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Limerick – January 1900

LIMK 1900



  1. 1.      Compensation Water

At the dawn of the 19th century the fishermen of Limerick had a serious problem. Something big was about to happen in their native city and they were ready, willing and hopefully able to do all in their power to stop the march of progress. The Limerick Fishery Conservators, presided over by Lord Massy, held a meeting and all of the members unanimously resolved to oppose the scheme of the so-Called Shannon Water and Electric Power Company who were seeking Parliamentary authority in England to utilise the waters of the Shannon near Loch Derg to provide the city with electricity. The general feeling at the meeting was that the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill was no more than a bill for the abolition of the navigation and fisheries of the River Shannon and the water supply of the city of Limerick for the benefit, if any, of a few company promoters. Furthermore, there was reliable world it was felt that the Parliament will never sanction such a bill, and the Bill would face firm opposition but the endeavour to secure “killing the bill” would be a costly exercise for those in opposition.

“The Limerick harbour commissioners have again engaged Mr Fottrell, solicitor, Dublin, to attend to the details of the opposition to the renewed Railway Amalgamation Scheme. The commissioners have also instructed Mr Fottrell to retain Mr Ackworth, QC and their behalf”[1]

At the meeting letters were read from local luminaries who had a lot to say on the subject and were determined to ensure that this project would be abandoned and terminated forthwith; “as one who uses Loch Derg both for business and pleasure, I should most strongly oppose any lowering of its level, nearly all the quays on the lake, and there are many, and their approaches have cost this county a great deal of money, and will be utterly useless if the level is lowered. This county has also guaranteed a large yearly sum, £250, for which we get very little return even now, and should, if the lake was lowered, get none. There is a project now on foot to make a railway to Dromineer from Nenagh to connect with the Grand Canal Company. This would also fall through if the canal were interfered with. These are a few of the objections which can be urged. Then, from the point of view of pleasure, as the lake is very shallow in many places the navigation would be seriously interfered with. The fishing rights, of course, are very valuable, and would be seriously affected.”

Another member wrote, “I have 30 years experience on Lough Derg, and can inform you should they lower the present summer level by inches instead of feet, I and every other trader will be deprived of our living, as there would not be even one harbour on Lough Derg that steamer could call at, and if they propose making all those harbours fit for steamers to call at I fear, like the “cook and the soup” the cost is bound to spoil the flavour.”

Lord Massy announced to the attending members,” it is undoubtedly a fact that if they carry out what is proposed it will ruin us as far as the fishing interests and milling and navigation interests are concerned. The original proposal was to take 200,000 ft.³ of water per minute out of the river. We got the river examined last year by a competent engineer. He took careful measurements at a time when the river was by no means what is known as summer level, and found that only 160,000 ft.³ per minute was running throughout the whole river. How the syndicate proposed to take 200,000 ft.³ per minute from that I don’t know. Even in average spring water there would be no water for the fish to get up, and that affects not only the ride interests, but also the netting interests below. Therefore, I think we should be united in opposing this measure. Of course, there will have to pay compensation to the different persons affected by it, but I noticed they propose to do so if possible by giving them shares in what I consider this rotten scheme of theirs. I hope it would not pass but we must oppose it.” [2]

Another speaker took the floor, Mr JA Place stated, “as everyone present may not have had an opportunity of reading this bill, allow me to explain shortly to the meeting what it proposes. They ask for powers to compulsorily take land to make their canals, first of all from above the steamboat pier at Killaloe to a point near Clarisford, the Bishop of Killaloe’s residence; and secondly, from above the “World’s End,” at Castleconnell, to below Plassey. The canals on both cases following the course taken by the existing navigation canals; close to the village of Clonlara their power station is to be erected. Through these canals they propose to divert the water of the Shannon; and, further, they propose to lower the summer level of Loch Derg, but to what extent it is not stated; it is left altogether indefinite. I understand they propose to lower it several feet. They also propose to stop up certain roads, and remove bridges; but that is a matter altogether for the County Clare County Council. The effect of lowering the water in Lough Derg by even 6 inches must necessarily reduce the traffic of the Grand Canal Company, and also that of the Shannon Lake Steamers, besides the traffic of numbers of independent traders who use the lake. The inhabitants of such important places as Dromineer and Scariff would be completely shut off from obtaining their supplies; also Garrykennedy and several others. The effect of diverting the water from its natural course above Castleconnell would be simply too close to the fisheries below Castleconnell, as it will leave the river practically dry between Castleconnell and Plassey; it will also close up the Limerick Waterworks, the erection of which has cost the citizens an immense sum. This latter, however, is a question for the Limerick Corporation. It is true they seek power to let down what they call “compensation water” from Loch Derg, but this is only to be exercised with the consent of the Board of Works, and should they for the purpose of maintaining navigation refuse to let down this compensation water, both the fisheries and Corporation Water Works will be left high and dry, as I have already stated. There will also be the important water rights for milling and other purposes enjoyed by Mr Lefroy, the Messrs. Russell, and others to be taken into account. It must also be remembered that several counties have guaranteed an annual subsidy to the Shannon Development Company, and the attention of the county councils, will now represent the grand juries, who guaranteed these subsidies, should be at once drawn to the matter. In addition to the direct effect upon the fisheries to which I have alluded, lowering Lough Derg will close up several of our most important spawning tributaries.”

It was proposed at the meeting that the principal fishery owners in the Limerick fishery district, Mill and factory owners using the waters of the Shannon below Loch Derg, riparian proprietors, and users of the water for navigation purposes, view with grave apprehension the works intended to be carried out by the proposed Shannon Water and Electric Power Company, and for which Parliamentary powers are sought, as we believe they will be ruinous to our respective interests, and we hereby call upon the Right Honourable the Chief Sec for Ireland and the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland to refuse their sanction to such a scheme; and we direct our secretary to send a copy of this resolution to the Chief Sec, the Board of Public Works, the Corporation of Limerick, the members of Parliament for the city and County of Limerick and counties Clare, Galway, and Tipperary, and Kings County, to the District Councils concerned, and to the several County Councils who have guaranteed the Shannon Lake Steamers.”

Those who attended the meeting were also informed that it was common knowledge that the board of Works were actually against the scheme altogether. And one member, Mr R. Twiss, stated that, “I’m not allowed to give authority, but I understand that the Chief Sec for Ireland is going to do his best to carry the scheme through the House. Whether the Board of Works will oppose it strongly or not; I don’t know.” It was further felt that it would be desirable to send a copy of the resolution to the commission appointed by the Lord-Lieutenant, because there was no doubt it would help if interest by the Lord-Lieutenant was generated.

“A distressing accident occurred at Limerick railway terminus last evening. James Davoren, labourer, was seeing his brother, a solicitor, off by train for Fermoy, when he accidentally fell off the platform onto the permanent way. After the train passed he was discovered lying on the rails. He was removed to Barrington’s Hospital, where his right leg had to be amputated.” [3]

“Yesterday evening as a man was bidding goodbye to his brother, who was leaving Limerick for Fermoy, was pulled off the platform under the wheels of the train, and one of his legs was so badly mangled that amputation was rendered necessary. The patient is doing as well as can be expected. This is the third serious accident which has occurred at the terminus during the holidays. Not the slightest blame, however, attaches to any of the officials.”[4]

  1. 2.      Important Busybodies

At Limerick County Courts there were heated sessions as Judge Adams asked if there were any of the professional men present in favour of extending the jurisdiction of the court by having eight instead of four quarter sessions in each year. The answer was in the negative, and Judge Adams said the demand for eight quarter sessions in the year was not made by the professional men, by the public, or the people of this city. It was made by three or four busybodies who go about waiting on the Lord Chancellor with the object of seeing their names in the papers under the caption of “Important Deputation to the Lord Chancellor.” He heard the Lord Chancellor induced the Recorder of Galway; “that most commercial, prosperous, and mercantile town, of which we all know too well, to hold eight quarter sessions there in the year” [5] As far as he, Judge Adams, was concerned, he would never hold more than four quarter sessions in the year in Limerick until he was compelled to do so by act of Parliament. Even when that act of Parliament was introduced he should have some friends there, and they would have something to say to the bill in both houses of the legislator.

  1. 3.      Broken Glass

Two privates of the Cheshire Regiment named Ernest Hancock and Peter Ishwood found them-selves before Judge Adams indicted for the breaking of a plate glass window in Messrs. Kidd’s establishment, in George Street, on December 6. Both prisoners pleaded guilty. His honour asked if they would be willing to go to the front if they were discharged. The men said they would. Hancock stating that he wished to be with his brother; who had gone with the Cheshires to the front. Captain Marden having stated that, with the exception of some trivial offences, the men bore good characters. They were released on their own recognisances. It is likely they will be sent to South Africa with the next draft.[6]

  1. Catholics and Protestants

A public meeting promoted by the clergy of St Michael’s, was held in the Lecture Hall of the Catholic Institute this week, to promote a Fete and fancy fair in June next in aid of the funds for the erection of an additional Parochial church, dedicated to St Joseph, in St Michael’s Parish, the building of which is in progress. The Bishop presided, and there was an exceedingly large attendance of clergy, ladies and gentlemen, all of whom showed great interest in the initiation of the fete. Rev Fr O’Donnell, administrator, St Michael’s made a preliminary statement, in which he explained that it had been rumoured that the hospitals were about to hold a fete this year, but he had waited on the committees of the hospitals, and it was only when they stated that they were not prepared to hold a hospitals fete this year that it was decided to hold a fete for the church. It had been decided to hold a fete in June, so as not to clash with any other event, and another reason for holding it in June was that they had an offer from their distinguished fellow citizen, Mr Joseph O’Mara, to hold himself free from that time, so as to assist them. In conclusion, Fr O’Donnell said he was very happy to be able to say that they had promises of support from many of their Protestant friends and he had only to say that they would be very glad to avail themselves of it. The Bishop, in an address, referred to the excellent work of the St Michael’s clergy. Numerous letters of apology were received in support of the fete, including letters from Count Moore, who had offered a prize. Several organising committees were appointed to work up the details of the fete, which is to be called “Kincora Fete.”[7]

“The 3rd Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry Royal Bucks Militia, on embodiment at High Wycombe, after the New Year, will come to Limerick for garrison duty during the war. The details left behind by the 1st Battalion when it went out to the front from Aldershot arrived last week at Limerick.” [8]

“A shocking case of suicide occurred late last night in Newgate Street, Limerick, James Salmon, 35, an engine man, return to his residents about 9 o’clock, and, procuring a razor, went out into the yard of the house and cut his throat from ear to ear. When discovered shortly afterwards in the yard Salmon was lying in a pool of blood, life being extinct, Salmon was married, with a large family, but there were only two young children at home at the time” [9]

  1. 5.      Hooting and Groaning

Judge Adams in the Limerick County Crown Court took up the hearing of claims for malicious injuries. Mr TM English, a member of Tipperary District Council, applied for £116 compensation for a quantity of hay, his property, maliciously burned at Templebredin on the night of 6 December 1899. The plaintiff’s case was that he incurred hostility through his action with regard to the maintenance and repairs of the public roads. He attended a meeting of the district council, the quarterly meeting, where the matter was discussed, but was groaned and hooted down, the labourers, headed by a band and banners, being present and interrupting the proceedings. He was in favour of giving half the main roads to be worked by the labourers for 12 months, to see what the expenditure would be, the rest of the main roads and the small roads to be done, as heretofore, by contractors. One of the labourers burst into the meeting and made a speech and Mr English would not be heard. Subsequently, while returning from Old Pallas Fair, two labourers attempted to assault him, and finally his hay was burned.

After the evidence had been given Judge Adams said he would award £105 compensation, and put the area of taxation on the county at large. He would have made the locality the area of taxation if he thought the ratepayers in any way aided or supported this labourer’s agitation, but nothing of the kind was deposed to. Unfortunately, this crime arose out of the labourer’s agitation, which extended throughout the whole county, supported, not by the ratepayers, but by the labourers aided and counselled by a gentleman of whom he would say nothing. The District Council and County Council were composed mainly of farmers, but they had not in any way supported this agitation, though they might have acted with a certain degree of timidity. Nothing like this would be tolerated in any civilised country that District Councils, an assembly to a certain extent like a court of justice, and sitting to discharge its duties, should be invaded by a band of ruffians, with bands and banners, and the proceedings interrupted. One man had the audacity to force himself into the room and make a speech, although not a member of the Council. The bands and banners commenced this, the hooting and groaning followed. Then there was the attempted assault and finally this fire. Those councils should be protected, the same as if it were the Lord Chief Justice’s Court was being held, and there should be an armed force of Constabulary present to put down mop clamour or violence, and restore, what the mob was always the enemy of, peace.[10]

  1. Feeling the Pinch

A special meeting of Limerick Corporation was attended by several outsiders, and others opposed to the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company. Mr William L. Stokes, JP, moved a resolution authorising the solicitor to oppose the sale, and take the necessary steps to that effect. Cllr Obrien seconded the proposition. It was suggested that the resolution be enlarged so as to include the Midland Great Western Railway or any other intending purchasing company, but the suggestion was not entertained. Mr Shaw addressed the meeting by request, and said the great Southern Bill was very little changed from the one of 1899. The Great Southern and Western people were magnificently generous now in certain things, but why were they not so before? Some of those promises and guarantees looked very bright on paper and where glibly put into the bills, but they should be treated with indifference. There were 101 ways for the great Southern company to back out of their undertaking, and the people of Limerick should fight the bill in the interests of the city to which they all had the honour of saying they belonged. No matter what the cost of opposition was it would be but a drop in the ocean compared with what Limerick would suffer if the bill succeeded. He had discussed the matter with several, and came to the conclusion that if they permitted the bill to go through, their children would curse the day they were born. At Lahinch this year, the chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway said to him, “whatever you do” persuade the citizens of Limerick in their own and their children’s interest not to allow the great Southern Bill to go through. “And I tell you,” said he, “that in your own time, before there is 10 years over, you will feel the pinch as you never felt it before.” Let the Corporation join with the Harbour Board, Chambers of Commerce, and other bodies and they would smash this amalgamation as they did before. Mr Stokes said 90% of the citizens opposed amalgamation. Mr John F Power, who subsequently attended, addressed the meeting in favour of amalgamation.[11] The resolution was unanimously adopted, and applause came from outside the barrier.[12]

“The Local Government Board have written sanctioning the decision taken by the Limerick County Council at a meeting last Saturday. The council decided that in these cases where contracts had not been received for the maintenance and repairs of public roads, the roads in question should be given in charge to the County Surveyor to have the work done directly by labourers. The decision to have the opinion of the Local Government Board was to avoid any possible surcharge by the auditor for the expenditure to be incurred.”[13]

  1. 7.      Limerick Fish

At the monthly meeting of the Limerick Fishery Conservators the question of the threatened danger to the Shannon Salmon Fisheries in connection with the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill was under discussion. Mr Hosford, Secretary to the Conservators, stated that he had written to the Board of Public Works, who had charge of the navigation of the Shannon, in reference to the bill being promoted by the Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate, and he had received the following reply: “In reply to your letter of the 13th inst., relative to the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill of 1900, I am directed by the Commissioners of public works to inform you that they would take such steps as may be necessary to guard their interests and responsibilities as Shannon Commissioners in maintaining the navigation and drainage of the River Shannon, and their revenue and property as such commissioners insofar as they may be affected by this bill. There may, however, be interests which will not be covered or protected by the action of the board, and it will rest with the parties concerned to consider and decide whether they should take independent action to protect such interest. I am, Sir, your obedient servant.

The chairman asked to know what they meant by that? Mr Smith said, “That they will not allow the matter to be dropped.” There was general consensus with all members of the committee that whatever the Board of Works say there is no doubt that the project would interfere with the fishing of the Shannon. If they reduce the water by seven feet it would bring the river below the summer level of 7’6”. The letter from the board of Works is simply a diplomatic letter. The board of Works do not say anything. They do not commit themselves to anything. It would be as well for the secretary to write to the Board of Works to know if there are going to allow the river to be lowered. If they allowed the river to be lowered they will leave all the spawning beds of the lake dry in summer. The lowering of the river by seven feet would bring the water of Loch Derg six inches below the sill of the Victoria Lock above Portumna. Some members commented that the Board of Works letter said they would guard their own interests. It would be better to write to the Board of Works and asked them what they propose to do, and are they going to allow the lake to be lowered seven feet, or if they will allow it to be lowered at all?

The chairman stated, “We are here to conserve very valuable interests, and we ought to be in a position to know what is to be done in the matter. The scheme would destroy the spawning beds of the river. In reference to the lowering of the river at Loch Derg, the fishery inspectors held an inquiry some years ago, about the year 1890, with reference to a bill promoted by the Shannon Commissioners, and the report of the inspectors to the Lord Lieutenant stated; “as to the proposed lowering of the lochs it would have an injurious effect on the fisheries, as it would render it difficult for fish to enter the tributaries, many of which are spawning rivers, and the principal feeders of the Shannon.” That was the report of the inspectors to the Lord Lieutenant, and it was an important extract in the report under question. The chairman also stated that it would be well to draw the attention of the Board of Works to it. The extract could be sent to them. After some conversation, it was decided the secretary should write to the board drawing their attention to the report of the inspectors, and the great injury the proposed scheme would be to the salmon and other fisheries of the Shannon” [14]

  1. Uprightness and Consistency

The Times in an article dealing with the outlook in Ireland at the beginning of the New Year appears to be favourably impressed with the material progress which agriculture, trade, and industry have shown during 1899. As to agriculture, the harvests of the past two years, especially that of 1899, have been very satisfactory. And a disposition appears to be spreading throughout the country to utilise modern methods, and to farm on a defined and recognised system. The new Department of Agriculture will develop this tendency, though there is a decided danger that agriculture is mainly indulge in exaggerated ideas as to what outside help can do for them. The Department, as Mr Horace Plunkett tells us “will not be the dispenser of charity, but merely a coadjutor of earnest individual effort.” The Times concludes, as all sensible and unprejudiced people here always knew that the real difficulties of Ireland are economic and agrarian, rather than political. It would have been well for this country if English men, and especially English politicians, had recognised this fact long ago. For nearly 20 years much of the energy which could have been profitably applied to the development of the country’s material interests has been expended in vain and unpractical pursuit of the ‘ignis fatuus’ of Home Rule. In this connection few Irishmen will be disposed to agree with Mr Redmond when he expresses the belief that the present slight and temporary embarrassment of England will dispose the British people towards lending a favourable ear to the demands of himself or his party. He knows but little of the past history or national characteristics of the British people who fondly thinks that they will yield to the threats what they deny to justice. Let Mr Redmond look to the history of the whole of the last century, and the beginning of the present. During that long period of fully 120 years England was engaged in a prolonged struggle, often with nearly all the powers of Europe. Her population at no time during that period was more than double that of Ireland. And yet this interval of 120 years comprises the time which Irish Nationalists now look back upon as the darkest in the history of this country. In 1800, when the union was affected, Napoleon had almost reached the Zenith of his power, and England was fighting for her very existence in every quarter of the globe. The experience of the past teaches a lesson the very contrary to that which Mr Redmond desires to inculcate, that the circumstances which call forth the intent strength of England are those which more strongly impel her to keep her hand on the throttle-valve of Irish disaffection. Whatever concessions England has made to Irish agitation have been made for the most part in a time of profound peace, when England’s greatness was undisputed and her prosperity undisturbed. But, further, England has lost many delusions in dealing with this country, and not least of these was the idea that the vapourings of windy orators had behind them any real body of public opinion. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the convictions of the public are indexed by the amount of pecuniary support which they are prepared to give for the furtherance of their opinions. If the vitality and reality of the recent effort of Irish agitators be tested by this criterion, they need not disturb the equanimity of those who desire for all is a period of peace and progress. The latest attempt at the pro-Boer agitation has been limited to the very “flotsam and jetsam” of the population. The inherent tendency which exists amongst a large section of urban communities in all countries to look after other people’s business, coupled with our national relish for whatever will amuse us, have disposed some of our people to attend pro-Boer meetings at street corners, and to give a laughing ascend to resolutions which mean nothing. Beyond this even the most extreme section in Ireland would not go, and if they did Great Britain would speedily and as effectually deal with them as she is now doing with those Germans who were alleged to be contravening international law.

