Seanchas (Irish Mythology)

Oíche Sheanchais, The First Irish Language Sound Film

Oíche Sheanchais (Oidhe Sheanchais)

Oíche Sheanchais (Oidhe Sheanchais) “A Night of Storytelling”, 1935 (Íomhá; Harvard Film Archive)

From a report by the Galway Advertiser:

“The first Irish language ‘talkie’ ever made has premiered at a renowned Italian festival of rediscovered and restored film

Oidhche Sheanchais, an 11-minute film featuring Aran islanders from the Man of Aran cast listening to a story told by seanchaí Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin, was the first ‘talkie’ to be filmed in Irish and was made in London in 1934 while the cast were recording post-synch sound for Man of Aran.

All copies of Oidhche Sheanchais were thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1943, but a nitrate print of the film was discovered at Harvard University in 2012.

The Harvard Film Archive worked with the university’s Houghton Library and Celtic department and Harvard’s Office of the Provost, to preserve Oidhche Sheanchais on 35mm film and in digital formats, as well as translating the film and creating a subtitled version.

The film originally had a short cinema run in Ireland in 1935, and was never subtitled in English. It featured Colman ‘Tiger’ King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane, and Patch Ruadh of the Man of Aran cast sitting around a hearth listening to Ó Dioráin’s story, interspersed with footage of seascapes shot while filming Man of Aran.

The restored film premiered at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy, last week…”

From the blog Antti Alanen: Film Diary:

“The short Oidhche sheanchais affirms Flaherty’s belief in cinema as a mythopoeic and folkloric art. Ireland’s first government-sponsored film, Oidhche Sheanchais was funded by a modest £200 budget assigned for the production of an Irish language talkie enshrining a vital element of the national heritage. Flaherty directed the film while in London recording the post-synch sound for Man of Aran using that film’s cast together with Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin, a renowned Aran Island storyteller. Unlike Man of Aran, Oidhche Sheanchais was recorded entirely in Irish. Prior to the film’s release the Irish Press distributed a dialogue transcript to ensure that “children will… not miss any of the beauty and subtlety of the story it tells.”

More information can be found at TCD’s Irish Film and Research database with a full transcript of the script at Feasta.

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Electronic Irish

A lot of people seem unaware of the two best online resources for historical texts relating to Ireland, both of which are entirely free to use. The first is “CELT, the Corpus of Electronic Texts”, a collection of hundreds of manuscripts and books in digitised form mainly written in Irish and English (of various periods) but also featuring works in Latin, Norman-French, German and several other languages. The 1300+ entries cover nearly one-and-a-half thousand years of literary and scholarly output on this island nation and are incredibly important, representing some 15 million words in total. The project is maintained and regularly updated with new materials by University College Cork (UCC) so you can be confident of its academic credentials. If you prefer the printed word to the electronic kind some of the texts are available through the Irish Texts Society and the School of Celtic Studies which is part of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Fair warning, many of the published texts are quite expensive (though DIAS has a sale on at the moment with a few good discounts on offer).

CELT is continuously in need of funding so if you have a few euros, pounds or dollars to spare you can donate them here.

A second and a closely related site is Irish Script On Screen, a collection of digital images of Irish and Scottish manuscripts in various languages found in the collections of several universities and institutions in Ireland, Scotland and Australia. It is stored and maintained under the auspices of the School of Celtic Studies at DIAS and is growing every year with scanned images that span the centuries from the early Medieval period to the Industrial Age. I have to admit that I love this site and I’ve spent literally hours searching through it. It will make you ache that traditional Irish lettering is no longer in popular use, either in printed or written form. Like some Arabic texts there are manuscripts here, even relatively late ones, that are almost works of art so beautiful are they to the human eye (trying to link to specific images or pages is almost impossible due to the way the site is set up, so apologies if I can’t provide any ready examples. Take my word for it and explore for yourself).

