Aran later on?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: Connemara in Ireland becomes a key engine of the whole nationalist cultural revival in the nineteenth century. So as well as cranologists going out there, you have folklore, with people like Oscar Wilde’s mother Francesca collecting oral history on Inishbofin and Inishshark. Padraig Pearce comes here for example into Ros Muc, Aran, Letterfrack -
QUESTION: Can you explain who that is?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: Padraig Pearce is the leader of the 1916 rebellion, a strong nationalist. His father was English ironically but coming from a Fenian background on his mother’s side. These areas are zones of survival of Gaelic Ireland. They were perceived as being the one true Ireland, the last un-Anglicised bit of Ireland. Probably in medieval times they were not the centre of Gaelic Ireland. In fact, we know they weren’t. That was down in Munster or centre of Ireland. Because of the expansion of English post famine these are still Irish speaking islands so they have a huge status in terms of the nationalist struggle. So they are viewed in a very particular way. They are almost viewed as a cultural zoo for Irish nationalism, if you want to put a harsh view on it, which is something that quite often irritated the islanders. The only strangers they had met were scholars, antiquarians and linguists. Every scholar known to man were out there. But they became the imaginary island, if you like. All the hopes and dreams of nationalist Ireland hung on these impoverished islanders and people from Connemara. They played a huge role.
Yeats comes here on his honeymoon. Augustus John is out here. Some of the big hitters in the Irish nationalists - not necessarily the military nationalists but the mild cultural nationalists. Of course the archaeology is used in a very interesting way in this period, because the island is clearly dotted with antiquities. So archaeology gets drawn into the debate and saying, ‘Look, we are not these bedraggled, godforsaken, feckless wasters’ - as they have been portrayed in Punch and various magazines - ‘there is our heritage’. We had an heroic past. Look at our round towers, look at our great stone forts. We come from a proud ancient culture. So nationalists are using the archaeology that is found in abundance on these islands - they are looking back at these landscapes and repackaging Ireland through the eyes of the language, the culture and also the obvious wealth of the richness of these islands to come up with a new agenda, a new vision drawing from the ancient world and re-imaging it for a new vision of Ireland. The antiquities, the history and the folklore are very much part of that drive for a new independent state. Although they were involved only in a very minor way in the national struggle militarily or politically, symbolically these islands, their monuments and their culture are hugely important. That is why the study of these islands is fascinating in terms of the growth of the state itself and of course in terms of poetry and so on.
QUESTION: Where the language has died out, parts of Ireland that are not Irish speaking, how much of that oral tradition is lost and how much is lost by way of archaeology? Is it still useable and to what degree?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: It is. I remember doing work in Inishlacken, a small island over here [indicates] which had 400 people in the nineteenth century and 200 died out during the famine. When I first mapped it, there were two families left on it. I remember going around it with Mairtín McDonough, I think his name was, from Inishnee who was born on the island. I think we got 150 place names right around the rim of the island. But somehow we lost the list. About three years later I went out and met his son who was also a native Irish speaker, and at time we had a third of those names. So in one generation you had two-thirds of the place names alone being lost. Once the language goes there is an enormous amount that goes with it. There is still an enormous amount left.
My sister did a big survey at Ceantar na n’Oileáin [Irish - the region of the islands] and she used women collecting - folklorists were men talking about manly things like fishing, war, building and all sorts of things. But an enormous amount survived within the women within that world. So often it depends on who you are asking. But once the language drifts out of the place, the small farm world will preserve a lot of the names but not the understanding and the context. So you have a coarsening of the culture, if you like, because every single place name will have a description, a meaning and a particular story.
For example, East Galway north of the Corrib up into east Roscommon, east Mayo - the centre west of that map [shows map] - was all Irish speaking in the 1880s, huge swathes. By 1900 in most of this area the language had died out. As its status had diminished so much, people consciously abandoned the language as they were emigrating in vast numbers to North America, to Britain and to here to a lesser degree.
QUESTION: Did every field have a name in Ireland?