The Times is evidently not in love with our new Local Government Bill. It notes the intolerance and want of practical good sense displayed by the new County Councils. The capture of the Western councils by the “United Irish League” and the outrageous pretensions of the Limerick labourers are a significant comment on our fitness for popular local government, and the exclusion of every element of stability and standing from the new councils has left the affairs of the taxpaying community at the mercy of ignorant and inexperienced persons. Although we are at one with the Times in many of its conclusions, we are not entirely without hope that time and experience will mitigate some of the evils which are now apparent, and imbue with a larger and more tolerant spirit those who have lately exercised their privileges for the first time. Of one thing we are certain, and that is that Unionists who desire to work in our County and District Councils will not increase their chances of doing so, nor render themselves more popular are respected by any weak attempts to water down their own principles in order to mitigate opposition. Uprightness and consistency are as necessary in public as in private affairs, and Irishmen of all classes respect those who display them.[15]

“Schools open on Thursday, January 11. Scholars who do not return on the opening day are liable to be refused admission.”[16]

At a meeting of Limerick Corporation the engineer reported against approving the Shannon Water and Electric Power Company scheme unless the town council had guarantees to prevent the city waterworks at Clareville being affected. The secretary of the company, Mr John Mackey, and Mr Fraser, engineer, wrote asking to have the decision on the scheme deferred until the latter had an opportunity of explaining the advantages of the undertaking and removing misconception. It was agreed to adjourn the consideration of the matter. The Council, by 24 votes to 4, adapted the scheme of Mr J Enright, of London, for lighting the city by electricity, and laying down the installation to meet the Board of Trade requirements. Sir Thomas Esmonde’s scheme for a national council was defeated.[17]

“It is not easy to surprise Judge Adams, yet during an interesting action involving the Charter rights of the Mayor of Limerick he expressed astonishment that valuable muniments belonging to the city had been lost. Lapsing into history, he declared that Limerick, like Frances at Pavia, seem to have lost everything save her honour; but has she not he’s on steel?”[18]

  1. 9.      Cess Collectors [19]

The Limerick County Council decided that in the case of the deputy cess collectors who were not appointed by the grand jury they could not legally grant these officers compensation under the provisions of the Local Government Act. The deputy cess collectors held that their cases should be specially brought under the notice of the Treasury, with a view to compensation being allowed. A telegram was received from the Treasury stating that the claims of two of the officers affected where allowed, and it is anticipated that a similar result will follow other applications of a like nature pending.[20]

At Limerick Quarter Sessions, in the hearing of an application to have a fair rent fixed, Mr John Ryan, solicitor, mentioned that when cases came into The Land Commission Court no attention, not the slightest, was given to the fines paid for their holdings by tenants. Judge Adams, “And I will not pay the slightest attention to anything the Land Commissioner say. This is a court, and not a tribunal of ex-bank clerks, and so on. I cannot be moved except by both Houses of Parliament, but the Lord Chancellor can sack any of the Land Commissioner if he pleases. I always pay attention to the fines, to the case of tenants paying twenty or thirty years purchase for their farms, and then turning around to try and make the landlord pay the amount by getting the court to cut down the rents.”[21]

At the meeting of the Limerick Board of Guardians on this week complaint was made that there was a police constable present taking notes of the proceedings. A resolution was proposed by Mr Fitzgerald, and seconded by Mr Kelly, both Nationalist guardians, calling on the chairman to have the constable removed. The resolution was carried unanimously, and the Constable, who was in civilian clothing, left in the boardroom.[22]

  1. Bishops Speech

The Bishop of Limerick, Dr O’Dwyer, presided last evening at the annual reunion of the Roman Catholics of the diocese of Birmingham in the Birmingham Town Hall, and delivered an address on the question of a Catholic University for Ireland. The platform was occupied by the Bishop of Southwark and a large number of clergy and leading laity of the diocese. The Most Rev President then delivered an address upon the subject of a Catholic University for Ireland he said they were met together as an association representing both England and Ireland, united by interests of the most transcendent character. He traced the history of the movement in favour of a Catholic University in Ireland, of the efforts made by the late Cardinal Newman, who laid the foundation of their existing university system, and proceeded to deal with the objections raised by Protestants and dissenters to the measure of justice which the Catholics of Ireland claimed. It was urged that religious tests had been abolished at Trinity College, Dublin, and that Catholics were as free to become students as Protestants; but he pointed out that the whole influence and traditions of the College were Protestant. Catholics asked that as they represented the great majority of the people of Ireland, they should have an institution similarly based on the Catholic lines. It was further urged by their opponents that as the national system of education was undenominational, higher education should also be undenominational; but he quoted instances both in England and Ireland in which this principle was departed from. In Ireland provision was made, and every convenience, for every form of religious belief and unbelief also, and the only body that was under the ban in this age of scientific and intellectual progress was the Catholic majority of Ireland. Could such a disability draw their hearts strongly in loyalty and devotion to the Empire to which they belonged? The champions of civil and religious liberty in England said that the objections to the present university system were simply the work of the priests; that the Catholic laity were so priest-ridden, or were too great cowards to express their feelings. It was a shame to cast such an insult in the face of any people. They were not slaves in Ireland. He drew attention to the fact that the petition in favour of the University was signed by all the Catholic nobility, and almost the whole of the landed proprietors, by practically the entire body of professional men, by every Catholic Member of Parliament, and was adopted by nine out of ten of the local representative bodies of Ireland. It was therefore hard that their petition should be contemptuously cast aside, and that they should be termed priest ridden serfs. They had been led to expect from the memorable speech of Mr Balfour that the present government would have conceded their claim, and particularly as Lord Cadogan, the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, had also spoken in similar terms of approval, but when the Catholic Bishops drew up their statement of the principle upon which they would accept a settlement, the Duke of Devonshire stated that the government had no intention of dealing with it, and that he had never regarded it as a practical question. It therefore seems that Catholics had been fooled by English politicians. He asked to compare this wretched wavering by the Unionist government in their dealing with Ireland with their concessions to their own political supporters in England. Was it a wonder, therefore, that unionism had not made much progress of late in Ireland. It was a fact that Irish men neither loved nor respected the government that was over them. Undisguised tyranny they could understand, but the pretence of constitutional government was simply contemptible in their eyes, and it seemed that Irish Catholics were condemned at the behest of the least enlightened and most fanatical section in this electorate to a deprivation of higher education as a disability of their religion in that great centre of Unionism. Its most distinguished leader, Mr Chamberlain had recently visited Ireland for the purpose of emphasising the determination of the government to maintain this educational inequality under which they laboured. Had Mr Chamberlain forgotten the principles of his pro-Unionist days? There was a time when he advocated the government of Ireland according to Irish ideas. Had his Unionism invalidated that principle now, and were they to be governed in the teeth of Irish ideas? He could easily understand Mr Chamberlain’s action in opposing Home Rule if he thought the interests of the country would be jeopardised by it; but that did not prevent him from governing Ireland in accordance with the ideas of the Irish people, and every instinct of truth and justice should have impelled him to deal with Irishmen in a most liberal manner. But instead of that the Unionist government seemed to aim no higher than their own party interest in the government of Ireland. The ablest statesman of the Unionist party and the best and most and enlightened of Irish Protestants has approved of the scheme; but all that went for nothing in the face of the dictation of a few dissenting circles in the cities of England. If that is the way English Unionism worked out they would not have long to wait for its political defeat. On the motion of the Bishop of Southwark, a resolution was enthusiastically carried asking the government to adopt prompt measures to redress Catholic religious disabilities in Ireland in the matter of university education.[23]

“The Inspectors of Irish Fisheries have notified to the Limerick County Council that they will hold an enquiry into the scheme of the Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate on the 30th inst. Limerick City Engineers have reported against the works being allowed to interfere with the city water supply from the source at Doonass, and which the scheme might possibly affect.”[24]

  1. 11.  Direct Labour

At an adjourned quarterly meeting yesterday of Limerick (No. 1) District Council, Mr William Noonan, chairman, presiding, the question of the direct employment of Labour in the maintenance and repairs of the public roadways was again before the members. At the last meeting the tenders from contractors were rejected and referred to the County Council, who did not, however, go into them, but decided that they should be considered by the District Council. In reply to a member the clerk, Mr Guinane, said he could not explain what prompted the action of the County Council, but the matter was again afresh before the district council that day. After some discussion, Mr John Ryan, moved that contracts for the maintenance and repairs of the roads be advertised for 12 months from 31 March next, instead of 4 1/2 years as heretofore, and the security should be by a guaranteed society, Mr Doyle, solicitor, on behalf of the intending contractors, stated the condition with regard to the security was an impossible one, the gentlemen who suggested it, Mr Shee, MP, having admitted that he had been in consultation with some guarantee societies, the managers of which had informed him that their societies would decline to become security for contractors. The chairman thought the resolution should be amended so as to provide for such an emergency, but there was no response to the suggestion, and the resolution was eventually unanimously adopted.[25]

“A County Limerick lady, Miss E Ryan, has had conferred on her by the Queen the highest distinction within the reach of a member of the Army Nursing Staff, namely, the decoration of the Royal Red Cross. Ms Ryan is engaged at the Military Hospital, Valetta, and the honour has been awarded in recognition of her services in connection with the nursing, at Malta, of the sick and wounded from Crete.”[26]

“Lord Dunraven is breaking up his stud farm at Adare and a number of the thoroughbreds are to be sold by public auction at Limerick in the ensuing month.”[27]

  1. 12.  Potato Disease

Fortunately in the past year the dreaded potato disease was greatly circumscribed in its force in Ireland, the crop on wetlands in Connaught suffering most, but in the aggregate the yield was one of the best and soundest we have had in this country for a good many years. On this subject the Farmer’s Gazette contains an exhaustive account of an interesting series of experiments carried out in County Limerick during the past season, with the object of testing the effects of sulphate of copper solution as a preventive of potato disease. The experiments were carried out over a considerable area of country, and they conclusively proved that even in seasons when the disease is not very prevalent, the spraying more than repays the expense incurred in its application. These experiments also demonstrated that giving two dressings of the solution at a comparatively early period of the season is much more effective as a preventive of the disease than a single heavy dressing given later on. Another experiment was conducted in the same district with the object of testing the relative merits of old versus new seed, and in almost every instance it was found that the freshly introduced seed gave substantially better results than that previously grown on the same farm. The Limerick experiments also included an investigation into the subject of white scour in calves, a disease that causes great loss to farmers from year to year in the great dairying districts of the South. It has been found that by careful feeding and a strict attention to cleanliness the ravages of this disease may be very considerably mitigated.[28]

  1. Hole and Corner

The quarterly meeting of Limerick Corporation was held for the election of Mayor and a selection of three burgesses qualified to serve as City High Sherriff for the year. The present Mayor was re-elected without opposition, and then the council proceeded to nominate three burgesses fit to serve as City High Sheriff. The candidates mentioned were the present Sheriff, Mr, Thomas H Cleeve, JP, and whom, it was announced, was to be opposed by Mr John F Power. Alderman O’ Mara said it would clear matters by his stating that owing to the action of the present City High Sheriff there was no necessity, rather than the necessity of a contest had been obviated. Owing to Mr Cleve being in favour of amalgamation last year, Mr Power was forced to oppose him for the office, and to enter into an active opposition against him with every prospect of success. However, an arrangement was come to and now the following agreement was made in this letter received from Mr Cleeve: “Dear Mr Power, with reference to our interview, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that as I am seeking the honour of High Sherriff at the hands of the Corporation I shall be bound both in my private and public capacity to conform to the expressed view of the corporation, which I admit are, as you state, against amalgamation, and I pledge myself to be so bound not to give evidence in favour of amalgamation, yours faithfully, TH Cleeve.”

Mr Power had been working in the interest of the locomotive men and the citizens, and when he got this guarantee he wrote as follows to him in reference to the matter: “My Dear Alderman O’Mara, I wish to inform to you that Mr Cleeve has written a guarantee that he will not in his official capacity or as a private individual give evidence in favour of or against in any way to promote railway amalgamation, which would be so disastrous to our city and to the South and West of Ireland, if elected to the office of High Sherriff; and as all are aware that my opposition was solely on the grounds of railway amalgamation, having recovered the guarantee referred to, and Mr Cleves having atoned for his past action, I with the consent of my friends desire to withdraw my candidature, and to take this opportunity of sincerely thanking my supporters, the majority of the Limerick Corporation., Very sincerely yours, John F Power.”

Cllr Dalton denied that Mr Power was acting for the locomotive men, or that he was consulted by them. He was acting for three or four city merchants, who held a ‘hole- and-corner’ meeting on this subject. Mr Power withdrew now from the Shrievalty because he knew he would be beaten. Councillor Fitzgerald said Cllr Dalton was not in order. Counter Dalton replied, “It is not fair for Alderman O’Mara to say that the railwaymen consulted Mr Power. What right has the railway men to consult him? Cllr O’Brien said if the corporation were to confer an office on anyone it should be given unconditionally. Otherwise it was not worth at the having, and did not bring any honour with it to the recipient. The chairman told Cllr O’Brien if he wanted to make a speech and what is the speech about? Eventually Mr Cleeves name was placed first on the list, the vote being a unanimous one, Cllr John Hayes and Councillor Stokes, being nominated to the second and third places. Mr Cleeves selection for the office by the Lord-Lieutenant is therefore likely to follow. The council decided to hold a specially adjourned meeting later in the week to arrange for opposing the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company, and other matters in connection therewith.[29]

  1. Reservist Alacrity

A striking instance of the alacrity of the Reservists in responding to the summons to rejoin the colours was evidenced in a letter from an officer of the house at a meeting of the Limerick Board of Guardians; “Sir, Having today been served with a warrant from the War Office for active service in South Africa, I regret that in consequence I was obliged to leave my situation on the 20th. Now, as you are doubtless aware, since my appointment I have given you every satisfaction as attested by always having favourable reports from Board Inspector Burke and also the Lunacy Inspectors, and as I now leave for a short time only, through no fault of my own, I sincerely trust you will be considerate enough to keep the situation open for me until the war is over, when, if not amongst the slain, I shall return to your service with the least possible delay. Your Obedient Servant, James Ryan (Male Lunatic Keeper). Members of the Board agreed that he has been a very faithful officer, and a credit to the Department he has charge of. Members had personal knowledge he would not be sent to the front, as he only has four months to serve the balance of his reserve time. He would be kept in garrison duty during the period, and another man could be temporarily appointed for the four or six months he will be away. If you were going to South Africa would be another matter, Mr O’Regan stated “for we should leave it to the brave loyalists of England to keep positions open for those Reserve men. One member suggested, as a Nationalist Board, “We should not hold any of our offices open for anyone going to fight for her Majesty, but under the circumstances we can appoint a man temporarily for four months during his absence.”  The chairman said that whatever the merits of the case might be, they had only to consider the application as it affected them as a Board of Guardians. They should look at the application as one from a very deserving officer, filling a trying position in the house, and in justice to him, and as it would involve no cost to the ratepayers, the least the board could do was to grant six months leave. On the motion of Alderman O’Mara, seconded by Mr P McNamara, it was agreed to give the officer six months leave of absence, and advertise for a substitute to take his place while he was away with the colours. It was also noted that he does not ask for any salary while he is away.[30]

“The enquiry into the cause or causes of the very high death rate in cities in Ireland will be extended to Limerick. Once the Local Government Board sets the machinery in order it is a very simple matter extending the same kind of commission to the city. A through overhauling of the “health” responsibilities is to be keenly insisted upon, and sanitation, drainage, and cleansing will be gone into, as well as water supply, and the dairy and slaughter systems.”[31]

At a meeting of the Limerick County Council, the chairman, Mr Thomas Mitchell, presiding, an animated discussion took place relative to the contemplated sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company. The Mayor, Alexander Shaw, William Stokes, William Halliday, Alderman S. O’Mara, John F Power, and James Roche attended as a joint deputation to ask support of the council in opposing the scheme for the sale of the Waterford and Limerick line, respecting which the Great Southern and Western Company and Midler and great Western company are promoting bills in Parliament. Eventually it was decided that a special meeting of the County Council should be held on Saturday to consider the whole question of amalgamation.[32]

At the meeting of the Limerick Harbour Commissioners a long discussion ensued relative to the Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme. On the last day permission was given Mr James Goodbody, a member of the board and also a member of the firm of Bannatyne & Sons, to get what figures and statistics he might require from the books of the Harbour Board, and to which when it became known Mr John Power, likewise a member of the board, objected, if the figures were required for the purpose of supporting the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway. Bannatyne wrote to the board, and letter was read at the meeting asking to have the matter again brought before the members, and adding that the returns required were for their information in connection with the railway question. The chairman said he did not know who made the objection Mr Power stated to Mr Goodbody do you mean objection to this return? The Chairman replied yes. Mr Power said it was he made it, although, of course, he had no authority to do so on the part of the board. He was not present at the last meeting of the commissioners, but when he heard that Mr Goodbody got this permission he waited on him with another member of the board to know if the returns were required for the purpose of supporting the Railway amalgamation scheme. If the returns were not for that purpose he had no objection to Mr Goodbody getting them, but if they were he did not think it would be fair they should be so used until the board were made acquainted with the matter, as they had by a large majority decided to oppose amalgamation.

Mr Goodbody said the matter had not struck him in the way Mr Power had put it, but he said he would consult his directors, and that for the present he would not use the figures. If the figures were for trade purposes all right, but if to support a railway monopoly, which the majority of the board thought would injure the port and city, then the figures would not be supplied. Alderman O’Mara took a similar view. He voted for Mr Goodbody getting the figures on the last day, but certainly not with the idea that they should be applied as it now appeared there were to be applied. Mr William McDonnell, as one voting in favour of Mr Goodbody on the last day, he was tremendously taken by surprise when he heard of the purpose for which the figures were proposed to be used. Mr James Ellis Goodbody said he did not intend to say overmuch in regard to the application, and he did not wish to give any agreement as to how the figures were to be used. Mr Power had stated the conversation very accurately, but he also told him (Mr Goodbody) on the occasion that this question was very much on a par with a legal case. He (Mr Goodbody) thought his action as a member of the board, if he used the information he obtained, would be as proper as that of the majority of the board. A Parliamentary enquiry was quite a different thing to legal action, and he considered he had as perfect a right to put his side of the case on behalf of the minority, as the other members had on the part of the majority. It was a case that affected the whole South and West of Ireland more than it did the Port and docks of Limerick. Mr Boyd asked for an order in the matter. Mr McDonnell said he would propose that Mr Goodbody be refused figures. Mr Goodbody stated, “You must go further than that. I must be refused everything, for I may ask something else tomorrow.” Mr EJ Long said he opposed the information being issued as he thought it was unfair to traders that any member of the board should get exclusive information. Mr Goodbody said he wanted to get the names of the twelve largest ratepayers. Mr McDonnell held it should be known what Mr Goodbody wanted his information for before getting it. If it was for the great Southern and Western company he certainly should not get a stick to beat the back of those who were opposing the amalgamation scheme. After some further conversation it was decided that Mr McDonnell’s motion should be considered on notice at the next meeting of the board, Mr Goodbody stating he would not ask for the information required in the interim. A letter was read from the secretary of the Midland Great Western Company asking the Harbour Board to support a scheme of the board for the acquisition of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway. Mr Power suggested it be referred to a committee who were willing to receive a deputation on the subject. Mr Goodbody mentioned that the Harbour board were spending thousands, while the Corporation, who were deeply interested, were spending but hundreds in opposing the scheme after some discussion, the chairman said if the sole task of the scheme were confined to this cooperation Mr Goodbody and others like him would have to pay all the same, as they were large ratepayers. On the motion of Alderman Joyce, seconded by Mr Power, a resolution was adopted condemning the action of the Waterford, Limerick and Western directors in dismissing three of their skilled workmen who had been opposed to amalgamation. Mr Goodbody said the men were dismissed for insubordination.[33]

“Mr JP Gunning, of the Inland Revenue Service, who had recently been promoted from Carrickmacross district to Glasgow, has now been further promoted to an important position in Limerick. Mr Gunning was most popular in all centres in which he has served; he has decided taste and aptitude for literary pursuits, as was evidenced in his excellent brochure on “Burns, Poet and Excise Officer,” an appreciative sketch of the Scottish National Bard.”[34]

February 1900

[1] Freemans Journal: The Railway Amalgamation Proposals: Action of Limerick Harbour Commissioners: January 2, 1900: page 6.