I should also mention a useful addendum to both of the above which is eDIL: the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, maintained by the Royal Irish Academy and Queen’s University Belfast. It is a digitised and much expanded version of the early 20th century “Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials” originally published by the RIA in several parts. The latest revised online edition, again free to use, is fully searchable and is genuinely groundbreaking in terms of research into the earliest literary forms of the Irish language. In a similar vein is In Dúil Bélrai, a less comprehensive but again searchable English-Old Irish glossary from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland. There is also a very useful list of other dictionaries and resources in general kept up-to-date by the excellent SMO. For comparisons or follow-ups on particular words you can use the Foclóir, the modern Irish-English/English-Irish digital dictionary maintained on behalf of the Government of Ireland along with Focal – Bunachar Náisiúnta Téarmaíochta don Ghaeilge, a more technical database of Irish terms (the former should eventually supersede the latter). Finally there is the now antiquated but still highly useful Foclóir Uí Dhuinnín from the University of Limerick which contains lots of old words and phrases no longer encountered in vernacular Irish (unfortunately).

Hope you might find one or two of those sites interesting over the weekend.

The Lia Fáil Desecrated Once Again

The Lia Fáil at Teamhair na Rí, the symbolic representation of Ireland's nationhood, desecrated once again by vandals

The Lia Fáil at Teamhair na Rí, the symbolic representation of Ireland’s nationhood, desecrated once again by vandals

Two years ago I featured a report on the act of vandalism carried out against the Lia Fáil, the ancient granite monument on Teamahir na Rí that symbolises Ireland’s sovereignty in our native traditions. During that attack one or more individuals smashed the ancient standing stone with a sledgehammer, some of the broken pieces being removed from the scene of the crime. Despite a significant Garda investigation the culprits were never found. Now the monument has been desecrated again with tins of red and green paint poured over its surface, almost certainly by more than one person. From the Journal:

“A FEATURE ON the world famous Hill of Tara was badly vandalised last night.

During the incident, two tins of thick gloss paint were poured over the Lia Fáil.

The Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) is believed to have played an important part in Kingship rituals.

When the rightful king placed his foot on the stone it is said to have called out his name, declaring him High King of Ireland. It was said to have originally been positioned next to the Mound of the Hostages, the Neolithic passage tomb at Tara, and was moved to its current position on top of the Forradh in 1824 in commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion.

Sometime between 5pm yesterday evening and 10am this morning, someone accessed the site carrying two tins of thick gloss paint (one red and one green). They seemingly ignored the rest of the monuments on the hill and went straight for the Lia Fáil, emptying first the red, then the thick green paint over the stone pillar.

I condemn in the strongest terms the damage that has been caused to one of our most iconic ancient monuments. This act of mindless vandalism, on one of our premier archaeological sites, is truly shameful.

This same stone pillar was vandalised two years ago. During that 2012 attack, someone struck it a number of times with a hammer. It is still unclear whether the two cases are related.

Our heritage sites are incredibly strong economic, educational and spiritual assets. The Hill of Tara itself was described by William Butler Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde as ‘probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland’, and today it attracts large numbers of visitors from all over the world.

It remains as one of the most instantly recognisable and significant archaeological landscapes in Ireland.

The Lia Fáil will need to be thoroughly assessed in order to develop the safest plan for removing the paint and restoring the stone without damaging it any further.

If anyone was on the Hill of Tara or in the general area, between 5pm yesterday evening and 10am this morning and if you saw anything out of the ordinary or suspicious please do get in touch with Navan Garda Station on 046-9079930.”

From a report by the Irish Independent:

“Dr Jonathan Foyle, of the World Monuments Fund, has referred to Tara as “the equivalent of Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey all rolled into one”.

The desecration of the sacred granite stone has sparked outrage, with Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan denouncing the vandals as shameful.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the damage that has been caused to one of our most iconic ancient monuments,” he said.

“This act of mindless vandalism, on one of our premier archaeological sites, is truly shameful.”

Mr Deenihan said the ancient monuments on the Hill of Tara are cherished not just in Ireland but internationally.

“I call for anyone with any information about who may have been responsible to inform the Gardai,” he said.”

Someone somewhere knows who did this. In their mindset these criminals are no different from the Taliban vandals who destroyed the millennia-old Buddhist monuments of Afghanistan or the militant bands who wrought destruction to the ancient libraries of Timbuktu. They are barbarians and they must be stopped before they carry out a far greater act of desecration.