MICHAEL GIBBONS: Virtually every field, Ceantar na n’Oileáin [Irish - the region of the islands] on every field, every headland and every rock, because these were important in the small farm world. And on the coast there is a huge array of place names associated with fishing. When you are fishing you needed to know where these rocks are. You would navigate your way through the seas by the names ahead of you. Tim Robinson is a wonderful historic geographer especially for his work on Aran [Stones of Aran]. You can’t put a badge on him with the wealth of material that he has been able to draw out of that landscape - and other scholars. We were fortunate in Ireland in the 1930s that De Valera had set up a Folklore Commission whose task was to get children to go to their grandparents to record the oral tradition of their area. We have an enormous amount collected from the 1920s. Unfortunately - this is one of the great tragedies of modern Ireland - this material isn’t published, only bits of it, but it is accessible. It’s a wonderful collection.
Scholars have gone back into some of those areas doing modern versions of that. There is a huge loss in the mean time. But the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth century did record a lot in relation to the detail - six inches to the mile mapping they were doing. Within the maps themselves they recorded quite a number of names, but a small fraction of what would have been current at the time. Language loss is culturally devastating but not terminal. There is a rich array there. What is happening in modern Ireland now in farming, as in parts of Australia, there is a drift away from the land. That is going to pose major challenges. If you are on land everyone will know what the antiquities are on the land. You might not know what the date of them are. But if that land goes out to an adjacent farm or a farmer not that particular town, that historic memory passes also.
What we have been trying to do in terms of legislation is replace the sheoge with legislation, replacing the spirit world’s protective mantle with strong legislation. But it is not nearly as effective because people bought into the power of the spirit world in the past. With rare exceptions they were reluctant to damage an antiquity. Enforcement agencies don’t have the influence that fairies once had in rural Irish society. So there are big challenges because we have an extraordinary density of monuments surviving in the landscape, and these are the visible ones, not ones just below the surface. They are actual built structures on the landscape.
QUESTION: Just a quick comment referring to the last few things you said. Flann O’Brien, that wonderful Irish writer who was able to cast an acerbic view on things around him, once famously said or wrote about the Aran Islands that a’ typical family consisted of father, mother, six children and resident German anthropologist’.
MICHAEL GIBBONS: That comment refers to the interests in the Irish language among Europe and Danish scholars with the whole revival of interest in the Celts in the late nineteenth century. It was an unfair comment, but he reflected a huge interest among scholars in Irish culture. That interest is still there and it is growing. It is wider than it ever was. There are probably more scholars on Aran now than there has ever been.
QUESTION: If I can make a final comment to draw this together a little bit: it might seem as though what we have been hearing about is very far from an Australian dimension, but actually it isn’t. Why I asked Michael about the Aran Islands and the way they were symbolically used later on, this stuff comes out to Australia in the whole background of the Catholic Church. People like Cardinal Moran in Sydney are using these things. If you think of the Celtic crosses that you see in so many Australian cemeteries. If you think of the symbols of wolf hounds, harps and round towers - this is the period it is all coming out of, this late nineteenth century Celtic revival. These landscapes do get into the catholic school system in Australia - not in any way as detailed as Michael has been talking about but nonetheless this becomes the resurgence, the idea of the pride in this ancient Ireland. Forget about England, Scotland and all the British Imperial background, you have this counter culture as well: this idea that Ireland inherits all that, and you inherit all that if you are part of an Irish Australian Catholic structure. Certainly coming into the liturgy you will find stacks of references to it, so it is not all that distant from us at all.
MIKE SMITH: I certainly don’t see distance. I see another set of parallels. The way you described the medieval Gaelic landscape reminds me very strongly of totemic geography in arid central Australia and the whole business of coarsening of tradition with loss of language that is going on in central Australia. It is also a dynamic set of circumstances where tradition is re-invented, plus also the very detailed naming of features of the landscape. At the general level there are very interesting parallels which I would love to have an opportunity to talk with Michael more about. But unfortunately, although I could listen to Michael for two or three more days, I do need to wrap up today’s proceedings. First of all I would like to thank Richard for bringing Michael into the Museum and please join me in thanking Michael.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018