[2] The Irish Times: Shannon Water and Electric Power Company; January 2, 1900/page 7.

[3] Irish Times, Accident At Limerick, January 2, 1900; page 6

[4] Freemans Journal: Train Accident: January 3, 1900: page 7

[5] Irish Times, Jurisdiction of Courts: Judge Adams’s Opinion; January 3 1900: page 6.

[6] Freemans Journal: Window Breaking in Limerick: January 3, 1900: page 6.

[7] Freemans Journal: Proposed Fete in June: January 4, 1900: page 6.

[8] Irish Times, Third Battalion; January 2 1900; pg6

[9] Irish Times: Shocking Suicide at Limerick: January 4, 1900: page 6

[10] Irish Times: The Direct Labour Agitation; Strong Remarks by Judge Adams; January 5 1900; page 2.

[11] In fact, John F Power later took umbrage to the article and wrote to the Editor of the Irish Times in which he states; “In the report which you published in your issue of today of the proceedings of the Limerick Corporation on the subject of the contemplated railway monopoly in the South West of Ireland, you state that I ‘subsequently’ attended the meeting and addressed it in favour of amalgamation. This is not a fact, and I beg that you will kindly give as much prominence to this contradiction as you have given to the report. What actually occurred is that the Mayor was kind enough to ask me to lay my views before the meeting, which I did, and they were entirely against the amalgamation of Waterford and Limerick with the great Southern and Western Railway as creating a monopoly which has been proved would be most injurious to the progress and to the commercial and agricultural interests of the South and West of Ireland, and would benefit only the monopolists. Yours, John F Power. Limerick, January 5. (Irish Times; Railway Monopoly in the South and West of Ireland: To the Editor of the Irish Times: January 6, 1900: page 7)

[12] Irish Times; Waterford Railway Purchase, Action of Limerick Corporation; January 5, 1900; page 3.

[13] Irish Times: Limerick County Council and the Roads: January 5, 1900: page 3.

[14] Irish Times: Limerick Fishery Conservators: The Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill: January 5 1900: page 3.

[15] Irish Times: Editorial: January 6, 1900: page 4.

[16] Irish Times: Mungret College Limerick: January 9, 1900: page 1.

[17] Irish Times: Limerick Corporation: January 12, 1900: page 6.

[18] Irish Times: Passing Events: January 13, 1900: page 7.

[19] Cess Collectors were Tax Collectors.

[20] Irish Times: Deputy Cess Collectors and Compensation: January 13, 1900: page 9.

[21] Irish Times: Judge Adams and Tenants Fines: January 13, 1900: page 4.

[22] Irish Times: Constable Present: January 13, 1900: page 8.

[23] Irish Times: Speech by the Bishop of Limerick: January 16, 1900: page 5.

[24] Irish Times: News from the Provinces: Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate: January 18, 1900: page 6.

[25] Irish Times: The Direct Labour Question: January 18, 1900: page 6.

[26] Irish Times: Passing Events: January 20, 1900: page 4.

[27] Irish Times: Lord Dunraven: January 23, 1900: page 4.

[28] Irish Times: Sulphate of Copper Solution and Potato Disease: January 23, 1900: page 6.

[29] Irish Times: Limerick Corporation Railway Amalgamation Question: January 24, 1900: page 3.

[30] Irish Times: Limerick Guardians and the Reservists: January 25, 1900: page 6

[31] Weekly Irish Times: London Notes: January 27, 1900: page 18.

[32] Irish times That: Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme: January 29, 1900: page 6.

[33] Irish Times: Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme: January 30, 1900: page 7.

[34] Irish Times: Passing Events: January 31, 1900: page 5.


Celtic Roots

Celtic Roots

Authors Note:

The following is a synopsis of Chapters 1 and 2 from ‘Celtic Mythology’  (Geddes & Grosset, 1999). I have extracted some of the key points in relation to the Irish Celts.

Gerard J. Hannan.

The Celts are much less well known to us than the Greeks and the Romans were although theirs was a great civilisation in its own way. The Celts were not empire builders, they were a tribal society. It is a problem that there is a serious lack of contemporary written history or literature in relation to the Celts. They had the ability to write but never really bothered to do so and it has been suggested that writing was not part of their social or religious culture and that their Druids or high priests forbid them to write things down.

Because of this, modern historians rely very much on oral tradition. Perhaps this is why the culture is rich in marvellous legends and stories handed down by word-of-mouth and as such are subject to variation. Archaeology has helped historians to understand the Celts.

It is rather fortunate that because the Celts believed that a dead person travelled to other worlds and should be accompanied by his or hers earthly possessions such as jewellery, clothing and valuables that we are left with some significant information about the culture. What the Celts have left us is positive evidence to the reality that theirs was an advanced culture.

Ireland’s earliest legendary and poetic records are of great interest and value. These records influenced the destiny of the Celts that created them and indeed the destiny of Ireland. In the period in which they were still fresh, belief and pride in them were powerful enough to bring scattered tribes together into Confederation. Furthermore they give inspiration to sculptors and poets to produce an art and literature unsurpassed, if not unequalled, by any other age or race. When the glory of the Celtic age had faded and her people had entered into the modern world they had left behind them a significant account of their culture for modern archaeologists.

Mythology is vital to literature. Celtic mythology has little of the heavy crudeness that repels one in Germanic and Scandinavian stories. It is as beautiful and graceful as the Greek and, unlike Greek, which is the reflection of a Mediterranean climate quite different from our temperate zone, it is our own. Gods should, surely, seem the inevitable outgrowth of the land they move in. The Celtic gods and heroes are the natural inhabitants of the Irish landscape, not seeming foreign and out of place in a scene where there is no vine or olive but shading in with our home grown Oak and Bracken, gorse and heath.

In the legend haunted Ireland, the Hills and Dales still hold memories of the ancient gods of the ancient race. There are regions once mysterious and romantic that the Celts held to be the homes of gods or outposts of other worlds. In Ireland, there is scarcely a place that is not connected in some way with the traditional exploits of the Red Branch champions or of Fionn and his mighty men. But the old deities are still remembered, dwindled into fairies perhaps but keeping the same attributes and often the same names. Many of these deities live on in modern culture as, for example, long dead saints of the early churches of Ireland. Their wonderful attributes and adventurers are in many cases only those of their original namesakes, the old gods, told afresh. And they still lived on in another more potent way. They have become a significant part of modern literature and their influence is immense, their primary poetic impulse is still resonant in Irish literature, playing a particularly strong part in works by 19th-century poets and writers. The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the waves and streams appear again as kings in the Irish annals or as saints and hermits. To trace the Irish kings and saints back to ‘elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits that haunted the woods and streams’ of Celtic romanticism is not an impossible stretch of the imagination.

The fabled deeds of St Patrick are embellished by romantic writers. These writings are contained in parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in great Irish houses and monasteries. Only during the 19th century have they been brought to light, copied and translated by patient scholars who grappled with the long obsolete dialects in which they were transcribed. Many of these volumes are curious miscellanies. Usually a single record of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought to be worth preserving. Hence they contain diverse material. There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics, lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic gods and heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied – grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology and genealogies of important chiefs.

The majority of these documents were put together during the period that, roughly speaking, lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th century. It was a time of literary revival after the turmoil of the previous epoch. In Ireland, the Norsemen, after long ravaging, had settled down peacefully and rendered the country comparatively quiet. The scattered remains of history, lay and ecclesiastical, of science and of legend were gathered together.

Of the Irish manuscripts, the earliest, and, perhaps the most important, on account of the great store of ancient Gaelic mythology which, in spite of its dilapidated condition, it still contains, is in the possession of the Irish Academy. Unfortunately, it is reduced to a fragment of 138 pages, but this remnant preserves a large number of romances relating to the old gods and heroes of Ireland. Among other things, it contains a complete account of the epic saga called the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, the ‘raiding of the cattle of Cooley’, in which the hero, Cuchulainn, performed his greatest feats. This manuscript is called The Book Of The Dun Cow, from the tradition that it was copied from an earlier book written on the skin of a favourite animal belonging to St Ciaran, who lived in the seventh century. An entry on one of its pages reveals the name of its scribe, one Maelmuiri, whom we know to have been killed by robbers in the church of Clonmacnois in the year 1106.

Far more voluminous and only a little less ancient is the book of Leinster, which is said to have been compiled in the early part of the 12th century by Fionn Mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare. This also contains an account of Cuchulain’s mighty deeds, which supplements the older version in the Tain Bo Cuailgne. Somewhat less important from the point of view of the student of Gaelic mythology: the Book Of Ballymote and the Yellow Book Of Lecan, belonging to the end of the 14th century, and the Books Of Lecan and of  Lismore, both attributed to the 15th century. Besides these six great collections, there survive many other manuscripts that also contain ancient mythical lore. In one of these, dating from the 15th century is to be found the story of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, or Moytura, fought between the gods of Ireland and enemies, the Formorii, or demons of the deep sea. Other ancient manuscripts found in Scotland corroborate these Irish documents, add to the Cuchulain saga and make a more specialist subject of the other heroic cycle, that which relates the no less wonderful deeds of Fionn, Oisin and the Fianna. They also contain stories of other characters that are more ancient then either Fionn or Cuchulain, these are the Tua De Danaan, the God tribe of the ancient Gaels. The native literature bearing upon the mythology of Ireland may be attributed to a period that lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th. This day’s marks the final amalgamation of the contents of the manuscript into the form in which they now exist without bearing at all upon the time of their authorship. As they are copies of ancient poems and tales from much older manuscripts, these books do not fix the period of the original composition of their contents. This has been proved both directly and inferentially. In some instances as with the Book of the Dun Cow the dates of authorship are actually given. In others, we may depend upon evidence that, if not quite so absolute, is nearly as convincing. Even where the writer does not state that he is copying from older manuscripts, it is obvious that this must have been the case from the glosses in his version. The scribes of the earlier Gaelic manuscripts very often found, in the documents from which they themselves were copying, words so archaic as to be unintelligible to the readers of their own period. To render them comprehensible, they were obliged to insert marginal notes that explained these obsolete words by reference to other manuscripts more ancient still. Often the mediaeval copyists have ignorantly moved these notes from the margin into the text, where they remain, like philological fossils, to give evidence of previous forms of life. The documents from which they were taken have perished, leaving the mediaeval copies as their sole record. The ancient legends of Ireland may not have been mere inventions of scholarly monks in the middle Ages. Circumstantial evidence can be an adduced to prove that the most important portions of Gaelic literature can be safely relegated to a period of several centuries prior to their now existing record. Our earliest version of the episode of the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, which is the nucleus and centre of the ancient Gaelic heroic cycle of which Cuchulain, is the principal figure, is found in the 12th century Book of the Dun Cow. But legend tells us that at the beginning of the seventh century the Saga had not only been composed but had actually become as obsolete as to have been forgotten by the Bards. Their leader, Seanchan Torpeist, a historical character and chief bard of Ireland at that time, obtained permission from the saints to call Fergus, Cuchulain’s contemporary and a chief actor in the ‘Raid’, from the dead and received from the resurrected hero a true and full version. This tradition, dealing with a real person, surely shows that the story of the ‘Tain’ was known before the time of Seanchan and probably preserves the fact either that his version of Cuchulain’s famous deeds became the accepted one or that he was the first to put it in writing. Such considerations as these push back, with reasonable certainty, the existence of the Irish poems and prose tales, in something like the present shape, to a period before the seventh century. But this, again, means only that the myths, traditions and legends were current at that, to us early, but to them, in their actual substance, late date, in literary form. A Mythology must always be far older than the oldest verses and stories to celebrate it. Elaborate poems and sagas are not made in a day or in a year. The legends of the Gaelic gods and heroes could not have sprung full born out of some poet’s brain. The bard who first put them into artistic shape was setting down the primitive traditions of his race. We may therefore venture to describe them as not of the 12th century or of the seventh but as of a prehistoric and immemorial antiquity. Internal evidence bears this out. An examination of the Gaelic legendary romances shows, under embellishing details added by later hands, an inner core of primeval thought that brings them into line with the similar ideas of other races in the earliest stages of culture. Their ‘local colour’ may be that of their last ‘editor’ but their ‘plots’ are pre-mediaeval, pre-Christian, prehistoric. The characters of early Gaelic legend belong to the same stamp of imagination that created all Olympian and Titan, Aesir and Jotun. This aspect of the Celtic literary records was expressed by Matthew Arnold when he said, ‘it is evident that the mediaeval storyteller is pillaging and antiquity of which he does not fully possessed the secret’. So, too, with the figures, however reconciled with history, of the tree great Gaelic cycles: that of the Tua De Danaan, of the heroes of Ulster, of Fionn and the Fianna. Their divinity outshines their humanity; true their masks may be seen the faces of gods.

Yet, gods as they are, they had taken on the semblance of mortality by the time histories were fixed in the form in which we have them now. Their earliest records, if those could be restored to us, would doubtless show them as eternal and undying, changing their shapes at will but not passing away. But the post-Christian copyists, whether Irish or not, would not continence this. Hence we have the singular paradox of the deaths of immortals. There is hardly one of the figures of the Gaelic pantheon whose demise is not somewhere recorded. Usually they fell in the unceasing battles between the gods of darkness and of light. Their deaths in earlier cycles of myth, however, do not preclude their appearance in later ones. Only, indeed, with the closing of the lips of the last mortal who preserved his tradition can the life of a God be truly said to end.


Geddes & Grosset, 1999. Celtic Mythology. 2006 ed. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset.


A Painful Struggle

If you were tracking the news from Ireland over the past two weeks, you might have noticed the ironic coincidence of two stories.  When the author of the international best seller “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt, died on July 19, the Irish press was as quick to praise him in death as it had been to condemn him a little more than a decade ago when he published his controversial memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. A few days after McCourt’s death, legislation came before the Irish Dail that would make acts of blasphemy a criminal offence.

Is someone in Ireland afraid that there might be another McCourt in the works?

When “Angela’s Ashes” appeared in print in 1996, McCourt’s depiction of his childhood in the slums of Limerick was a punch to the solar plexus of Irish respectability. The Celtic Tiger was then just rising with its promise of a new economically prosperous Ireland and was not amused by McCourt’s stories.
There were charges that McCourt fabricated or grossly exaggerated the facts. This struck me as a bit disingenuous. After all, Irish writers have a long tradition of stepping over a few facts when they get in the way of a good story. The real complaint against McCourt seemed to be: Why did he bring all this old stuff up now just when Ireland was promoting a new image?

The prophet has no honor at home award went to McCourt’s childhood hometown of Limerick. The money in Limerick was not on McCourt’s side.

“Particularly incensed,” one observer wrote, “were the citizens of Limerick who, by the late 1990s, had embraced the idea of Ireland as the Celtic Tiger and wanted only modernity, change and growth. Talks of typhoid, rats and outside lavatories were not welcome.”

By the late 1990s, Limerick was boomtown in the Irish equivalent “silicon valley.” A Dell Computer Plant opened in 1991 bringing more than 4,000 jobs to the city. Other hi-tech firms followed Dell’s lead. Johnson & Johnson opened up a facility in the city. By the time “Angela’s Ashes” was published, Limerick had already demolished its slum district — the “lanes” of McCourt’s childhood — and put in their place a park along the Shannon River and new office buildings.

Charges of lies and plagiarism
One of his fiercest critics, Paddy Malone, had been a childhood friend and neighbor of McCourt in the “lanes.” Malone ripped up a copy of “Angela’s Ashes” at a reading McCourt gave in Limerick, charging his one-time friend both with lies and plagiarism. The photograph on the back of McCourt’s book, Malone alleged, was his photo. The international film star Richard Harris, also a Limerick man, went to the town’s radio airwaves to charge McCourt with slandering not merely their hometown. Harris also attacked McCourt for slandering his own mother.

A popular Limerick radio host, Gerry Hannan relentlessly pursued McCourt’s case. Hannan may have had ulterior motives. He had written two volumes of memoirs about his own Limerick childhood that was much happier than McCourt’s.

I had only one encounter with Limerick’s anti-McCourt lobby. It didn’t happen in Limerick — a city I have only visited once and spent most of my time lost in traffic and asking for directions to another town. Far away from Ireland, my Limerick moment happened in the unlikely setting of Nebraska.

It was the summer of 1998, when the squabble over “Angela’s Ashes” was still in the literary news. Driving back to Minnesota after a vacation in the Rockies, I ventured into North Platte, bypassing the franchise land that has sprung up along the I-80 exits and heading into the now mostly forgotten town center.

A storefront sign read “Espresso and Irish Specialties.” Inside, I found a floor space from another era living out the last chapter in its retail life as a used books and furniture store. At the back of the store, a fountain counter featured espresso drinks, sandwiches and Irish trinkets. An older gentlemen stood behind the counter.

Overhearing his accent, I asked him: “So, if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”

“Limerick,” he replied with a brevity uncharacteristic of the Irish.

I couldn’t resist. “So,” I continued, “did Frankie McCourt make up all those stories?”

“Look at me!” He ordered. “How old do you think I am?”

“Middle sixties?” I guessed.

“That’s right,” he said. “And how old do you think Frankie McCourt is?”

“About the same.”

“That’s right. Same age, same Limerick, same time.” The man was visibly angry. “Now you tell me how could McCourt tell the world all those terrible lies about the Church and the priests?”

I changed the subject, asking if he had seen the beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception just across the state line in Kansas.

‘It’s begrudgery’
To make sense out of why so much vitriol had been poured on McCourt, I turned to St. Paul’s Jim Rogers, writer and managing director of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. Although Rogers has reservations about McCourt as a writer, he attributed the spitefulness of the critics to something other than literary standards.

“The Irish have a word for it,” he explained, “it’s begrudgery.”

“Angela’s Ashes” reaped for its author more than $8 million in international sales, a Pulitzer Prize and a box-office hit movie version. It’s hard not to be envious.

Rogers also sees a much more sensitive issue at play in the reaction to “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt depicted an Irish Catholic Church that did nothing to help to his desperate family. A priest literally slammed the door in the face of the young Frankie McCourt when he sought help. In the years of the Irish Free State and early years of the Republic of Ireland, a cash starved Irish government was all too eager to fob off on the Catholic Church the responsibilities for providing social services.

Although McCourt may have overstated his point, Ireland understated the Church’s failure in social policy. Rogers suggests that there’s a lesson to be learned here. “Ireland tried ‘faith based initiatives,'” he said, “and it didn’t work.”

What is more, in 1997 McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was the first in a series of messages about a trust betrayed by the Irish Catholic Church. In 1998 a story broke about the discovery of a mass grave of 133 young women unearthed when the Good Shepherd Convent was closed in Cork. The women were among the thousands of “Magdalenes.” These were young Irish girls committed to orphanages run by the nuns where the girls labored in the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Their crime was to have born a child out of wedlock or perhaps to have impressed a parish priest, teacher or family member as displaying a promiscuous personality.