Féile na Bealtaine

An Caorthann or the rowan tree (mountain-ash), one of several plants associated with Bealtaine traditions

An Caorthann or the rowan tree (mountain-ash), one of several plants associated with Bealtaine traditions

Some appropiate links for Lá Bealtaine, traditionally the first day of summer by the indigenous calendars of the Irish, Scots and Manx (and probably for the Celtic peoples as a whole). The Dos Bhealtaine or May Bush is up already, the branches and flowers cut from the caorthann or rowan tree in my garden. The ribbons are red and white, the colours of the Ó Sionnaigh heraldic crest and the mythical Aos Sí. And perhaps of revolutionary Gaels too? ;-)

Tuatha Dé Danann
Na Fomhóraigh
An Sí
Na Fathaigh
Na Bocánaigh, Na Bánánaigh
Na Púcaí
Na Péisteanna
Na Murúcha
Seanchas Agus Litríocht na nGael
Na Fianna

An Irish Equivalent For Geek Or Otaku?

Gaeilge (Atari)

Gaeilge (Atari)

I was recently asked if there is an Irish word that is the equivalent of the Anglo-American term Geek or its Japanese near-equivalent Otaku (おたく/オタクおたく/オタク). I couldn’t think of anything unless one went for something like a crude Gaelicisation of the originals in the form of Geic (?) or Odacú (?). Then I remembered the Irish and Scottish literary genre of aislingí (“dreams, visions”),  stories and narrative poems that began in the Medieval period with mythological or ecclesiastical tales and which later developed a more political edge in the turbulent 17th and 18th centuries. Though principally focused on interactions with or expressions of the Otherworldly it often bore a commentary on current events. In this context the Irish word aislingeach, which means “dreamer, day-dreamer; visionary”, seemed a suitable equivalent for geek. A bit clunky though, given the subject matter.

Could others come up with a better or more organic term?

[Update]: Thanks to Méabh in Nua Eabhrac who claims that Aislingeach is too long and established as a word. It needs to be something (and I quote) “…with vocal punch” and a neologism to boot. I agree.

[Update]: Pól offers up on Facebook the word teicnóg for geek or geek culture. You could gloss that as “young-tech” which I kinda like. A lot! Though should it be teicóg?

[Update]: Well it seems that “officially” the Irish language does have an equivalent for the word Geek. It is Geocach which is “geoc-” (geek) with the “-ach” ending to make it a thing (in this case a person). To my ears it sounds rather unappealing and judging by the reaction it seems I’m not the only one.

So far on Facebook the suggested term Teicóg (loosely “young-tech”) is gathering some favour. So that would give us:

Teicóg = geek culture
Teicógach = a geek
Teicógaigh = geeks

186. Imbolc

An Sionnach Fionn:

Lá Fhéile Bríde shona daoibh, a chairde. It is the great Irish and Gaelic spring-festival of Iombolg or Lá ‘le Bríde and the days are getting slightly longer (if also wetter). It started at sunset yesterday and will finish at sunset tonight so enjoy.

Arna chéadfhoilsiú ar ancroiait:

Imbolc shona daoibh

Tá an geimreadh ag iompar an samhradh

Lá Fhéile Bríde/Là Fhèill Brìghde/ Laa’l Breeshey Shona daoibh

Tine BhrídeBain taitneamh as an lá.

Téigh go tobar naofa ag breacadh an lae is ól uisce ann,

déan Brídeóg sa bhaile is téigh ó theach go teach léi ag bailiú bia is rudaí eile le cuir uirthi,

las tine ‘s abair filíocht is ceol, bí ag ithe is ag ól…

San oíche déan leaba luachra dár nDia Torthúlachta is glaoigh amach di

A Bhríd, a Bhríd, tar a slí is gabh do leaba X 3

Tabhair meas speisíalta do na mná an lá seo. Is leo an Fhéile seo.

Cill Aodáin le Antoine Ó Raifteirí 1779–1835

Anois teacht an earraigh

beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh,
Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde
ardóidh mé mo sheol.

Ó chuir mé i mo cheann é

ní chónóidh me choíche

Bunleagan 129 focal eile

Gremlin, Gruaimín

Gremlin, Gruaimín?

Gremlin, Gruaimín?

Over on his OUP blog the Russian-born etymologist and author Anatoly Liberman speculates at length on the origin of the Anglo-American word gremlin and comes up with a somewhat surprising source:

“Our last demon for today is the gremlin. The noun has been around only since 1941 and is one of the war words that stayed and made a spectacular career. Still later (1970) the car called “Gremlin” was introduced. I have no idea why it was given such a mischievous name and whether it lived up to it. John Moore, in an article published in The Observer for November 8, 1942, discussed the folklore of gremlins and suggested that the sprite had come out of Fremlin beer bottles. This amusing explanation has been recycled by several authors, among others by Joseph T. Shipley, the least reliable etymologist among those whose books have been published by the otherwise dependable presses. The rhyme fremlin / kremlin / gremlin is obvious, but, regrettably, that is where we should stop, for we have no evidence that the word, which sprang up among British aviators, owes anything to its look-alikes. A more certain clue is the suffix, for it may have been borrowed from goblin.

Spitzer said in passing that gremlin had the same origin as grimalkin. Other scholars traced this word to an Old English or a rare Dutch verb. Such attempts should be rejected out of hand. If it is true that gremlin had not been heard of before 1941, in what limbo did it vegetate for centuries? It does happen that a word sometimes leads a hidden life in the language of the underworld, escapes from its environment, stops being slang, and enters aristocratic parlors. Gremlin does not seem to be one of such words. The suggestion that the etymon of gremlin is Irish Gaelic gruamin “ill-humored little fellow” is acceptable, but, as ill luck would have it, we don’t know whether the originator of the word was an Irishman or someone fluent in Irish Gaelic. Also, in the life of a word, its history following the moment of “conception” is of no small importance. How did gremlin gain such popularity? Why among pilots? Genies occasionally come out of the bottle; gremlins probably don’t. The origin of gremlin remains unknown, but a respectable imp should have a name beginning with gr-. Otherwise, who will be afraid of it?”

I know that the Irish word gruaimín does mean “gloomy, sullen little fellow”, being derived from related adjectives for gloom or despondency (c.f. gruamaire “gloomy, morose person” and the diminutive gruamachán). However it is difficult to see how this was reflected into English as gremlin. A more regular adaptation would surely have been something like grumeen or grumon. A quick check of eDIL doesn’t reveal much, even using Old or Middle Irish spelling. Neither does Foclóir Uí Dhuinnín. So I’ll have to have a deeper root around in my digital and hardcopy dictionaries. Meanwhile there is more information here.

Lá An Dreoilín Shona Daoibh Go Léir!

Lucht an Dreoilín

Lucht an Dreoilín “the Wrenboys”

Happy hunting to all those who join the Lucht an Dreoilín today.

Wolfing Around

The “Legend of Priest and Were-Wolves” from the Topographia Hibernica by Gerald de Barri (Giraldus Cambrensis), the Medieval Norman-British chronicler and propagandist

The “Legend of Priest and Were-Wolves” from the Topographia Hibernica by Gerald de Barri (Giraldus Cambrensis), the Medieval Norman-British chronicler and propagandist

Given the importance of wolves in the traditions of the Indo-European peoples as far back as one can go into the archaeological, literary or linguistic records the claim that the first domesticated dogs evolved from an ancient species of wolves found in Europe some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago is somewhat appropriate. From Britain’s Independent newspaper:

“The domestic dog originated from wild European wolves in the Stone Age before the development of farming, when humans hunted and gathered their food, according to a genetic analysis of ancient canine remains.

Scientists have long puzzled over how domestic dogs came into existence and their efforts have centred on the grey wolf, their closest living relatives of dogs, but there is conflicting evidence on when and where wild wolves were first tamed.

Earlier studies suggested that wolves may have been domesticated by the first farmers about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East or Asia, possibly to guard livestock. However, the latest study has found that it began much earlier in Europe, long before the development of agriculture.

Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California at Los Angeles said that an ancient European lineage of grey wolf, which has since gone extinct, is the most likely direct ancestor of the first domesticated dogs based on similarities in genetic sequences.”

For Celtic and Germanic expressions of wolf cultism may I suggest this article on the Fianna of ancient Ireland some of whom, as the annals record, spent their time ag faoladh “…wolfing around”.