The worst news was yet to come. This May a court-appointed commission released the Ryan Report, which documented an “endemic” culture of abuse and rape in Irish church-run orphanages. From the 1930s until the last facility closed in the 1990s, more than 30, 000 Irish children underwent detention in these facilities chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order. The testimony revealed how the crimes of abuse against the children were compounded by the complicity of politicians and church officials both eager to cover up the matter. The public testimony that accompanied would have made even McCourt wince.

In the 1930s, McCourt was probably only one step away from becoming one more statistic to appear in the Ryan Report.

Paying tribute
Limerick has put aside its feud with McCourt. Its mayor wants to pay tribute July 20 to its most famous literary son by having his ashes spread across the Shannon and erecting a statue of McCourt to stand beside the city’s other most famous son, the actor Richard Harris.

Better rethink the latter idea. Harris and McCourt once got into a bar room brawl in New York. A “walking tour” of McCourt’s childhood neighborhood is one of the city’s major tourist attractions even if all the tour guide can show the tourists is where McCourt’s “lanes” stood before their demolition in urban renewal.

The city’s change of heart may be a sign that now that the ride on the Celtic Tiger is over, Limerick sees less of a need to disguise its history of poverty. Dell has announced plans to close its Limerick plant in 2010. Other hi-tech firms are following Dell’s lead. Familiar old stores are closing their doors. Unemployment today in Limerick is 14 percent and predicted to rise as high as 25 percent next year.

Maybe Limerick has decided in these hard economic times it makes no sense to knock McCourt. The “Angela’s Ashes” walking tour maybe the best thing going for the Limerick economy these days.

Meanwhile, the Irish Dail weighs the merits of a law criminalizing blasphemy. Somebody in Ireland must want legal protection in place in case McCourt embarrasses them by writing from the grave yet another volume of memoirs.

The Sting Of Memory





By Fawn Vrazo

The Philadelphia Inquirer November 4, 1997

LIMERICK, IRELAND: Frank McCourt is back in Limerick, the city whose poverty he depicted so vividly in his best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes. It has not been the easiest of homecomings.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author cried last week on the stage at the beautiful new Limerick University. He was both overwhelmed and in a state of disbelief: The poor kid from Limerick’s slums was wearing a cap and gown, receiving an honorary doctorate as the city’s highest officials applauded him.

“It was very hard to get through that,” McCourt said after the ceremony.

The return home, which has McCourt staying in Limerick for two weeks as writer-in-residence at the university, has been difficult in other ways as well.

Around this west Ireland city, there are those who love Angela’s Ashes and those who hate Angela’s Ashes and many who love it but feel its compelling tale of excruciating Limerick hardship in the 1930s and ’40s was an exaggeration that goes somewhat beyond the truth.

McCourt has come in for criticism and re-evaluation here, and not only from boosters whose civic pride has been wounded by his searing recollections of dying babies, starving children and cruelly indifferent neighbors and kin.

“It’s good, but it isn’t all right. You know it was overdone,” said Eric Lynch, who grew up with McCourt on the poor “lanes” of Limerick and was a classmate with him at the Leamy National School. “But that’s what a writer does,” added Lynch, who remains a close friend.

The book’s “forensic evidence, so to speak, doesn’t add up,” said Jimmy Woulfe, deputy editor of the Limerick Leader newspaper. Still, Woulfe added, that should not “cloud the reality this was a magnificent piece of literature.”

Not all of the criticism has been that polite. One Limerick resident, Paddy Malone, a childhood friend of McCourt’s actor-brother Malachy McCourt, ripped the book into five pieces and threw it on the floor in front of McCourt when the author was here last summer for a book signing.

More recently, threatening letters were received by Limerick University officials after they announced their plans to honor McCourt. Extra security – in the form of two beefy security guards in plaid sport coats – was in evidence last Tuesday when McCourt received his honorary degree.

McCourt dismisses the book’s criticisms with firm scorn.

The complaints are “peripheral,” he said last week. “It has nothing to do with me. You write a book, and that’s it. It’s gone.”

But the 67-year-old McCourt, a longtime New York high school teacher with white hair and a pale, delicate face, concedes that Angela’s Ashes is “a memoir, not an exact history.”

“I’m not qualified to do that,” he told the audience at his doctoral degree ceremony.

He has admitted one error. In the book, childhood classmate Willie Harold is depicted walking to his first confession while “whispering about his big sin, that he looked at his sister’s naked body.’

‘ The problem was that Harold did not have a sister, and last year the by-then aging and cancer-ridden Harold approached McCourt at a book-signing event to point out the mistake.

“I settled that with him,” McCourt said last week. “[Harold] said, `I’m in bad shape, I don’t have any money, could you give me a book?’ ” Of course, said McCourt, and he did. If McCourt thought this was in any way an inadequate gesture to a sick, wronged friend, he did not indicate it. Harold has since died.

Chief among the contentions of critics here is that McCourt simply could not have had as poor a childhood as his book relates.

In a famous opening passage of Angela’s Ashes, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography, McCourt writes: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly wort h your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

In the 426 pages that follow, McCourt describes a childhood of harrowing destitution. The chief cause is the alcoholism of his father, Malachy McCourt, a Catholic from Northern Ireland who settled in Limerick with his wife and McCourt’s mother, the former Angela Sheehan of Limerick, after the McCourts moved to Ireland in the 1930s from New York.

While Malachy drinks away the family’s few dollars or pounds, a despairing Angela huddles in a bed or dazedly smokes cigarette after cigarette. McCourt’s beloved and weak baby sister, Margaret, dies at seven weeks in New York; his twin brothers Eugene and Oliver die from apparent pneumonia as toddlers in Limerick; McCourt himself nearly dies of typhoid fever; his first young lover, a Limerick girl, dies from the tuberculosis that is raging through the city at the time.

The McCourt children survive on sugar water, soured milk, boiled pigs’ heads and occasional handouts from relatives and shopkeepers, while confronting bone-chilling winter cold and attacks of bed fleas. In school, McCourt and his classmates, some of whom go shoeless in the winter, are beaten relentlessl y with canes by their teachers.

Reviewers swooned when the book was released, and readers worldwide have kept Angela’s Ashes at the top of best-seller lists for more than a year. “Outstanding . . . a bittersweet and grimly comic narrative of growing up dirt-poor in rain-sodden, priest-ridden Limerick,” wrote reviewer Boyd Tonkin of the New Statesman.

But was it really that bad? Gerard Hannan, a Limerick bookstore owner and radio broadcaster who has written a rebuttal to McCourt’s book, says that McCourt created “sort of an illusion of Limerick” that ignores the fact that the people of the city’s impoverished lanes on the north side of town banded together to share food and give each other support. “I felt he totally ignored the sense of community among the people,” said Hannan. Hannan’s own credibility is being questioned in Limerick, though, since his rebuttal book is called Ashes and has become quite a local best-seller by riding on the coattails of Angela’s Ashes’ success. But criticism of McCour t’s book is being raised by others as well. “Is this the picture of misery in the Lanes?” said a Page One headline last week in the Limerick Leader. Beneath it, there was a picture of McCourt in the 1940s, smiling broadly and wearing the neat uniform of the St. Joseph’s Boy Scout Troop.

McCourt does not mention in his book that he was in the Boy Scouts, local critics note, nor does he explain how his poverty-stricken mother, now deceased, still found money to send him to Irish dancing lessons, and to buy packs and packs of cigarettes.

His now-deceased father, Malachy, is depicted in the book as being scorned by local employers because of his Northern Ireland accent. But in fact he was given what were considered then to be prime jobs at the city’s cement factory and flour mill, Leader editor Woulfe observed. McCourt does write about those jobs in his book, noting that his father lost both of them because of drinking.

“Most people would salute the [university’s] acknowledgment of Frank McCourt while some of his peers who live in the lanes dispute the level of poverty – he seems to be just one of the boys,” said Woulfe. The Leader, though, has strongly supported Angela’s Ashes in editorials.

McCourt said in an interview that not only was his childhood as hard as his book says, “it was harder. It was harder. My brother [the younger Malachy] said I pulled my punches. I was moderate. And who would know? How can you tell another person’s [life], especially with an alcoholic father and a mother worn out from child-bearing?”

Appearing Wednesday at a creative writing workshop sponsored by the university, McCourt observed that his book is a memoir, “and a memoir is your impressions of your life, and that’s what I did. There are facts in there, but I excluded other things.”

Among things excluded from the book, said McCourt in an interview, were accounts of sexual abuse by a local priest. McCourt alluded, without elaboration, to himself and other Limerick boys being “interfered with, as they say” by a priest returning from an overseas mission.

But “I didn’t want to write that,” said McCourt, “because it’s standard now” to blame one’s adult problems on having been sexually abused.

McCourt bears no ill will toward Limerick, a city he describes as “beautiful.” He said he plans to help both the university’s outreach program to the children’s poor and the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, which rescued the poor young McCourts many times with handouts of clothes and furniture and food.

But as for the criticism of Angela’s Ashes, McCourt said, it’s just “all kinds of sniping. I think nothing of it.” 

Memoir Lashed And Loved



By Kevin Cullen

Boston Globe Staff October 29, 1997

LIMERICK, Ireland — When he came back to this city that he hates, loves, and can’t get over, Frank McCourt brought along his three brothers because, as he put it, “In Limerick, you’ve got to watch your back.”

McCourt, whose memoir of growing up destitute here, “Angela’s Ashes,” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, returned yesterday to the city he has made famous to receive an honorary degree and take up his post as writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick.

But while McCourt’s poignant, unflinching account of how poor people were marginalized by the wider society and humiliated by the Roman Catholic Church is as wildly popular in Ireland as it is in the United States, there are some here who do not share the enthusiasm for a book that has s old more than 1 million copies worldwide.

It wouldn’t be Irish if there wasn’t a split, and the split here is between those who see “Angela’s Ashes” as an exaggerated, mean-spirited attack on the city and its people, and those who embrace the book’s art, humanity, and the attention, whether good or bad, it has brought Limerick.

Long derided as a backwater, and more recently as “Stab City” for its rough neighborhoods like Southill, Limerick has always had something of an inferiority complex. But as this city of 150,000, like the rest of Ireland, undergoes an economic renaissance, some people bitterly resent the image McCourt has presented to the rest of the world.

Gerard Hannan, who runs a bookshop here, has written what he calls “the other side of the story,” an account of those who grew up as poor and as disadvantaged as McCourt but who look back on those days fondly. Hannan claims McCourt embellished much of the misery contained in “Angela’s Ashes.” His literary retort to McCourt’s book is one of his own called “Ashes,” a title that he says, with something less than conviction, was a coincidence. Hannan’s book, which he published using his own money, is a view of Limerick through glasses far more rose-colored than McCourt’s.

“I loved `Angela’s Ashes.’ It was beautifully written,” Hannan says, sitting in the lounge of the Castletroy Park Hotel, just yards from where McCourt was celebrating yesterday with friends and family. “The problem with it is that it’s just one side of the story. Frank Mc Court had a miserable life. Lots of people grew up under the same conditions and don’t consider their lives miserable.’

Hannan says McCourt gets Limerick wrong. For example, McCourt ends his book with the single word “T’is” on the last page. Hannan says real Limerick people would say “T’was.”

It was inevitable, McCourt says, the confrontation between him and those who took his book the wrong way. “Begrudgers,” he says. “What would Ireland be without them?”

Everything is personal in this town. Hannan is angry that McCourt’s brother, Malachy, dismissed him as being from “the lower orders.”

“Do the McCourts know that I am a direct descendant of Bridey Hannan, who saved the life of Michael McCourt, Frank McCourt’s brother, as he was choking, something Frank McCourt writes about in his book?” Hannan asks.

The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, has made disparaging McCourt a regular feature. Over the weekend, it published a half-page of pictures showing McCourt in a Boy Scout uniform, with a headline asking, “Is this the picture of misery?”

Brendan Halligan, editor of the Limerick Leader, denied that the paper was engaged in an ongoing campaign to discredit McCourt, even while citing recent stories that purported to do just that. One story noted that Mrs. Clohessy, the woman whose home McCourt described as the ultimate in squalor, was still alive at 94. Another quoted McCourt’s scoutmaster as saying he gave McCourt a job fixing bicycles at a time when McCourt claimed he was scrounging for work .

Halligan says many people in Limerick resent McCourt’s book, and says attempts to dismiss critics as a few isolated cranks are misleading. But while his paper frequently attacks McCourt, Halligan, who is friendly with McCourt’s brother, Alfie, says he considers the book “a work of art.”

“It’s the truth,” Halligan says. “Despite its factual inaccuracies, it faithfully captures the impressions of a child who grew up here in the 1930s and 1940s.”

McCourt is alternately annoyed and bemused by all this.

“Some people are running around town saying I made all this suffering up,” he says. “I wish I did. I would have had a nicer life. My sister and two brothers wouldn’t have died as children.”

McCourt always knew that some here would hate his book. In July, when he did a book-signing at O’Mahony’s, a bookstore he got thrown out of as a child, one of his contemporaries, Paddy Malone, stood before him and denounced him while tearing up a paperback copy of the book. Malone was a classmate of McCourt’s at Leamy School, which McCourt portrayed as a place where most teachers delighted in humiliating the students, especially those who came from the lanes, the slums that housed the poorest of Limerick. While he complains about McCourt writing about people with o ut their permission, Malone’s real beef seems to be that McCourt somehow got hold of a school photograph that appears on the book’s cover. Malone, who is one of the schoolboys in the sepia photo that captures McCourt’s sad, tortured eyes, says he owned the original photo. Malone has retained a lawyer and talks about copyright infringement.

University of Limerick president Edward Walsh scored a coup in getting McCourt to agree to return here. But after the news emerged, the university received telephone threats against McCourt. If McCourt is worried about his physical safety, he isn’t showing it. His family came here en masse, in a show of solidarity and pride.

“If the begrudgers want a piece of Frank, they’ll have to take on the lot of us,” says Malachy McCourt, who was a little brother in the book but has grown up to be much bigger than Frank.

Yesterday, however, as Ed Walsh handed a diploma to Frank McCourt, there were no begrudgers in sight. The pomp and circumstance were punctured by Malachy McCourt, who bellowed, “Good on ya, Frank!”

Frank McCourt began his address by thanking his three brothers. And then he wept. And then he composed himself and looked about the Jean Monet Theater and pointed out his old friends, the Souths, the Costellos, Eric Lynch, and his best friend Billy Campbell, the same Billy Campbell who would an hour later, when the crowd had melted, press into his hand a piece of pavement taken from the street in front of Mrs. O’Connell’s shop, the shop where young Frank McCourt begge d for food, the shop that has been razed like much of the Limerick that Frank McCourt has preserved for posterity.

“Limerick,” Frank McCourt says in closing, his voice steady, his eyes bright, “is as beautiful as everybody knows.”

A Miserable Liar?

Rarely has a book had such a compelling opening line. ‘When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’

And so Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday aged 78 after a battle with skin cancer, launched a new literary genre: the misery memoir. Dozens have followed him – so much so that they are now generically called ‘mis-lit’. These tales of childhood woe have become highly lucrative.

Called ‘inspirational memoirs’ by publishers, ‘mis-lit’ now accounts for nine per cent of the British book market, shifting 1.9 million copies a year and generating £24 million of revenue. HarperCollins recently admitted to a 31 per cent increase in annual profits thanks to ‘mis-lit’.

But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.

Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.

One thing is not under debate – when it came to writing limpid, magical prose, McCourt was the real thing, following in his countrymen’s footsteps to emerge as an Irish writer par excellence.

So just who was the real Frank McCourt? Did he win the Pulitzer Prize with his lyrical, poignant memoir under false pretences? Or was he indeed the ultimate rags-to-riches story, who survived the grinding poverty of Limerick’s slums to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, triumphant?

The truth is, we may never know. Perhaps, as McCourt did in Angela’s Ashes, we had better begin at the beginning. In the book, set in the Thirties, McCourt writes that his parents returned when he was four from New York to Ireland, against the tide of Irish emigration.

His family consisted of ‘my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone’.

His mother, the Angela of the book’s title – had become pregnant in New York after ‘a knee-trembler – the act itself done up against a wall’. Four months later, she married Malachy McCourt, her family having pressed him to do the decent thing.

So began a downward spiral into alcohol and poverty, with a feckless father drinking his wages away.

Frank McCourt

Subjective: Frank McCourt said the memoir chronicled his family and his emotions

Far worse was to come. The death of their daughter at seven weeks sent McCourt’s parents into an abyss of despair, from which they never emerged.

They return, despondent, by boat to Ireland – with Angela pregnant again. But soon, one of the twins, Oliver, has died, too.

His second child’s death precipitated McCourt Sr’s complete decline into alcoholism. He promised coal for the fire, rashers, eggs and tea for a celebration of Oliver’s life, but instead took his week’s dole to the pub.

School, full of bare-footed slum children, is no relief. The masters ‘hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish. If you don’t cry the masters hate you because you’ve made them look weak before the class and they promise themselves the next time they have you up they’ll draw tears or blood or both’.

Then, worse. ‘Six months after Oliver went, we woke on a mean November morning and there was Eugene, cold in the bed beside us.’ He had died of pneumonia.

Another brother is born, Michael – Angela’s sixth pregnancy. As her husband continues to drink away the dole, a friend tells her off for cursing God, saying: ‘Oh, Angela, you could go to Hell for that.’ ‘Aren’t I there already?’ she replies.

Another baby arrives, Alphonsus Joseph. No matter that his family fight for charity vouchers for food, furniture and medicine and share a stinking lavatory with six other houses, McCourt Sr drinks the baby’s christening money.

His father leaves for England, finally abandoning his family. When they are evicted for not paying rent, Angela takes her family to live with a cousin, Laman.

McCourt wrote that his mother and her cousin had an incestuous relationship. ‘She climbs to the loft with Laman’s last mug of tea. There are nights when we hear them grunting, moaning. I think they’re at the excitement up there.’

Laman also beat the children. At 14, McCourt got a job as a telegraph boy. At 19, he left Limerick behind for ever for a new life in America. He first lived in Connecticut, where he became a teacher. He wrote Angela’s Ashes in his mid-60s, and became hugely wealthy.

But how much of his landmark book was true? Did McCourt cross the line between fact and fiction?

Limerick locals, horrified at the squalid depiction of their town, counted a total of ‘117 lies or inaccuracies’ in the 426-page book, that range from obscure details to wrongly accusing one local man of being a Peeping Tom. They called for a boycott of the film of Angela’s Ashes.

Scene from Angela's AshesGrinding poverty: The film adaptation starred Emily Watson and Robert Carlisle

Paddy Malone, a retired coach driver who appears in the frayed school photograph on the book’s original cover, is among McCourt’s most furious detractors.

He, too, grew up in the Lanes of Limerick and went to the same school as McCourt.

‘I know nothing about literature, but I do know the difference between fact and fiction,’ says Malone. ‘McCourt calls this book a memoir, but it is filled with lies and exaggerations. The McCourts were never that poor. He has some cheek.’

Malone recalls the family having a pleasant green lawn behind their home, and Angela being overweight – despite the graphic descriptions of hunger in the book.

Limerick broadcaster Gerry Hannan spearheaded a campaign against Angela’s Ashes, confronting McCourt on a TV show and calling him a liar.

Although he is too young to remember the period of which McCourt writes, Hannan is convinced McCourt has twisted Limerick’s history to make his book more shocking.

‘As far as I’m concerned, he’s a conman and a hoaxer,’ says Hannan. ‘He knew the right things to say to get the result he wanted. He’s a darling on television. He’s got this beautiful brogue and he can put the charm on. And don’t get me wrong, the book is beautifully written. But it’s not true.’

Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.

They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.

Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.

‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’

McCourt said: ‘I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.

‘Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.’

Time will tell whether his impressionistic account of a brutal childhood endures. But whether embellished or not, it certainly left its mark on Limerick – and on literature itself.





The ‘Ashes’ Interview

In a full and forthright EXCLUSIVE interview with controversial author, journalist and broadcaster Gerard Hannan talks about his Limerick childhood, his brush with the international media, his popularity as a tamed Irish shock-jock and his globally famous row with Pulitzer prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt.

Interview conducted by Jan Rice for

Dateline: June 8th. 2002

LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

HANNAN: You’re very welcome. Why should I turn down such an opportunity to communicate my thoughts and feelings?

LIMERICK.COM: You are best known internationally for your row with Frank McCourt and we will talk in detail about that in a little while but firstly will you tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from?

HANNAN: Well, I was born in 1959 and raised in a place called Garryowen, which is a working class suburb of Limerick. I am the fifth son in a family of eight. My mother would say that my head was so big when I was born that she couldn’t walk for six months after having me. My mother had five sons in a row and then three girls.I was in the middle, I think they really wanted a girl so the next baby after me was Mary. Our family was split in two groups of 4 and I got stuck in with the girls. But I have always had a better relationship with my sisters than with my brothers. I love them all but, I have to say, the girls are like my three guardian angels. I am lucky because they are so honest. They will tell me that I am either an idiot or a hero with everything I get involved with. They are the only people that can really influence me. I think women are far more intelligent than men; they have a keener sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Men just throw their eyes up to God and hope that whatever the problem is; it will soon go away. Women will tackle the problem head on. So my sisters are important to me.that sounds a bit clinical.what they have to say is significant to me.

LIMERICK.COM: Did you have a happy childhood?

HANNAN: Absolutely. I really have no outstanding memories that would haunt me in any way whatsoever. Yes there were ups and downs like everybody else but as I get older I realise that what seemed important to me in my twenties has paled into insignificance in my early forties. What seemed like defining moments in my childhood was only important because I deemed them so. But as I get older I think more about what happened yesterday than what happened last year. Even bitter memories from my childhood have become somewhat sweet because I now realise that those moments have made me what I am and if I don’t accept what those moments tell me about myself then I don’t accept myself and nothing would be further from the truth. I totally accept myself so it follows that those moments are of no real consequence. I even feel awkward talking about them because it is giving them more importance than they actually deserve.

LIMERICK.COM: Can you give us an example?

HANNAN: Well I write about a defining moment from my childhood in TIS IN ME ASS when I was about six or seven years of age and my mother caught me playing with the girls. That, for one reason or another, was totally unacceptable to her so she put a dress on me and sent me out onto the street and at first I was mortified because my best friends were out there playing football while I was indoors playing ‘house’. That was a very bitter memory for me as a teenager and in my early twenties but nowadays it think the episode was very funny. When I wrote about it I was writing with my tongue firmly in my cheek and was milking it a bit for laughs. I figure if I had wrote about it in my twenties I would have been milking it for sympathy.

LIMERICK.COM: So what you are saying is.?

HANNAN: I am saying that we are all better off leaving our luggage behind us and if we can’t do that then we should look for something funny about the memory and that will help us to leave it behind. That’s what I believe, it may sound like a ‘cock and bull’ story to others but that’s what I believe God help me!

LIMERICK.COM: As I mentioned earlier you are best known internationally as Frank McCourt’s protagonist but in Limerick you have a completely different image because of the popularity of your nightly radio talk show. Tell us a bit about that.

HANNAN: I keep hearing about this so-called ‘international image’ but I honestly don’t think in my mind that there are any more than a handful of Limerick’s ex-pats and a couple of student’s of Irish literature who give any more than a flying damn about Gerry Hannan and his point of view on McCourt or any other subject for that matter..

LIMERICK.COM: You could be wrong.

HANNAN: Maybe.but I doubt it.

LIMERICK.COM: A random search of the internet came up with results where you were quoted in newspapers such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Sunday Times, C.N.N., ’60 Minutes with Ed Bradley’, BBC Radio and Television, The South Bank Show, German, French Japanese and Australian newspapers, magazines, radio and television so how then can you say that there is nobody out there who gives a damn?

HANNAN: Well that was then and this is now. That was an incredible period of my life and I learned a lot about how the media works. Journalists hunt in packs and they go through you for a short cut but then the whole thing dies and you become yesterdays news thanks be to God!

LIMERICK.COM: You are grateful for that?

HANNAN: Jesus yes. That was fun while it lasted but as this media attention went on and on I got really bored with it and eventually I stopped taking calls because everything I had to say was somehow twisted to suit the angle the journalist was coming from. The American journalists were always pro-McCourt and to them I was a two-headed monster from Limerick. The European media, with the exception of the Irish hacks, were very fair and balanced. Irish journalists saw me as an opportunist jumping on McCourt’s success. The Europeans grasped the concept of two sides to every story.

LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your radio show for a moment.

HANNAN: Well I started broadcasting on local radio about twenty-five years ago, back in the pirate days; I immediately fell in love with the whole concept of radio. Back then I just went on and played music but as I got older I became more interested in talk radio. I loved what Howard Stern was doing in New York and I also knew there was some guy doing more or less the same thing in Dublin and it was proving extremely popular. Then, of course, there was Gerry Ryan on 2FM so I knew my day was coming. When I approached the local radio station in Limerick with the idea of a late night talk show they offered me a late night slot, the graveyard shift, on Sundays and I grabbed it. In a matter of months the show was running from Monday to Friday for three solid hours each night and it took off from there.

LIMERICK.COM: Why do you think your show is so popular?

HANNAN: I am still wondering about that. It is a complete mystery to me but I could hazard a guess at the answer. The popularity of the show has very little to do with me. The fact that so many people can have freedom of expression on the public airwaves is a very attractive proposition regardless of the presenter. The show furnishes ordinary people with a great opportunity for young and old alike to sing their songs, tell their stories, play their instruments, talk their talk, express their point of view, good, bad or indifferent, on any subject under the sun. It is radio with no rules. A sort of pot-pourri, if you like, of views, thoughts, talents, feelings and beliefs and I think you just can’t miss with that kind of a formula. Nobody knows, including myself, what is going to happen next and that keeps the whole thing interesting.

LIMERICK.COM: Are you a firm believer in freedom of expression?

HANNAN: Absolutely. But I only discovered that about myself when I started doing this show. People have every right to say exactly what is going on in their minds with regard to any issue and they also have a right to be heard. Of course there are certain rules and the greatest of these is you don’t get personal, hurt any individual or be disrespectful toward what they think or feel. After that, it is a sort of free for all. That’s democracy at it’s best and for as long as that freedom thrives in any society then that society can never be accused of being anything other than democratic.

LIMERICK.COM: Are there no exceptions to that rule?

HANNAN: None that I can think of off hand but I am open to contradiction. I don’t suggest for a moment that I am always right that would be undemocratic wouldn’t it?

LIMERICK.COM: You seem to have a great affinity for aged people; the national media once described you as ‘a defender of the elderly’ where does that come from?

HANNAN: I have no idea. I love to listen to elderly people talking to me on the radio show. They are always very interesting. The wisdom of years. They don’t take life as seriously as, let’s say, my generation would. They have seen it all and if you listen to what they have to say you can learn a lot. But, as for ‘defender of the elderly’, that’s a load of nonsense. If anything they defend me!

LIMERICK.COM: You frequently become involved in charity work in Limerick and were a founder member of ALJEFF (An organisation set up with the purpose of building a treatment centre for young addicts), you raised substantial funds for a local youth band to buy new instruments and uniforms for it’s thirty or more members, you also raised funds to pay for twenty or so mentally and physically handicapped young adults to travel to Lourdes and raised money to pay for an electronic wheelchair for a disabled young girl from the working-class suburb of Moyross – why?

HANNAN: The one great thing about the radio show is that it has an enormous audience and I think people are essentially good. When they hear of something worthwhile they respond immediately. I am fortunate to be in the position where I have their attention. It is these people that are the real unselfish ones here not me. I accept no praise, nor deserve any, for this work.

LIMERICK.COM: Are you religious?

HANNAN: I have no doubt God exists. I am very conscious of his presence in my life and would always aim to do my best to live my life to his satisfaction. I don’t believe that I am achieving that but I intend to keep trying to the best of my ability. If that makes me religious then I am.

LIMERICK.COM: Why have you remained single?

HANNAN: No comment.

LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes and the famous international debate.

HANNAN: I wondered when you would get round to that!

LIMERICK.COM: When did you first hear of Angela’s Ashes?

HANNAN: I met McCourt briefly one morning in autumn 1997 when he approached me at the radio station to interview him about his new book Angela’s Ashes. I liked him at first and arranged to interview him later that same week but he never showed up. I didn’t actually get round to reading the book for some weeks but my immediate response was lack of interest and by the time I got half way through the book it became a bit of a drag for me to finish but I soon did.

LIMERICK.COM: You didn’t like it?

HANNAN: I didn’t dislike it. Nobody can deny that the book was brilliantly written. McCourt got the childhood voice absolutely perfect. There was a certain innocence about the whole thing that was impressive. I was touched by specific parts of the book but not enough to warrant any great praise. That may sound vindictive coming from me but that is how I felt and I must be honest. I reread the book some months later because I figured that I was biased first time round and the same held true so maybe it deserves another chance. I have heard the book being described as a work of genius but I am hard pressed to find why.

LIMERICK.COM: At what point in time did you decide to publicly challenge the authenticity of Angela’s Ashes?

HANNAN: There was no particular point in time. I started to discuss the book on the radio show and I was overwhelmed with the amount of calls I received complaining about the inaccuracies of Angela’s Ashes. These calls were coming from Limerick’s senior citizens who came from the lanes of Limerick in the McCourt era. People who walked the walk and knew more about the reality of life in that time than I ever could.

LIMERICK.COM: Are you not far too young at 40 to know or remember anything at all about life on the lanes of Limerick?

HANNAN: This is often said to me but I am a journalist and a student of social research with some education in Sociology. I deem myself an acceptable researcher and reporter of facts. I have often said you don’t need to have spent time in Nazi Germany to write about it. There are plenty of witnesses willing to discuss their experiences and they can paint a pretty accurate picture of what life would have been like there and then.

LIMERICK.COM: Your first book ASHES was published within weeks of ANGELA’S ASHES. How did this come about?

HANNAN: ASHES was not my first book. I wrote a book called ‘FROM CAMPFIRE TO CARNEGIE HALL’ in 1994; that was a good seller in Limerick too. It was about Limerick’s comedy duo TOM & PASCAL whom I loved as a child. I had been working on a book called ‘Penance’ which was set in Limerick and was about two childhood friends who grew up on the lanes. It was pretty much completed and I decided to change the name because I wanted it to be linked with ANGELA’S ASHES. The idea was to present another side to the story. There are always two sides to every story and this book was about people who came from the lanes but emerged from the experience with little or no bitterness.

LIMERICK.COM: Wasn’t it a bit opportunistic to call the book ASHES?

HANNAN: A journalist once told me that if I were in any other business, other than writing, I would have been given an enterprise award for the idea. Others have said it was opportunistic; it depends on how you look at it. For me it meant instant recognition for my book. There are lots of books published in Limerick every year and calling my book ASHES gave it an edge that it otherwise would not have had.

LIMERICK.COM: Did it sell well?

HANNAN: I think we sold about 20,000 copies all over Ireland. It is out of print now and it had three print runs. I am very satisfied with the sales.

LIMERICK.COM: How did McCourt respond to the book?

HANNAN: I have no idea. He never publicly criticised it other than on one occasion he told the Sunday Times that he had no doubt that it would be a runaway best seller to the borders of Limerick. Being that that was all I was aiming for in the first place I was impressed by his intended insult. Maybe I’m small minded and a little too insular in my thinking but I never believed for a moment than anyone other than a Limerick person would have any interest whatsoever in my books.

LIMERICK.COM: Were you surprised by the amount of international media attention you received after the publication of ASHES?

HANNAN: Surprised and amused. But of course I became suspicious when the American journalists started to ring me and I asked a researcher for ’60 Minutes’ how she got my number and she told me that it was given to her by Frank McCourt. Here was the man calling me an opportunist and he was dishing my number out to anyone who cared to write a few paragraphs. I suppose I made good press for him so we both gained from the so-called ‘war of words’.

LIMERICK.COM: Do you regret calling your book ASHES?

HANNAN: No. Why should I?

LIMERICK.COM: Well it’s now branded the ‘anti-McCourt’ book.

HANNAN: Only by those who haven’t read it and therefore know no better.

LIMERICK.COM: You once told the media that you could pinpoint 117 inaccuracies in ANGELA’S ASHES what were the main ones?

HANNAN: Well the top three would be the story about Willie Harold masturbating at the sight of his own sisters undressing. Harold had no sisters. The story about Frank’s mother having sexual relations as rent payment with her first cousin Laman Griffin. She never actually lived with him. The story about Treasa Carmody having oral sex with Frank on her deathbed; she died a long time before Frank says she did. There are others, I don’t believe Malachy Snr was actually Frank’s father, the McCourt’s were not as poor as Frank claimed, the list goes on and on. The book was vindictive towards Limerick and it’s people. There were plenty of scurrilous lies about innocent people and a lot of facts about the McCourt family were conveniently omitted. It’s a fairy tale disguised as fact.

LIMERICK.COM: Why did it vex you so much?

HANNAN: It just did. I am not a psychologist so I can’t explain why. All I can tell you is that I felt very strongly about it. I am a passionate person by nature and I stand up for what I believe in. That’s all.

LIMERICK.COM: Your controversial appearance on the Ireland’s most popular talk show THE LATE LATE SHOW is still well remembered for its ferociousness. Do you regret the strength of your attack on Frank McCourt?

HANNAN: (Laughs).Not at all. Perhaps I would act differently nowadays. I don’t feel quite as passionate about the subject these days. That was what I felt there and then and I acted accordingly. But I do feel that was really a one-to-one conversation with McCourt. He knew exactly where I was coming from, no one else did. He got the message loud and clear so my mission was accomplished. I am told he told a friend of his in New York that my actions reminded him of his own mother’s behaviour in a New York theatre when she jumped up from the audience and called him a liar. The whole thing took him aback but I believe he knew exactly what I was saying. Other people’s opinions on the matter really are of no consequence to me.

LIMERICK.COM: Were you really as angry as you appeared?

HANNAN: I suppose there was an element of ‘acting’ there too. But I wanted to get my point across and the best form of defence is attack they say. I wanted the moment to be memorable for McCourt and it was. McCourt was in Galway recently and he met a friend of mine from Limerick and told him that he had no ill will toward me because he felt the producers of the ‘Late Late’ were ambushing him. But I have to say there was no such prior discussion between the producers and myself. It may have been their agenda but it wasn’t mine. I was finally given a chance to confront McCourt and I took it and that was my only motive. The producers assured me that McCourt knew full well that I was going to be in the audience and I don’t see why they would lie about that.

LIMERICK.COM: Do you dislike McCourt as a person?

HANNAN: I don’t know him well enough to have any kind of an informed opinion. But I do believe from people who do know him that he is not a likable fellow at all. I believe he is a most sarcastic and bitter man. But that’s just going on second hand information.

LIMERICK.COM: Did you ever meet McCourt after the initial meeting in the radio station?

HANNAN: Just once in the Green Room after the ‘Late Late’ but it was only for a fleeting moment. He gave me a rather friendly smile while his wife was calling me a ‘scum ball’ from Limerick. He told her to hush-up and shook his head as he walked by. That was it.

LIMERICK.COM: And there has been no further contact?

HANNAN: People that I know to be personal friends of his have often made contact with me on different matters but there has been no direct contact nor do I expect there will ever be. I am sure I am no more than a very minor player in the life of Frank McCourt.

LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your second book TIS IN ME ASS.

HANNAN: Now, that for me was where the real fun began.

LIMERICK.COM: Why do you say that?

HANNAN: Well my three books, ASHES, TIS IN ME ASS and FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS are all part of one trilogy but they were all part of a sort of work-in-progress until the final part was complete. I first called the trilogy ‘The Penance Trilogy’, then changed it to ‘The Singland Trilogy’ – writers prerogative, then it finally became what it is now, ‘The Limerick Trilogy’. But TIS IN ME ASS was the most fun for me to write. I got great help from my brother Dominic who has a sort of photographic memory. I wrote about our childhood in Garryowen in the 1960’s and 70’s and I think it is a book that will be best appreciated in fifty years time when people wonder what life was like back then. I wanted it to be funny and I hope I achieved that.

LIMERICK.COM: So TIS IN ME ASS was a labour of love?

HANNAN: I love that cliché.

LIMERICK.COM: FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS attempts to look at the history of Limerick storytelling right up to the writings of Frank McCourt. His presence is strong in your three books do you not fear being tagged ‘obsessed’ by Frank McCourt?

HANNAN: I’ve been called worse on a short walk.

LIMERICK.COM: Do you intend writing more books about McCourt?

HANNAN: (Laughs) I’m afraid the obsession has passed for the moment.

LIMERICK.COM: What are you working on now?

HANNAN: I have two books in draft form at the moment. I have been working for some time on a romantic novel called WHEN ANGELS WEEP and a children’s book called SHAWN OISIN. Look out Maeve Binchy and J.K. Rowlings I’m coming to get you!

LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

HANNAN: You’re welcome.

The Myth of Irish Food


This paper begins by assessing Roland Barthes theory of ‘Mythologies’ and its primary elements and uses these tools to analyse recent Irish media texts successfully advocating the consumption of Irish foods. However, while the ‘Buy Irish’ campaign has been successful in creating demand the Irish economy has failed in delivering Irish product to demanding consumers by ignoring the confusion as to ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ Irish product. Using the examples of ‘Siucra’ Irish sugar and ‘Lyons Tea’, both publicly perceived as Irish but, in fact, imported goods and how each of these are marketed and promoted Barthes theory of Mythologies can demonstrate how myth can be exploited for commercial gain.

Roland Barthes classic ‘Mythologies’ (1984) while not explicitly focused on media has contributed a way of looking at language, images, signs and symbols that have helped media analysts to consider the ways in which our responses to media texts are framed by our reading of a symbolic language that is entirely cultural and based on oppositions and relations between significations. In other words, it is the difference between things, not the properties of individual things, that constructs meaning and Barthes’ ‘myth’ can be used to decode a single sign. (McDougall, 2012)

According to Roland Barthes his notion of Mythologies stems from his feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. Thus, he argues, nature and history are confused by ideological abuse. The notion of myth, he contends, seems to explain examples of the falsely obvious.

Myth, for Barthes, was a mode of representation characterised above all by its self evident truth, its naturalness. The origin of Mythologies lay in Barthes’ rejection of the way in which newspapers, magazines, films and exhibitions represented social constructions – the outcome of historical and political struggles – is simply natural or common sense. (Masterman, 1984) For Barthes’s, the production of myths is conditional upon two, linked repressions of history and of politics. The transformation of history into nature was, for Barthes, “the very principle of myth” (Masterman, 1984).

Language is a corpus of prescriptions and habits pervading the signifier’s expression without endowing it with form or content: “language is an abstract circle of truths” (Barthes, 1953) Barthes further states that ‘mythology’ is a language surrounding social phenomena in contemporary society. (Barthes, 1991) Myth, then, is a type of speech, a system of communication, a message. It is a mode of signification. Everything can be defined as a myth because there is no law forbidding discourse on any subject or matter. “A tree is a tree” but it is no longer a tree when it becomes the subject of the Romantic poets. It is a tree which is decorated, adapted for consumption and laden with literary self-indulgence. Some, but not all, objects created in mythical language become permanently mythological. Myth is a type of speech chosen by history and cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.