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh

Feis Shamhna - the festival of Samhain. The Meascán Méabha, Cnoc na Riabh, Contae Shligigh, Éire

Feis Shamhna – the festival of Samhain. The Meascán Méabha, Cnoc na Riabh, Contae Shligigh, Éire (Íomhá: © Seán Monaghan,

A pale yellow sun has sunk below the grey horizon here in Baile Átha Cliath and the Feis Shamhna is upon us, the sunset-to-sunrise festival of Samhain which marks the start of the winter in the ancient Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (and probably the rest of the Celtic world too). The event gives us the Christianized All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and is popularised as the Celtic New Year in contemporary culture. Whether that was also the original meaning is much debated though certainly Samhain was one of the four great quarter-festivals of the Gaelic year, alongside Imbolg, Bealtaine and Lúghnasa (or Lúnasa), and one of the two dividing points on the calendar between the winter and summer halves of the year (the other being Bealtaine in May).

Importantly, compared to all the other seasonal celebrations, Samhain was the supernatural festival par excellence. This was the time when the barriers between the two worlds that made up the Celtic cosmos, that of gods and men, were lowered. Though the preternatural could intrude into the natural at any time it was at Samhain that it was most often encountered and around which the most Otherworldly tales clustered. In purely practical terms of course, as the commencement of the winter season, it was also the period when communities battened down the hatches and prepared to wait out the increasingly dark and dismal days ahead. Cattle and other valuable livestock were brought down from their hillside pastures and placed in pens or fields closer to home. Winter grazing foods, such as mast, were gathered along with berries and fruits. Fences and ditches were repaired, roads and trackways cleared, roofs and walls refurbished. Warfare came to a halt for several months (theoretically at least) and people tended to stay close to their homesteads and fortresses foregoing travel.

Not only did Samhain symbolise the start of the winter it was also the setting of the last major market-festivals until Imblog in February, a final opportunity to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This facilitated great communal festivities across Ireland and the Gaelic nations between kings and their people where loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration. From these and many other traditions we get the Feis Shamhna and a legacy that remains one of the Gaelic peoples’ greatest contributions to popular Western culture.

Below are a series of articles on the indigenous literatures of the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, focusing primarily on the Irish tradition.

Tuatha Dé Danann

Na Fomhóraigh


An Sí

Na Fathaigh

Na Bocánaigh, Na Bánánaigh

Na Púcaí

Na Péisteanna

Na Murúcha

Seanchas Agus Litríocht na nGael

Na Fianna

An Gal Gréine

Monocultural Ireland – Conform Or Die

English versus An Ghaeilge - conform or die?

English versus An Ghaeilge – conform or die?

After sunset this evening we will officially be in the period of the Feis Shamhna, the Festival of Samhain, from which is derived in large part the Western World’s celebration of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. Under the indigenous Irish, Scottish and Manx calendars Samhain was the great festival marking the commencement of winter and possibly the new year too. Nearly 1500 years after the conversion to Christianity the Gaelic nations continue to celebrate one of the most important cultural events of their Celtic ancestors, albeit in a much debased form.

So it is a sad irony and a true reflection of the linguistic regime that we live under that the eve of Samhain is the very day that the government of Ireland announces an end to its tokenistic effort to encourage the positioning or recruitment of Irish-speaking officials to the civil service. Already forced to speak English in virtually all interactions with the institutions of this state, from the highest to the lowest levels, this policy move will ensure that Irish-speaking citizens and communities in Ireland are further denied access to the resources of the state unless they surrender to anglophone conformity.

Which, given the unrelenting antipathy of the Fine Gael and Labour coalition government to its indigenous-speaking citizens, is perhaps the very purpose of the policy change.

Ireland, an Irish nation? Don’t make me laugh.

The Fatal Strain: Cultism

Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley's "Scarlet Women", c.1913

Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley’s “Scarlet Women”, c.1913

I’ve always been interested in clandestine military, political or religious groups, be they revolutionary movements, secret societies or arcane cults. Growing up in Ireland one is imbued in a culture where such organisations are integral to the social history of the nation, at least from the 18th century onwards (and arguably much earlier if one were to reach back to the era of the promiscuously exuberant Fianna of Medieval Ireland and Scotland). I was raised in a country where the Buachaillí Bána and the Irish Republican Brotherhood were part and parcel of the education syllabus and the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys part and parcel of the nightly news. How could one escape a fascination for the esoteric in such a milieu?

Even the more outrageous cults hold an interest for me, especially the practitioners of early 1900s “magick”. The kinks in human psychology that led the likes of W.B. Yeats to fall for the allure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or allowed Aleister Crowley to get away with his deviant shenanigans are intriguing. When I was younger I used to read the Fortean Times for fun and I still recommend it, especially when it’s at its most humorously cynical. I suppose that is why I am also prone to the literary and artistic genres of Fantasy and Science-Fiction (though the former also owes an awful lot to growing up with the tales of the Aos Sí – as indeed does J.R.R. Tolkien). One of my favourite Science-Fiction books is Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune and there is plenty there to wet one’s cultic appetite, from the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen. Herbert wasn’t the first author to posit the society of the “witches” but he was certainly one of the more imaginative and convincing (I’ll diplomatically gloss over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, unashamed literary jackdaw that he was – and I won’t mention Terry Brooks!).

All of which rambling serves as an introduction to this article by Jeff Sharlet on the secularist website Killing the Buddha investigating a highly secretive Christian-based society in the United States known simply as the Fellowship. If you have any interest in religion, cults and the power of the Evangelical Right in regions of the US I highly recommend a read.

New Monument Discovered At Brú Na Bóinne

Sí an Bhrú "Otherworld Residence of the Palace", the largest mound of the Brú na Bóinne complex, An Mhí, Éire

Sí an Bhrú “Otherworld Residence of the Palace”, the largest mound of the Brú na Bóinne complex, An Mhí, Éire

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne (“Palace of the Bóinn”) is generally regarded as holding north-western Europe’s greatest concentration of intact prehistoric monuments with the main burial mound of Sí an Bhrú (“Otherworld Residence of the Palace”) dating to 3200 CE. It has been poured over by antiquarians, historians and archaeologists for centuries so it is a bit of surprise that a new monument has been discovered within the complex. From the Evening Herald:

“Using light detection and ranging imaging known as LiDar, an underground passageway and several other previously undetected features have been discovered near the river Boyne, Co Meath, on private land south-west of Newgrange.

The LiDar imagery showed a mound with a circular enclosure, while further work involving new technologies, known as magnetic radiometry and resistivity, unveiled a definite passage, leading northeast out of the newly discovered tomb.

It is the first discovery to be made without any archaeological digging, instead being found through use of LiDar and other “ground-probing techniques.” The archaeologists who made the discovery, led by Kevin Barton, are calling on the Minister for Heritage, Jimmy Deenihan, to declare the site a national monument.

Because the new discovery is on private ground, the team of archaeologists need the Minister to do this as without Government designations, an excavation would be impossible.

Activist group ‘Save Newgrange’ are backing the archaeologists’ request to the minister, as well as requesting that Meath County Council include the new findings in the Management Plan for the World Heritage Site.

The results of a full scale excavation could lead to an expansion of Newgrange and could halt any further plans for an N2 Bypass of the site, which would be critical if there were any more requests from local council to build the motorway.

In 2012, An Bord Pleanala refused an application for the bypass because of proximity to the monument. Local politicians, however, are still hoping to procure a bypass.”

I bet they feckin’ are! The modern Oirish surely love to hate their history. So, what’s the bets on the government not looking the other way while some major, party-donating construction company concretes over the discovering? What? No takers? Oh, what intelligent readers I have…

Death Of The Irish Harp

The book-cover of St. Aodh Óg, Ireland, c.1000 CE. The earliest unambiguous depiction of an Irish harp

The book-cover of St. Aodh Óg, Ireland, c.1000 CE. The earliest unambiguous depiction of an Irish harp

For those interested in the psychology of art symbolism there is a great study by Mary Louise O’Donnell, of the University of Limerick, examining the slow dilution of the Irish Harp as the recognised emblem of the modern nation-state of Ireland. In particular since the sudden growth and equally sudden demise of the country’s so-called Celtic Tiger socio-economic model Ireland’s political and social elites have been at the forefront of chipping away at the historical legitimacy of their own state. A cultural phenomenon perhaps unique in modern Europe.

“Peter Alter notes that ‘national symbols are not static’ and can ‘lose their political integrating force and their credibility especially when the national programme for which they stand loses its persuasive power and is replaced by a different programme’.