The media has served as a support to this mythical language. The images we are exposed to are given for specific purposes of signification. (Barthes, 1991) Pictures and words are predetermined texts distorted by mythology and decipherable by semiology. Such texts are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance. Semiology studies signification and is not a science that is necessary but sufficient in the deconstruction of these texts. Semiology postulates a relationship between signifier and signified but takes little account of the sign itself. There are functional implications to this distinction which are of capital importance for the study of myth as semiological schema.

Semiology is restricted because it knows only one operation: reading, or deciphering. (Barthes, 1991) This concept is best understood by looking at any text used for the purpose of public consumption. For example, the image of Mickey Mouse standing outside Disneyland in a wizards outfit waving a wand with magical stars flying all around him is an image constructed to signify that a holiday in Disney World will be magical. However, to each individual the signification is a mythological interpretation influenced by nature and history. The meaning of the myth has its own value; it belongs to a history which postulates a kind of knowledge, past, a memory, and a comparative order of facts, ideas, and decisions. It is this confusion between meaning and form which defines myth. The signifier, personified by Mickey Mouse, is the accomplice of the artificial concept. In relation to the signified, now motivated by a seemingly unambiguous text, is caused to unconditionally accept and utter the perpetrated myth. A whole new history is implanted into the myth and the signified becomes the signifier and this repetition of the concept through different forms is precious to the mythologist determined to decipher the myth. Myths are organic in that they grow, change and alter as history progresses and thus the deciphering of myths requires neologism to identify concepts that are not arbitrary. The association of signifier and signified and the relationship between the two can be defined as the signification. This signification is the myth itself and it too has characteristic modes of correlation of the mythical concept and the mythical form. The function of myth is to distort and deform but not obliterate or abolish the meaning. The mythical signifier is formless and based on historicity and as such is flexible.

Deciphering a myth is not a challenging process. “Disneyworld is magical” is a signified myth produced by the symbol of Mickey Mouse. The myth is perpetuated by the Media seeking a form for it. The creation of such form distorts the meaning and an ambiguous signification is transmitted. Myth transforms history into nature but to understand clearly how this process works a more appropriate and Irish example is needed.

One of Ireland’s most pervasive consumer myths in relation to food is ‘if it looks Irish, it is Irish’ and by patriotically consuming these products local and national economies will prosper, jobs will be created and ultimately an autonomous society can better endure the assault of globalisation. This successful myth, created by Media texts, propounds the virtues of Irish foods, shopping local and buying Irish. Consumers responded and market research suggests the demand for Irish products is escalating. However, the global economy has, perhaps deliberately, retaliated by filling market shelves with counterfeit Irish foodstuffs that are near impossible to differentiate from national produce.

A cursory search of any Irish newspaper reveals editorial, advertorials, advertising and reports on success stories of the Irish food industries luminary manufacturers reaping rewards of national and international recognition. “The strength of Ireland’s food industry is evident in the latest directory of the Top 100 food and drink manufacturers in Britain and Ireland” (ISSUU, 2011) According to the publication; “There are three Irish companies in the top 10”. (Irish Times, 2012). Such glowing accolades for the industry have perpetrated a myth to Irish consumers regarding the alleged superior quality of Irish food, endorsed by superior forces, which consequently enrich the demand for Irish home-produced foods. The campaign is successful in that the demand has increased.

Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores highlight their Irishness with the epitaph “The difference is we are Irish” while International Supermarket chains such as Tesco, Lidl, and Aldi are going to strains to create a mythological Irishness to consumers. The media is saturated in News articles reporting the latest of the innumerable ‘Irish’ food awards being presented to these international chains and their ‘local’ suppliers.  Blatant headlines such as; “Aldi’s Suppliers Success At National Irish Food Awards” (Nenagh Guardian, 2012), and “Great Times For Irish Cheese Makers” (Digby, 2012), are highlighting awards for Irish food companies such as Knockdrinna Gold, Killeen, Burren Gold and Dingle Peninsula Cheese. Such reports maintain an impression that Irish food is freely and readily available but this impression is not entirely accurate.

In an Irish Times report Manchan Magan challenged himself to “eating only Irish food” to determine is it possible to survive on Irish-made produce alone. “I turned to the supermarkets for Irish food and realised how complicated this was going to be.” (Magan, 2012) In his article he reveals that Boyne Valley Honey is not Irish, Donegal Catch fish is Chilean, Siucra Irish Sugar is British, Guinness’ main ingredients are Australian and Chips, as in Supermacs, an Irish fast-food chain which claims in their logo to be “100% Irish”, actually import Belgian potatoes. Magan concludes “If Irish goods were not so difficult to find, I’d never buy an imported product again.”

An estimated 45% of branded grocery food products sold in 2011/2012 was imported according to research which found that Ireland’s total grocery market was worth €7.1 billion with branded products making up 47% of that.  However, 45%, of the branded products sold in Ireland in 2011/2012 were actually imported (Kantar Worldpanel, 2012). Irish research has also uncovered “considerable confusion” (Love Irish Food, 2012) about well-known Irish brands. 80% of those surveyed believed imported ‘Siucra’ was produced in Ireland. Some 77% believed Lyons Tea was produced in Ireland and 71% thought the HB ice-cream brand was Irish. (Healy, 2012)

These results prove confusion over the origin of Irish foods. Imported brands with Irish-sounding names are confusing people. These foodstuffs might best be referred to as ‘mythical Irish’. There is also confusion about brands that might have been manufactured in Ireland previously but have moved their manufacturing facilities abroad. “These results give indication as to the confusion which exists” (Love Irish Food, 2012). The market for mythical-Irish foods is vibrant due to the demand for genuine Irish food. Research by Bord Bia found 85% of shoppers were loyal towards Irish brands. (Bord Bia, 2011) However, this research found half of branded products purchased as Irish were, in fact, imported. International manufacturers are clearly aware of the demand for genuine Irish food and have responded with branding foreign products with an artificial Irish identity.

This difficulty in finding Irish produce on supermarket shelves was highlighted by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild at its 18th Annual Awards. Myrtle Allen, “one of the pioneers of the movement to promote locally produced Irish food” (Irish Foodwriters Guild, 2010) claimed Irish farmers and growers produced some of the highest quality food in the world and yet it was often a challenge to find something as simple as an Irish apple in Irish shops. (Healy, 2012)

From this example we can understand clearly how the myth reader is led to rationalise the signified by means of the signifier; namely Irish consumers seeking Irish goods (the signified) and believing that they are buying genuine Irish goods presented to them by international companies, endorsed by Media texts (signifiers).  Large print Newspaper headlines such as “Retaining Loyalty to Irish Brands” and   “Irish consumers spending an estimated €1.5bn on imported food brands” imply that there is urgency for government, always presented by the press as the essence of efficacy, to legislate to protect the Irish economy.  The signification of the myth follows clearly from this: genuine Irish foodstuffs are suffering because the government is allowing fake Irish foodstuffs to be readily available to consumers. The myth is imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not make it better and worse. (Barthes, 1991) Also, because the signifier and the signified have a natural relationship, the consumer takes the signification as factual. The availability of fake Irish foodstuffs is either due to the demand for cheaper home produced food or governments alleged choice not to protect the Irish food industry. In either case the government is accountable.

In any everyday situation we are likely to be confronted by thousands of signifying systems and instances of signifying output. We call these signs. These signifying systems include the language we use to communicate with, the signs that direct us to destinations, to the myriad of media texts that are presented to us or merge into the background of our everyday lives. (Long & Wall, 2009) We are relentlessly exposed throughout a normal day to these signs that plaster our environment and compete for our attention.

The Siucra and Lyons Tea advertisements are two such media text that might appear on a billboard or perhaps in a glossy magazine we might buy intentionally or browse to pass the time while waiting at the doctor’s surgery or hairdressing salon. We might pay them some close attention in a magazine or newspaper or glimpse them as we drive by or opt to ignore them if they appear as a pop-up as we surf the web. In all cases we rarely have to stop to pick up meaning and so all of the factors in these text works together in their impact.

Any analysis must begin with the text and what we make of it. The logic here is that for textual meaning to work we already know what it means; the object is to understand how it means what it does and how meaning is marshalled, organised and anchored in order to make each text effective. The meaning of the Siucra branding is clear, obvious and incontrovertible; by virtue of its name alone this product is Irish. Lyons Tea, previously manufactured in Ireland but capitalising on its historicity, in its ongoing campaign focuses on the idea that ‘talk’ is the secret ingredient in its tea; “It’s no secret that Irish people are both big talkers and big tea drinkers. The secret is we, at Lyons, have been adding talk to the tea” (Hurley, 2010). The encoded message is in the ‘we’ as one of ‘us’ Irish. Ireland’s king of talk radio Joe Duffy spearheads the campaign to reinforce the message. In both cases the images and words shown in the text is a combination of complex signs that are designed to sell more product but he subtext is ‘we are Irish’. Neither advertisement spells out anything directly or plainly for a reader but both remain loaded with significance. The ads have been constructed to have a certain affect. They both elevate brand recognition and urge us to buy the ‘Irish’ product. Closer examination of these subjectively constructed adverts demonstrates allegiance to the convention that the logo is clearly obvious thus suggesting Irish pride. Here then, at the level of mythology, nature is invoked in excess, but clearly not spoken about in an obvious way (‘Siucra is a natural Irish product and Lyons Tea enhances one’s communication abilities because ‘good Irish talkers’ drink ‘good Irish Lyons’ tea). The products are presented not as manufactured, artificial goods but as ‘natural’ and more desirable. The ‘Irish’ images become pawns of economic exchange. The products are not only desirable but also are accessible for all who can afford them. For the consumers who are the intended audience for these adverts, they are asked to recognise the images as natural Irish and therefore more desirable. Furthermore, we should not forget the alibi here that the denotative meanings confer upon the connotative aspects of the signs. These are, after all, just adverts and images, without hidden meanings, asking us to buy these products that will naturally enhance our lives but, in both cases, not only can we achieve these enhancements but also demonstrate patriotism and loyalty to our national identity.

In Roland Barthes essay on his concept of mythology ‘Myth Today’ (Barthes, 1991) he considers media images in his reading and his aim is to make a point about the nature of texts and the ideas they present, how they are all around us in everyday life and he saw media messages as never-ending rather than reducible to any one instance. At the level of connotation we can appreciate that such images, as demonstrated by Siucra and Lyons, present us with an association of patriotism by supporting Irish brands and, by such, there is already a symbolic aspect to the signs. However, if we consider the nature of myth the literalness of the images offers what Barthes calls an ‘alibi’ for any further interpretation or accusation that these are something more than innocent adverts; “it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the characters of the signification…myth is a type of speech defined by its intention…much more than by its literal sense…and in spite of this, its intension is somehow frozen, purified, eternalised, made absent by this literal sense. This constituent ambiguity of mythical speech has two consequences for the signification, which henceforth appears both like a notification and like a statement of fact” (Barthes, 1991).

Such mythological moments are part of a chain of signification in a culture (in this case Ireland of the 2000’s) and not an isolated case but part of a whole social context in which such meanings have value. It is an example of what Barthes calls a ‘type of speech’ in which ‘culture’ is turned into nature.




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The Whiteboys.

Agrarian Disturbances

Agrarian Disturbances

The great tradition of the Whiteboys in the south of Ireland had its beginnings in Tipperary in 1761. They always assembled at night with their shirts over their clothes, which caused them to be called the Whiteboys. The exactions of tithe-farmers and the enclosure of commonage sparked the initial oath bound combination in parts of Munster in southern Ireland. The Whiteboys were also known as ‘Levellers’ and they gave forceful expression to grievances that were widely shared, and their example was quickly imitated in adjacent parts of neighbouring counties. Large groups of Levellers, connected by the blowing of horns, mobilized in great numbers and fired guns as they marched along in their white shirts demolishing in the night-time the fences of the enclosures of many persons and swearing fidelity to each other and secrecy.

In the early stages the agitation was most formidable in County Waterford where 18 men met in 1762 and decided to form an oath bound secret society to combat enclosures and tithe-farmers (Tithe payment was an obligation on those working the land to pay ten per cent of the value of certain types of agricultural produce for the upkeep of the clergy and maintenance of the assets of the Church.); they did so, as one of them later confessed, because similar groups had partly succeeded in redressing some of the grievances they complained of. Once lit, the fires of revolt were carried far and wide throughout Munster. Although membership was secret their activities were very much in full public view. The Whiteboys moved through the countryside, administering oaths and fully living up to their other name by levelling ditches, hedges, walls, and fences. Frequent nocturnal meetings with as many as 500 white shirted insurgents in attendance took place at various locations in Munster.

Smaller bodies of Whiteboys participated in many minor offenses in themselves but, as in one case, resulting in the public execution, by way of warning, of two young men found guilty of membership of the Whiteboys. It must be remembered that this time in history an oath was deemed sacred and unbreakable. If these men had identified other members their lives would have been spared by the Crown but obliterated by their fellow members.

After months of extraordinary outbursts of activity affecting most of Munster the agitation abated in intensity and then went into temporary eclipse as the government responded with military and judicial repression. Except for a few isolated incidents, areas that had previously seethed with discontent remained almost eerily quiet from Midsummer 1762 until 1763. When activity resumed the geographical range of the agitation was much more restricted. The Whiteboys of County Limerick abandoned their insurgency altogether, and those of Cork and Waterford, though capable of seizing the offensive occasionally, mounted no sustained campaigns. Whiteboy operations were first reported in Kilkenny in March 1763 but they apparently ended abruptly with the jailing of many members. It took at least another year for Whiteboyism to expand in Kells to significant figures. Judging from their actions, the Whiteboys of Kilkenny were concerned not at all with enclosures and not very much with the farming of tithes but rather with the rates charged for the tithes of corn and potatoes. Most of the reported incidents involve attacks on the persons or property of those who had refused to comply with the regulations of Whiteboy combinations against payment of the usual rates.

Tipperary was really the heartland of Whiteboyism and what was most remarkable in these years was there wide geographical extent and massive membership. The agitation did not long remain confined to the poor lands but soon struck deep in the rich districts in the county. Rather than execute two Whiteboys in their hometown of Clonmel the authorities deliberately chose to have them hanged near Nenagh because that town was notorious as a place where Whiteboys were strongest.

Among the features which differentiated the Whiteboy movement from earlier combinations was the almost universal use of oaths to bind its adherents together. Every member was compelled to take an oath and those who refused to swear, were threatened with being buried alive. Of the 14,000 insurgents estimated to be in arms in County Tipperary in 1763 practically all were sworn to be true to the cause. Though scholars have so far discovered no clear examples of secret societies that were oath bound before the Whiteboys, the notion that earlier associations of peasants or urban tradesmen had never implied such a simple device seems on its face highly improbable. But even if oath bound popular organizations did exist on at least a local scale before the early 1760s, the Whiteboys should still be considered innovators because they invested oaths with great practical and symbolic importance in fusing local activists into the wider network of a regional movement.

Some oaths expressed specific aims of the insurgents, while others dealt with matters of organization and discipline, as did one oath found in the possession of a number of Whiteboys apprehended in April 1762. This source and other contemporary documents indicate many Whiteboys enrolled under the banner of the mystical leader Sieve Oultagh, whom they designated their queen. Precisely how this usage originated is unknown, but it almost certainly derived its currency from the popular tradition in song and poetry of personifying Ireland as a woman and its people as her children.

The Whiteboys had other symbols and customs that were explicit and functional. The Levellers of Waterford and other counties erected gallows, made coffins, and dug graves in the public roads, all obviously intended as portents of the fate awaiting those who refuse to obey their mandates. To a number of prominent Whiteboy practices some contemporaries also attributed a revolutionary meaning which in all probability they did not possess. Many of the Whiteboys sported white cockades which carried an implication of Jacobitism. Some saw in this agrarian movement a popish plot to overthrow, with French help, the Protestant constitution in church and state. The Whiteboys attire was patterned after the dress of the French Camisards who had rebelled in the year 1702. No doubt, some Whiteboys, expecting a foreign invasion, boasted they would change or put down governments. But the cry commonly heard from many Whiteboys was long King George III and Queen Sive, more accurately, if still somewhat ambivalent, reflected their political sentiments.

The Whiteboy movement coincided with a period of agricultural prosperity, but the very nature of that prosperity produced extensive economic changes in the south of Ireland that helped to trigger and sustained the outbreak of agrarian unrest. From this we can conclude that hunger did not drive the Whiteboys to revolt, though the price of provisions occasionally featured among their grievances. Exports were brisk to the North American colonies and the West Indies and also to Britain and her allies and troops. Thus, while the Whiteboys grievance on the score of enclosures was linked primarily to the encroachment of dairy and beef cattle on commonage, sheep were also a threat in the mid-1760s.

The closing of what were loosely called Commons was bound to arouse resistance because it challenged well-established usages within pasture farming. In the letting of choice land for dairying and feeding of dry cattle and sheep, it had long been customary in many parts of the South for landlords to attach inferior ground without making any specific addition to the rent, though the rents reflected the enhanced value of the enlarged farm. When land values began to increase sharply around mid-century and especially during the Seven Years War, landlords withdrew much of this commonage from current holders and either stocked it themselves or relet to new tenants who did so. The hedges, fences, and ditches which kept out the cattle and sheep of the former occupiers, as well as the impounding of trespassing livestock, constituted major provocations to violence. Besides seeking to regain their lost rights by destroying the physical obstacles, the Whiteboys also attacked the stewards placed on the grounds by landlords or the new tenants whom the landlords had introduced. In extremities as standard weapon against these intruders was to burn or pull down their dwellings. By no means had all of the houses raised by Whiteboys been inhabited by caretakers or recent occupiers of commonage, but the determination to repel such people was the dominant motive in numerous instances.

Much of the levelling activity of the Whiteboys, however, was not a response to the enclosure of commonage at all, as many upper-class complaints about ‘pretended commons’ obliquely testified. Rather, it was an expression of intense popular resentment against the keeping of land from tillage and they campaigned against the tithe of potatoes. Admittedly, this particular clerical impost, almost unique to Munster and parts of Leinster, was not the only aspect of the tithe system against which the Whiteboys battled. They were also determined in many places to end the farming of tithes. It must be remembered that these tithes were a form of taxation paid to the Protestant church in the form of a generous share of produce or income yielded from same. It must have been very irritating to say the least for the suppressed Catholics to have to finance the church of the elite. In South Tipperary, where the farming of tithes was unusually prevalent, the Whiteboys were especially active against these obnoxious middlemen. Whether the Whiteboys also desired to eliminate proctors as well as tithe farmers is doubtful. Only a few instances were ever reported of attacks on the persons or property of proctors.

Any attempt to illuminate in detail the social composition leadership of the earliest Whiteboys is severely handicapped by the complete absence of official government documents relating to the hundreds of persons who were apprehended and committed for trial as Levellers.

How members were recruited still remains something of a mystery. Teachers were considered one possibility and Catholic priests another. Large farmers were generally the victims rather than the allies of the Whiteboys, since, along with the great graziers, they kept land in pasture that might otherwise have been let in conacre, paid wages that the Whiteboys deemed much too low, and sometimes enclosed ancient commonage. Small farmers and their sons provided many activists. In districts where farms of large acreage were commonly taken in partnership by groups of tenants and sometimes by the inhabitants of an entire village, the landholding arrangements themselves could furnish a basis for Whiteboy organization.

Protestants were of the belief that rich Catholics were directing the Whiteboys but the only way the Catholic brought to trial before 1766 was a manufacturer from Waterford who was later acquitted. In spite of many infamous prosecutions there is little evidence to corroborate Protestant charges that prosperous Catholics supported the Whiteboys.

The attempted repression of the Whiteboy movement, while not Savage, was severe. The on-going insurgency had grown far beyond a level the local magistrates could control and a large number of elite troops were drafted into the disturbed parts of four Munster counties. Interestingly, such troops had previously been engaged in anti-smuggling operations on the coasts of Dublin and Down and as such were an intimidating force to be reckoned with. In some places all the young men fled in terror at the approach of these troops and in a matter of weeks the prisons were full. Meanwhile, Protestants remained convinced that these movements were primarily motivated by the desire to raise a rebellion and when the Crown investigated this, by talking to prisoners, they too were convinced that an insurrection had been contemplated. However, it was also realized that all the outrages, regardless of their specific nature, where the result of some local dissatisfaction and as such could not be interpreted as disaffection for the crown, government are to laws in general. The only risk was that with such a large movement in existence any foreign invasion would radically change this situation.

Of those who had been imprisoned, nearly 500 in all, some fared out better than others depending on geographical location and willing witnesses. Some were condemned to death, some found guilty of riot, and many more of minor offenses such as cutting down trees, burying a victim up to his chin in unmarked graves, and tendering unlawful oaths which led to fines or torture. The dozen or so executions exercised a significant, if temporary; check on the Whiteboy movement. In fact, the degree of repression necessary to destroy the Whiteboy movement was actually beyond the reach of the central and local authorities as long as they continued to rely on traditional legal methods for maintaining order. Voluntary and unpaid witnesses for the crown were exceedingly difficult to find because of intimidation, bribery, or sympathy with Whiteboy aims.

It is not effective repression which brought the first Whiteboy movement to a close by early 1766, but rather economic conditions bordering on mass starvation. Extreme droughts took place in the previous year and consequently huge losses accumulated in all sectors of agriculture. For many months the food situation steadily deteriorated and prices went so high that it was impossible for poor people to purchase food. A widespread epidemic of smallpox aggravated their plight and throughout the summer of 1766 small-scale food riots took place at thousands of locations throughout the country. In the struggle for the means to preserve life, agrarian grievances temporarily ceased to be important.

Until the arrival of the Whiteboys never before in the South had agrarian rebels been so numerous, operated over such a broad area, or displayed, though for a limited time, such a high degree of organization and coordination. On the other hand, the Whiteboys of the early 1760s were less widespread, addressed a narrower range of issues, and included fewer farmers than their successors in the 1770s. The Whiteboys lacked the coherence in aims, methods, and organization that was to distinguish later clandestine groups. Indeed, the earliest Whiteboys preserved a strong regional movement only until the spring of 1762. Thereafter, Whiteboyism became much less formidable. Paradoxically, this reversion towards the older pattern of rural protest did little to cure Protestant paranoia of popish insurrection in alliance with foreign Catholic powers and efforts continued to permanently terminate all riotous behaviour no matter what its form. Though Whiteboyism activated the sectarian reflex of some upper-class Protestants, for the great majority it had become all too apparent that agrarian rebellion was so firmly rooted on Irish soil that it needed no water from France or Spain to nourish its growth. The experience of the 1790s, of course, changed many minds, and with good reason.

Primary Source:

Irish Agrarian Rebellion: The Whiteboys of 1769-76

J. S. Donnelly

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.

Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature , Vol. 83C, (1983), pp. 293-331

Published by: Royal Irish Academy

Article Stable URL:

Irish Catholic Question.

How Deep Is The Divide?



All Irish history from around 1550 onward can be regarded as an extended comment on the Catholic question. However, contemporary historians use the term the ‘Catholic question’ in reference to the readmission of Catholics to full civil, religious and political equality in three ways, which were timing, terms and sponsorship. At what point could such concessions with safety be made and with what safeguards and under whose auspices should these concessions be made.

Protestant Ethos.

18th-century Ireland was a Protestant country in which all political power and most social and economic consequence was confined to those who conformed to the established church; Irish Protestants were keenly aware that they constituted a minority of the Irish population. The “Protestant Nation” as they considered themselves were well aware that the sole basis of their claim to be not just ‘a people’ but ‘the people of Ireland’ lay in the destruction of Catholic power, the confiscation of Catholic land and concurrent denial to Catholics of social and political authority. They had every right to be deeply concerned when something called ‘the Catholic question’ emerged in Ireland in the late 1760s.


The emergence of the Catholic question which would progress to dominate the Anglo-Irish political agenda, cannot but have alarmed Protestant opinion in Ireland. The penal laws had been enacted to ensure the hopes of a Catholic recovery would be forever forlorn. English opinion of the so-called Catholic menace augured well for Irish Protestants. Given that the Catholic question appeared to have been once and for all resolved by the beginning of the 18th century, how then can its re-emergence be explained by the 1760s? One answer would be that Catholics had shown by their good behaviour conduct that they felt deserved favour.


The ideas of Enlightenment were having an influence on Ireland and notions of persecution for religious belief were generally reprobated throughout Europe. It is important to realize that Enlightenment was, more or less, anti-Catholic and the teachings of the Catholic Church were cast as the biggest obstacle to the spread of enlightened ideas. In short, Irish Protestants could legitimately comfort themselves that the Penal Laws, by putting dependency on adherence to superstition and general ignorance, were actually forwarding the work of the Enlightenment.


Another reason frequently advanced for the emergence of the Catholic question around mid-century was the perception that a wealthy Catholic merchant class had grown up and that Catholic money, because of the penal laws, was shut out of the Irish economy, the land market in particular.


It may be that the chief reasons for the emergence of the Catholic question by 1760 Leidy in changes within the political world of Protestant Ireland and also in developments within the Anglo-Irish relationship itself. In the history of the rise of the Catholic question, the Money Bill dispute of the 1750s marked a watershed for it sowed divisions among Irish Protestants and arouse suspicions in the minds of British ministers about the reliability of Irish Protestants. In creating these tensions between governing elites the Money Bill dispute gave Irish Catholics their chance to stand forward. It comes as no surprise to learn that it was at the time of the Money Bill dispute that a Catholic committee of sorts was convened to consider Catholic grievances and to seek redress.

Anglo-Irish Relations.

The chemistry of the Anglo-Irish relationship was changing with the growth of a Protestant nationalism which alarmed English politicians and led them to believe that new alliances in Ireland should be contemplated in order to restrain the exuberance of Irish Protestant self-assertion. There was never any question of replacing the Protestant interest with the Catholic one but British ministers saw it as common sense to keep on good terms with Irish Catholics, if only to remind Irish Protestants that, though they might called themselves the people of Ireland, there was another people on the island who could equally lay claim to that title.

Empire Expansion.

The fears of Irish Protestants took second place to the very real needs of the Empire and also to the requirements of the Armed Forces of the crown. The scale and extent of warfare along with the expansion of empire may offer good reasons for the emergence, at this time, of the Catholic question. There is a certain irony in this; the Catholic question in the early 18th century had also been linked to the trash of war, Irish Catholics had been seen as Jacobites in sympathy and thus inherently disloyal; they maintained what amounted to a standing army abroad; the so-called Irish Brigade in the service of France which recruited clandestinely among Irish Catholics; and when wars did break out, as for example in 1743 at the start of the war of the Austrian succession, it was usual for extra security precautions to be taken against them. Military necessity, essentially the manpower requirements of the British Army, provides the context for the Americans of the Catholic question in the 1760s and its persistence thereafter.

Catholic Relief.

Catholic recruits were taken into the armed forces in increasing numbers. Irish Protestants grew restive at this development and suspected that the British government in its eternal quest for troops was not above offering Catholic relief in return for Catholic recruits. These suspicions were not groundless; for there was in fact a plan to offer concessions to the Catholics of England, Scotland and Ireland, and this scheme formed the background to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, the first major breach in the penal code. This act repealed some of the penal laws concerning ownership of land by Catholics but its main aim was to encourage the Catholic gentry to beat the recruiting drum and enlist their co-religionists into the British Army.


Towards the end of the American War, another major Catholic Relief Act was passed and this act effectively repealed those penal laws directed specifically at the practice of the Catholic religion. This time, however, the concession was not granted with an eye to recruits but with an intention of keeping Irish Catholics detached from the Volunteers.

French Revolution.

In the highly charged atmosphere produced by the French Revolution, the matter of relief for Catholics was once again actively canvassed. In the 1780s the Catholic question had remained in abeyance, because of Catholic support for Volunteers in 1782. The Catholics, having been courted by the volunteers, has soon been abandoned by them: the volunteer plan for parliamentary reform made no attempt to include Catholic franchise or representation. This parliamentary reform campaign which to volunteers embarked on in the early 1780s quickly ran out of steam but from the failure of that campaign certain lessons were learned by the more committed reformers. Any future reform movement had to enlist the support of the Catholics if it was to make any headway. In this realization lay the seeds of the future Society Of United Irishmen.

United Irishmen.

This society was set up in Belfast in 1791 and aimed to curb the influence of England in the government of Ireland through parliamentary reform. Theobald Wolfe Tone stressed that no reform is practicable if it does not include the Catholics. The British government were alarmed at the rise of the United Irishmen and urged that major concessions being made the Catholics in order to head off future problems. Dublin Castle resisted and concessions offered fell far short of those demanded. British government responded by repealing penal laws and by extending the parliamentary franchise to Irish Catholics on the same terms as Irish Protestants: it seemed to be only a matter of time before Catholics were restored to full political equality in Ireland.

Catholic Relief Acts.

The scale of concessions were revolutionary and one can find explanation for this generosity in that area where political considerations and military requirements intersected. British government were alarmed by the United Irishmen and hence no steps were spared to stop the popularity of this organization. United Irishmen were harassed, suppressed and banned. However, the ever-expanding group could bring pressure on England desirous of conciliation with Catholics rather than provocation leading to association with the enemy. Within a generation, the British state had gone from a policy of firm exclusion of Catholic soldiers to one of forced inclusion; from fear of Catholic numbers to reliance on them to meet the needs of war.

Closing The Concession Account.

With Irish Catholics now having the vote on the same terms as Irish Protestants, and with their playing a front-line role in the defence of Ireland in the event of a French invasion, it might have been assumed that the Catholic question was now over. But this was not to be the case. The right of Catholics, if elected to take their seat in Parliament, proved elusive. Mounting violence in Ireland, widespread evidence of a well organized conspiracy to subvert the government, and the prospect of a long war against France combined to make British ministers close the concession account where Irish Catholics were concerned. Catholic emancipation, as it was now called, remained so elusive that it was becoming clear that it would never be given; it could only be taken. And this could only be achieved when the Catholic question was divorced from party politics and from questions of defense and military strategy. The Catholic question could only be addressed properly when it was finally recognized for what it now was – are in fact may have been all along – the Irish question. 


Primary Source:

The Catholic Question in the Eighteenth Century

Thomas Bartlett

History Ireland , Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 17-21
Published by: Wordwell Ltd.

Catholicism And Penal Laws (1695)

Penal Laws 1695.

This essay shall explore the purpose and origins of the Irish penal laws which have always been subjects of contention amongst historians. These laws have been viewed as ruthless in their primary purpose of the suppression of Catholics. It has been argued that the penal laws were tolerated by an Irish Parliament greedy for land and wealth. However the first two Irish penal laws of 1695 allegedly aimed at disarming Catholics and prohibiting foreign education were the result of a definite policy which existed in Ireland from the time of the Williamite war. These laws were based on English statutes and Irish proclamations and their primary motive was the security of the Protestant interest.

Fear of Catholic Europe remained constant as long as England was at war with France and in the search for greater security a policy developed for disarming Irish Catholics, which was actively supported by William III and his government. The core of this 1695 security legislation comprised two penal laws, one for disarming and dismounting Catholics, the other for prohibiting foreign education. In order to understand the development and implementation of these first two penal laws, the prevailing attitude among Irish Protestants towards Catholics from the outset of the Williamite war must be explored.

A full body of penal legislation existed in England dating back to the reign of Elizabeth but the Irish experience was very different. In England the penal code covered vast areas relating to Catholic worship, organization and personal rights. The main impetus for the most repressive acts stemmed from fears for state security. These fears were in existence since the gunpowder plot and Parliament wanted to act to prevent and avoid dangers which grow by popish recusants imposing the fullest range of disabilities on Catholics within the entire penal code. These acts were to play an important role in the formulation of the Irish penal laws of 1695. Catholics in Ireland did not escape this anti-papist hysteria.

In general the Irish government tended to follow the English feed in taking repressive action. The influence of the English anti-Catholic tradition and fitful penal repression upon the minds of the Irish government and Irish Protestants during the restoration and, most importantly, after the reign of James II was to be significant. After the Williamite war securing the Protestant interest in Ireland became of paramount concern for the Irish government and Irish Protestants, creating a new dynamic within the Protestant political nation for security-based penal legislation. The Irish government and Protestant nation used past proclamations, existing English penal laws and past experience to create a modus operandi for the first Irish penal laws. Ultimately the two penal laws of 1695 were an integral part of the efforts to secure the Protestant interest against internal discontent and external interference.

From a Protestant perspective Irish Catholics were the enemy while at the same time the war with France kept alive fears of a French invasion and subsequent Catholic insurrection in Ireland. While Irish Protestants were perceived in England as having affection for King William the same could not be said for Irish Catholics who were considered papist Jacobites engaged in the cause of King James and justifying their violent ways by their bigotry to their false religion.

Add to this the fact that there was a close affinity between Irish Catholics and the papist anti-William French revolutionists and it seemed that Protestants beliefs were beyond doubt and fully justified. The Irish Parliament of 1692 would be predominantly anti-Catholic and the threat of Catholic Ireland had have to be combated in order to secure the Protestant interest.

Efforts to secure the English and Protestant interest in Ireland took various forms. The most immediate issue at the end of the war was the safe dispersal of the Jacobite army. Many had gone to France with Sarsfield but there was a fear that the remaining forces would turn their attentions against King William. Attempts to recruit ex-Jacobite soldiers in Ireland were resisted by Irish Protestants and by the Irish and English governments. The plan did not succeed and the outlaws prospered as growing tensions between Catholics and Protestants all over Ireland gave credibility to new fears that a Franco-Jacobite force could invade Ireland at any moment. As long as England remained at war with France, the possibility of such an invasion was widely credited and served far defied the resolution of the English and Irish governments and Irish Protestants to settle the Catholic question permanently. Growing evidence of Irish recruitment to the French and Jacobite forces aligned against William ensured that Irish Protestants were confirmed in the belief that coercive measures were necessary for the security of the English and Protestant interest.

In any assessment of the forced penal laws, it must be remembered that the overriding motivation behind them was fear for the safety of the Protestant interest in Ireland. Irish Protestants viewed the upkeep of their interest based upon hegemony over Catholics, as not just a bid for wealth and power, but primarily as a prerequisite for survival. Hence the urgency for penal legislation can be seen as one of the main reasons, alongside financial concerns, for the calling of Parliament of 1695 and the final formulation of the penal measures of that same year.

The three main aspects of the penal legislation which would eventually be introduced in 1695 were outlined by Lord Capell as being necessary for the final settlement of Ireland; these included disarming Irish papists, prevention of keeping horses above five pounds in value and restraining foreign education. However, it must be said, that these three objectives were by no means new but what was unique here is the fact that Capell gave each of them equal importance and placed them side-by-side in any attempt in the settlement of Ireland. Capell believed it necessary for the settlement of Ireland to pass laws relating to religion, peace and secular interest. In June 1695 an initial 14 bills were transmitted to England by Capell and the Privy Council including a bill for disarming papists. Although there was some debate the bill was accepted in an amended form and passed in September 1695.

The second of the three coercive measures recommended by Capell in July 1694 was that for preventing Catholics from keeping horses above 5 pounds value or 13 hands and a half high. For Capell it was not to know just to dismount the rebels during times of danger they begin to feel the need to make it a permanent arrangement, ensuring security for the future. Furthermore, as with the disarming policy, the dismounting policy was to be directed at the whole Catholic population. The close in the penal law passed in 1695 for restricting Catholics to owning horses work 5 pounds or less adheres to this estimation of the relative values of horses fit for military service, which in turn is a copy of the 5 pounds or less value system used in the English penal laws of 1689.

Capell’s recommendation in July 1694 that a law be introduced in Ireland for preventing Catholics from keeping horses above 5 pounds value reflected the Protestant desire for laws relating to religion, peace and secular interest. The English House of Commons also insisted that the Irish Parliament should be called in order to pass such laws as shall be necessary for the security of Protestant interests. Ultimately Capell’s reference to the need for a law dismounting Catholics, as with that for disarming them, represent the fusion of the will of the Protestant interest and the perceived logical conclusion of previous Irish government policy in the early 1690s. The bill caused little debate in the Irish Parliament and passed without difficulty.

The third and final coercive measure relating to Catholics, which Capell specified was that for restraining foreign education. Capell pointed out that the bill for disarming Catholics would secure the Protestant interest but that the bill for restraining foreign education would secure the Protestant religion. From the outset the motivation for the disarming policy had been specific, tangible threats to the security of the Protestant interest. In the case of the prohibition of foreign education, concern for security against a general threat of European counter-reformation Catholicism was allied with the advent of a longer-term policy for undermining the institution of the Catholic Church in order to secure the Protestant religion. Capell’s proposal of a law specifically restraining foreign education for Irish Catholics was the first definite acknowledgment of such a singular need. The desire for such a measure was motivated not only by an awareness of the fact that Irish Catholics receiving religious education on the continent ensured the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland, but also by the knowledge that Irish Catholics being educated abroad were in contact with exiled Irish Jacobites, many of whom were fighting in French armies under the nominal leadership of the Stuarts. These exiles kept alive Protestant fears of the Jacobite invasion and represented the spirit of resistance to Protestant rule. Contact with such individuals was detrimental to the security of the Protestant interest, as it encouraged disloyalty to the English Crown, the government and the established church. The prohibition of foreign education, while protecting the Protestant religion, would also help to secure the Protestant interest by encouraging greater loyalty from Irish Catholics and, where possible, their conversion to Protestantism. The prevailing attitude of Protestants was that foreign education for Catholics was a threat to the Protestant interest and should be prevented whenever possible. There was little controversy in relation to the bill which was returned to Ireland and presented to the Irish Parliament, where it was enacted, along with the disarming bill, in September 1695.

These three penal measures specified by Capell as necessary for the settlement of Ireland had passed to the Irish Parliament without great difficulty. They represented the logical, formulated conclusion to an amalgam of Irish Protestant attitudes towards Catholics and developing government policy, both in England and Ireland during the years immediately following the Williamite war. On the matter of security, they were part of the answer to the threat of external invasion and internal turmoil. France and England were at war and the threat of counter Reformation Catholicism and French style absolutism kept alive the constant fear for the security of the Protestant interest in Ireland. The penal laws of 1695 were an attempt to lessen that trait and to secure the benefits of the Glorious Revolution. Ultimately the first penal laws were an integral part of the securing of the Protestant interest in Ireland.


Primary Source:

Securing the Protestant Interest: The Origins and Purpose of the Penal Laws of 1695

Charles Ivar McGrath

Irish Historical Studies , Vol. 30, No. 117 (May, 1996), pp. 25-46

Saints In Hibernia.

Order Of The Saints Of Hibernia.

Here begins the Catalogue of the Orders of the Saints in Hibernia according to different periods:


The first Order of the Saints was in the time of Patrick, and then all the bishops, 350 in number, were famous and holy and full of the Holy Spirit. They were founders of churches, worshipped one head, Christ, and followed one leader, Patrick. They had one tonsure, one celebration of Mass, and celebrated one Easter, namely, after the vernal equinox. And what was excommunicated by one church, all excommunicated.

St. Patrick

They did not object to having women as housekeepers and companions, because founded on the rock, Christ, they did not fear the wind of temptation. This Order of Saints lasted during four reigns: to wit, from the time of Laoghaire, the son of Niall, who reigned thirty-seven years; and Olioll, styled Moll, who reigned thirty years; and Lughaidh, who reigned seven years; and this Order of Saints lasted to the very end of Tuathal Maelgarbh, and all remained throughout holy bishops, and these were for the most part, Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth.