The concept of branding has become an integral part of Irish harp iconography in the last decade. Terminology such as ‘emblem’ and ‘symbol’ has been replaced by the term ‘logo’, which is now the most potent tool in corporate branding and the creation of brand recognition. The Irish harp emblem, which is regarded increasingly as visually anachronistic, has been replaced by a variety of harp logos…

The Irish harp emblem is increasingly rejected in favour of a selection of fluid, oblique images of harps which reflect postmodern Irish society and culture. Fredric Jameson suggests that postmodernism ‘only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images’.

He notes that ‘there can-not but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future’.

Dorothea Olkowoski-Leatz explores the consequences of this dispersion and fragmentation of images, suggesting that ‘there is nothing to know; there is only the distribution of information. There is no longer any history, only the parodying repetition of the past: a repetition visible in art culture, styles, political posturing.’

Harp logos, as employed by government departments or agencies, are arbitrary images which claim to represent reality but which, in truth, mean nothing. Jean Baudrillard used the term ‘simulacra’ to describe signs which serve no purpose and have no connection with reality. In Simulacra and Simulation he identified four orders of simulacra: firstly, the creation of false images which no longer represent what they are intended to signify; secondly, the reproduction and repetition of these false images; thirdly, the collapse of any distinction between the real image/sign and its simulation; and finally, pure simulation which has no relation to any reality.

The increasing employment and reproduction of harp logos, or false harp images, in place of the Irish harp emblem exemplifies the early stages of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacrization

Sadly, it seems that the Irish harp emblem has no significant role in the image-driven culture of post-modern Ireland. It has an uncertain future.

The national symbol, the potent visual representation of centuries of Irish politics, culture and history is evidently not an ‘integral part of a visual identity’ for the period… In light of the transformation of the Irish harp emblem over the last two decades one wonders how much longer it can remain an integral part of Irish identity.”

I’m no fan of the Irish Harp as such, nor indeed of the Tricolour or National Flag of Ireland. The latter in particular seems ugly and alien to me, unlike say the Gal Gréine. However I would mourn the passing of the Harp, with its ancient emblematic lineage, as one of the symbols of Ireland. If that does happen, and I suspect Mary Louise O’Donnell’s prediction may prove to be correct, it simply adds to the general feeling so readily observable all around us that we live in a “false” Ireland. One that the certain classes and cliques in Irish society seem determined to impose instead of the “real” Ireland which came before.

An Creideamh Sí

Tuatha De Danann - Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Cailli, Loch Craobh, An Mhi, Cúige Laighean, Eire

Tuatha Dé Danann – Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Cúige Laighean, Éire (Íomhá: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh 2009)

Militant atheist and secularist though I am I still respect religious beliefs as a vital component to the cultural heritage and identity of countless peoples and nations around the globe. Far too often non-believers find it necessary to denigrate the practices of faith adhered to by believers. This is simply a form philistine atheism. There is a beauty and an integrity to religious traditions that one should cherish. They form part of the greater whole of Human civilization which belongs to and enriches the lives and intellects of us all.

In an Irish context, despite my antipathy to the Christian faiths, I still enjoy the architectural beauty of many church buildings or admire the devotion of those who make the long walk up Sliabh Mis or suffer the purgatory travails of Loch Dearg. Why on earth would one belittle such customs or such experiences? Are they any less valid than the desire of those who follow their own traditions by pilgrimaging to some far away destination, be it an Ibiza club or a New York department store? We each of us seek our own form of solace, be it spiritual, social or retail.

Such is the human condition.

Therefore I embrace the traditions of my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors as much as I can – or as much as one can given the limitations of the sources of information available. When asked my religion I have always replied none. When pressed by those who insist that something must have come before nothing I reply that my faith is that of the Fiannaíocht. I could, I suppose, just as easily have stated that my faith is the Creidheamh Sí, a more recent label for a many-faceted thing. In any case tradition, more than belief, is what I respect. Unfortunately in this shallow and venal dystopian republic of ours believing in anything Irish, anything of Ireland, is frowned upon. Or ridiculed. Unless it comes from the mouth and pen of a poet. And even he or she must, perforce, toe the official line: such things are of our past, not of our present or future. Some argue that the great concrete furrow that scars the many-hedged fields and woods around Teamhair na Rí, spouting modernity and fumes, was a test for we contemporary Gaels. If so it was a test we failed.

In any case, via Kathryn Nic Dhàna, the folklorist and ethnologist Dr. Jenny Butler discusses the living tradition of the Creideamh Sí below.