The Second Order of the Saints was like this. In this second Order now there were few bishops and many priests, 300 in number. They worshipped one head, God, and had different rituals or rites of celebration, and different rules of living, and celebrated one Easter: to wit the 14th of the moon. And they made a uniform tonsure from ear to ear. They shunned having women as companions and housekeepers, and excluded them from the monasteries. This lasted for four reigns also …. Those (saints) received the ritual of celebrating Mass from holy men of Britain; to wit, from St. David and St. Gildas and St. Cadoc. And their names are these: to wit, Finian, Endeus, Colman, Congal, Aedh, Kieran, Columba, Brendan, Brechen, Caineoh, Caemgin, Laidrean, Laisre, Lugeus, Barrideus, and many others who were in the second grade of the Saints.


The third Order of the Saints was like this. Now they were holy priests and few bishops, 100 in number, who used to dwell in desert places. They lived on vegetables and water and on the alms of the faithful, and held earthly things of no account, and wholly shunned back-biting and slander. These had different rules (of living), and different rituals of celebration, and also different tonsures, for some had the coronal tonsure and some the hair. And they had a different Paschal Solemnization, for some celebrated on the 14th and others on the 13th moon. This Order lasted through four reigns…..And their names are—Petran, bishop; Ultan, bishop; Colman, bishop; Edan, bishop; Lomnan, bishop; Senach, bishop. These were all bishops and many more. And these now were the priests—Fechan, priest; Airendan, Failan, Commian, Ernan, Cronan, and many other priests.

Note that the first Order was holiest, the second very holy, the third holy. The first glows like the sun, with the heat of charity; the second like the moon sheds a pallid light; the third shines with the bright hues of the dawn. When a bishop was appointed over the new diocese his first and most important work was the construction of a church. The churches of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries were very small and rudely built. The first churches were of wood and circular in shape, and there are 110 remains of these, but we have the remains of stone churches of the period, and we find they were built without cement, and the stones used were very large, from 6 to 17 feet long, which would take four men to lift.

The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick furnishes us with the dimensions of the churches he used to build:—”In this wise then St. Patrick measured the ferta, namely, seven score feet in the enclosure, and seven and twenty in the great house (tig mor), and seventeen feet in the chule (kitchen), and seven feet in the aregal, and in that wise it was he used to found the congabala always.” The ” great house ” was the church, which at the time was circular, and the diameter used to be 27 feet. The roof was formed by overlapping. The doorway was placed at the west-end and covered by a lintel and was broader at the bottom.

Churches with arches and semi-circular window heads were erected in the early part of the 9th century. Recessed semi-circular arches belong to the 10th century. The walls built in this period lose much of massive stone work, and are higher, and cement was used. The windows exhibit a slight recess upon the exterior, and were of greater size. As style advances the sides of the doorways become cut into a series of recesses, chevron and other decorations are commonly found, and various mouldings of doors and windows become rich and striking. The term Irish Romanesque has been applied to this style of architecture. The transition can be traced to the beginning of the nth century, but was not fully developed till a century later. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, decorated art reached a high state of perfection in this country.

Cormac MacCuillenen’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel, which was consecrated in the year 1134, presents a specimen of Irish architecture which has not been excelled. Donough O’Brien, King of Thomond, founded the cathedral, 1152. It consists of nave and chancel, with a square tower at each side, 55 and 50 feet high. The walls of nave and chancel are ornamented with a row of semi-circular arches slightly recessed, and enriched with chevron, billet, and mouldings. We have remains of many churches scattered through the country which exhibit the highest degree of art. These and the beautifully sculptured crosses and metal work which still remain afford ample evidence of the skill the Irish attained in various departments of art prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion.

The training of the clergy was an important matter for the consideration of St. Patrick and his successors. Colleges or seminaries had to be established for the education and training of young levites to fit them for their future mission. St. Patrick again followed the practices that prevailed in France, where monasticism was the established system. The monks founded in that country schools and colleges in which the future clergy were trained in the practices of discipline and piety. Monasticism was thus introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick, and became an important factor in the Irish Church. Monasteries sprang up in different parts of the country. Clerics and others not only from Ireland but from Great Britain and the Continent flocked into them, and received gratis their education. Some of those institutions contained as many as 3,000 pupils. This may be the place to describe the origin of monasticism.


One of the areas looked at is Archaeology where we can find physical examples such as Temples, ritual objects, and statues, and other types of artefacts and burial places, which can tell us a little bit about the religious beliefs of the people of the time. It must be said that there is not a lot of archaeological clues but the few we have available to us are worthy of close analysis. 

In the case of the Celts it proves very little. As stated earlier Archaeologists contend that there are too few objects found in Ireland to prove any invasion of Celts actually occurred. Interesting, Geneticists support the Archaeologists theory. Geneticists say the Celts share D.N.A. and had a pre disposition to Cystic Fibrosis and were usually of the O type Blood Group.

In the 1960‘s there were Blood Group studies and the distribution of Blood types and the results may indicate where Celts located. Munster has the strongest distribution of Blood Type O and this may indicate the Celts densely populated this area. In the 1990‘s Studies In DNA And Chromosomes showed that Y Chromosomes are Inherited from the father while Mitochondrial DNA is Inherited from the Mother. However, this can not be deemed a totally reliable source for accurate information and most Scientists are dubious, to say the least, about the results of DNA research because samples have been contaminated both inside and outside of the laboratory.

In short, Genetics is far too young a discipline to draw any firm conclusions. Geneticists contend that there is little or no evidence to conclude that there was, in fact, a prehistoric Celtic invasion which leads us to the problem of why then do we speak a form of Celtic language. In point of fact we do know that C.400 CE when St. Patrick arrived on Irish soil he could communicate with the natives in some form of Celtic. 

Irish Historical Sources.

The Brehons

The start of Irish History is usually considered by historians to have happened the 5th century CE with the arrival of St. Patrick because with him came the first written documentation. The language spoken was Celtic and we know this because when St. Patrick arrived he could communicate with the natives. This documented history is our primary source of information in relation to early Irish society.

Our Main Sources For Documented History Are begin with Brehon Law which was a form of law brought about by tradition within the tribes. A sort of natural law that was similar from tribe to tribe. The law was enforced by local Judges known as Brehon. This law is best defined as Early Irish Law. These laws were, more or less, agreed upon by the people and are therefor based on customs, traditions and practises. The Bretons memorised the laws and the information was passed from father to son which made the Bretons a privileged class in early Irish society.

The Bretons were guardians of the law but it was the people, through custom and practise, which created it. It is also worth remembering that while the laws were not imposed they were practised. In the 5th Century AD Ireland was a Celtic country and the language spoken here was of Celtic origin. It is not yet finally established as to how the Celtic language arrived here but there are numerous theories but these are only theories. One of the best sources for exploration of Irish history is Early Irish Law. Also known as Brehon Law but scholars don‘t like this title because it suggests the laws were created by the Brehons and, in fact, this is not the case at all. The Brehons were the nobles of Early Irish society and were more guardians of the law then creators of it. Law was created through customs and traditions within a society and over time the Brehons committed these laws to memory and were practitioners of it. This skill was passed from father to son as time passed and thus the laws were carried from generation to generation prior to the arrival of literacy to the country.

When we think of Law today we think of it as being imposed. This was not the case in medieval times. The laws were brought about in the interests of the maintenance of the group that operated within it. The law came from the bottom up. It was the customs and practises of the ordinary people of the community. These were agreed upon by all as the best way to live their lives.
There is a whole range of laws that covered every aspect of society and these laws give us an excellent insight to medieval society. It is not a perfect source because there are no case histories as is the case today. Nothing was documented as to what happened in each case.
The study of Brehon law is actually relatively new. The first major steps were taken with the production of the six volume Ancient Laws of Ireland from 1865 to 1901.

The translations in these volumes are no longer considered to be wholly reliable. But they do represent a goodly part of the available Brehon law texts and they stimulated the slow, patient production of further scientific editions during the 20th century. The major breakthrough came in 1978 with the production of DA Binchy’s transcription of almost the entire corpus of vellum manuscript materials for Brehon law. These also fill six volumes. But they extend way beyond the selective coverage offered by the Ancient Laws of Ireland. Binchy’s Corpus Iuris Hibernici runs to 2343 pages (or around 1.5 million words of text).

It contains numerous ancient tracts and digests that are mostly in the Old Irish language of the 7th to 10th centuries. These are supplemented by glosses and commentaries in Middle Irish (dating to the end of the 12th century) and Early Modern Irish. (There are also occasional snippets of Latin.) Binchy’s Corpus Iuris Hibernici contains no translations. It is a scholarly transcription of the medieval manuscripts. However, the publication of Binchy’s work in 1978 came only two years after the completion of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language, which concentrates on the ancient and medieval forms of the language. And one year earlier, in 1975, an English translation of Thurneysen’s masterful Grammar of Old Irish was also published. Suddenly, scholars had ready access not only to the ancient legal materials themselves, but to the chief linguistic tools for their translation.

Since then, the acceleration in published research on Brehon law has been quite remarkable. By 1988 Professor Fergus Kelly of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies was able to publish his remarkably wide-ranging Guide to Early Irish Law. The first edition of Nery‘s Patterson’s Cattle Lords and Clansmen followed in 1991. More recent volumes include Robin Chapman Stacey’s The Road to Judgement: from Custom to Court in medieval Ireland and Wales (1994). In addition, numerous journal articles have appeared in the Irish journals Peritia, Ériu and The Irish Jurist (the leading Irish academic law journal, published by University College Dublin). What all this research has revealed is a legal system of extraordinary sophistication. The English common law only emerged with the development of a professional judiciary, and the emergence of a professional bar, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. But both had been part and parcel of Brehon law from at least the time of its earliest texts (composed in the 7th century). The development of degrees of intent in the English common law was a slow process. The concepts of accident and self-defence did not emerge until the 13th century; those of mistake and negligence finally took root in the 16th century. At that time the common law finally reached the level of development displayed in the Brehon law texts of almost a thousand years earlier. For example, the treatment of women under the ancient laws speaks to their sophistication: “The care which is evident for the individual personality of the woman in Irish marriage law is a widely shining landmark in this period of history as compared with the unrespected position of women in earlier times and in other societies.

The Annals Of The Four Masters

Our next source for Irish history are The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland are a chronicle of medieval Irish history. Compiled in the 17th Century in Co. Donegal. The task was to compile all the existing known history for future generations. They were put to writing in final form by the Four Masters in the Franciscan Monastery in Donegal, starting in 1632. The work was completed in 1636.

Many of the sources they drew from are no longer available. It tracks history from c.2000 BCE to c.1600 CE ―The Chronicle of Ireland is the modern name for a hypothesized collection of ecclesiastical annals recording events in Ireland from 432 to 911 AD. Several surviving annals share events in the same sequence and wording, until 911 when they continue separate narratives.

They include the Annals of Inisfallen, the Annals of Ulster, the Chronicon Scotorum, the Annals of Clonmacnoise, the Annals of Tigernach, the Annals of Roscrea, the Annals of Boyle, and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. “The Chronicle of Ireland” represents the scholarly consensus solution to this Gaelic synoptic problem.

Events are listed in separate entries under the heading of a single year. Most entries consist of only one or two sentences, and some years contain only one or two entries. The Viking raid on Iona Abbey in 806, in which the entire population of the abbey was massacred, is recorded with typical brevity: “The community of Iona was killed by the gentiles, that is sixty-eight (referring to the number of dead) There is no direct evidence for the identity of the Chronicle’s authors at any given point in time, but scholars are confident that it was produced by annalists working in churches and monasteries and was intended for an ecclesiastical audience.

The Chronicle was written in different places at different times; the earliest evidence for one of its authors places it in Iona sometime after 563, continuing until about 642. Around 639, another chronicle of uncertain origin was begun elsewhere and merged in with the Iona chronicle in the second half of the 7th century.

The chronicle was then continued until about 740. From about 740 to 911, the Chronicle’s annalist was working in the Irish midlands, probably in the midland province of Brega (sometimes Breagh) but possibly in the monastery at Clonard. Some scholars believe that work may have moved to Armagh by the beginning of the 9th century, and debate continues on this point. After 911, the Chronicle’s descendants break into two main branches: one in Armagh, which was integrated into the Annals of Ulster; and a “Clonmacnoise group” including the Annals of Clonmacnoise (an English translation), the Annals of Tigernach (fragmentary), the Chronicum Scotorum (an abbreviation of Tigernach), and the Annals of the Four Masters.

Most surviving witnesses to the Chronicle’s original content are descended from the Clonmacnoise chronicle. A large number of the Chronicle’s entries are obituaries. The cause of death was significant to the annalists as an indicator of the death’s “spiritual quality”; they felt it indicated whether the deceased would go to Heaven or Hell. After 800, records of Viking raids (as in the example above) also make up a large number of entries. Other entries include observations of astronomical events, such as a solar eclipse that took place on June 29, 512. Some events outside Ireland also appear in the Chronicle; during some parts of the eighth and ninth centuries, its chronology for certain events in England is more accurate than that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As of the middle 7th century, the Chronicle’s dating scheme “consisted of a kalend (Kl) followed, until at least the mid-seventh century, by the ferial of 1 January”. This scheme, and much of the Chronicle’s witness to world history prior to 400, was based on the chronicle of Rufinus of Aquileia who wrote in the early 5th century.*

(*Source: ‘The Chronology and Sources of the Early Irish Annals’ by D. Mc Carthy, Early Medieval Europe 10:3(2001)323-41.‖27

St. Patrick is rightly styled the Apostle of Ireland. The Faith, no doubt, was preached and known by many before he began his mission. It is recorded that an Irishman, a Roman soldier, was present at the Crucifixion, who, after the completion of his military service, returned home, preached the faith and converted many.

Christianity was solidly established in Britain and Gaul long before the coming of our Apostle; and it is quite certain that there was considerable intercourse between these countries and Ireland during the first centuries of our era, so the faith must have been made known and embraced by many. Paladius came some short time before St. Patrick, but, while he must have converted some, his mission was not a success. Patrick made his studies at Lerins, now St. Honorat, South of France, and next under St. Germanus.

Lerins was the alma mater of many bishops and saints. Being a relative of St. Martin of Tours, he must have spent some time at Marmoutier, a famous monastery founded by that saint. In those institutions he learned the discipline and constitution of the Church, and organised the Irish Church accordingly. The Church of France was even then divided into dioceses, and the dioceses sub-divided into parishes. Each diocese was territorial and governed by its own bishop.

This was the mode of Church government St. Patrick introduced into Ireland—an episcopal Church governed by successors of the Apostles. St. Patrick could not introduce all at once perfect church government. His principal work at first was to convert and baptise. As the tribal system then prevailed he adopted the policy of addressing himself first to the chiefs or heads of the tribes.

The conversion of a chief soon brought about the conversion of the whole tribe. When the chief and tribe were converted the next step was to appoint a bishop over the territory occupied by the tribe. Thus in the early Irish Church bishoprics in Ireland were conterminous with tribal lands. Our Saint did the best he could, but the plan was a bad one. In course of time bishops multiplied unduly. Some assert that there were one hundred bishops in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick, and long after; there were without any doubt at least fifty. This at the time was a necessary evil, for every tribe of any importance should have their own bishop, as they would not submit to the jurisdiction of a bishop belonging to another tribe. Thus the nation was kept divided.

The multiplicity of bishops gave offence to the rest of Christendom, and at the Synod of Rathbrasael, held 1115 A.D., they were reduced to 26, besides Dublin and Waterford, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury—28 in all. There are 26 dioceses at present. The system of tribal dioceses produced another evil effect: members of the families of the chiefs were raised to the episcopate without the necessary qualifications. The abuse was carried so far that many of the occupants had received no orders at all and enjoyed the benefices without performing the duties attached to them. All this produced nepotism, corruption, and disorders in the Irish Church. At the time of St. Patrick, however, it would seem that many of the bishops wereforeigners—Britons, Franks, and Romans. This would appear from that important document known as a Catalogue of the Orders of the Sts. in Hibernia. After giving the number of the first Order of Sts. the text adds: “And these were for the most part Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth.

Here begins the Catalogue of the Orders of the Saints in Hibernia according to different periods:


The first Order of the Saints was in the time of Patrick, and then all the bishops, 350 in number, were famous and holy and full of the Holy Spirit. They were founders of churches, worshipped one head, Christ, and followed one leader, Patrick. They had one tonsure, one celebration of Mass, and celebrated one Easter, namely, after the vernal equinox. And what was excommunicated by one church, all excommunicated. They did not object to having women as housekeepers and companions, because founded on the rock, Christ, they did not fear the wind of temptation. This Order of Saints lasted during four reigns: to wit, from the time of Laoghaire, the son of Niall, who reigned thirty-seven years; and Olioll, styled Moll, who reigned thirty years; and Lughaidh, who reigned seven years; and this Order of Saints lasted to the very end of Tuathal Maelgarbh, and all remained throughout holy bishops, and these were for the most part, Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth.


The Second Order of the Saints was like this. In this second Order now there were few bishops and many priests, 300 in number. They worshipped one head, God, and had different rituals or rites of celebration, and different rules of living, and celebrated one Easter: to wit the 14th of the moon. And they made a uniform tonsure from ear to ear. They shunned having women as companions and housekeepers, and excluded them from the monasteries. This lasted for four reigns also …. Those (saints) received the ritual of celebrating Mass from holy men of Britain; to wit, from St. David and St. Gildas and St. Cadoc. And their names are these: to wit, Finian, Endeus, Colman, Congal, Aedh, Kieran, Columba, Brendan, Brechen, Caineoh, Caemgin, Laidrean, Laisre, Lugeus, Barrideus, and many others who were in the second grade of the Saints.
The third Order of the Saints was like this. Now they were holy priests and few bishops, 100 in number, who used to dwell in desert places. They lived on vegetables and water and on the alms of the faithful, and held earthly things of no account, and wholly shunned back-biting and slander. These had different rules (of living), and different rituals of celebration, and also different tonsures, for some had the coronal tonsure and some the hair. And they had a different Paschal Solemnization, for some celebrated on the 14th and others on the 13th moon. This Order lasted through four reigns…..And their names are—Petran, bishop; Ultan, bishop; Colman, bishop; Edan, bishop; Lomnan, bishop; Senach, bishop. These were all bishops and many more. And these now were the priests—Fechan, priest; Airendan, Failan, Commian, Ernan, Cronan, and many other priests.

Note that the first Order was holiest, the second very holy, the third holy. The first glows like the sun, with the heat of charity; the second like the moon sheds a pallid light; the third shines with the bright hues of the dawn. When a bishop was appointed over the new diocese his first and most important work was the construction of a church. The churches of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries were very small and rudely built. The first churches were of wood and circular in shape, and there are 110 remains of these, but we have the remains of stone churches of the period, and we find they were built without cement, and the stones used were very large, from 6 to 17 feet long, which would take four men to lift.

The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick furnishes us with the dimensions of the churches he used to build:—”In this wise then St. Patrick measured the ferta, namely, seven score feet in the enclosure, and seven and twenty in the great house (tig mor), and seventeen feet in the chule (kitchen), and seven feet in the aregal, and in that wise it was he used to found the congabala always.” The ” great house ” was the church, which at the time was circular, and the diameter used to be 27 feet. The roof was formed by overlapping. The doorway was placed at the west-end and covered by a lintel and was broader at the bottom.
Churches with arches and semi-circular window heads were erected in the early part of the 9th century. Recessed semi-circular arches belong to the 10th century. The walls built in this period lose much of massive stone work, and are higher, and cement was used. The windows exhibit a slight recess upon the exterior, and were of greater size. As style advances the sides of the doorways become cut into a series of recesses, chevron and other decorations are commonly found, and various mouldings of doors and windows become rich and striking. The term Irish Romanesque has been applied to this style of architecture. The transition can be traced to the beginning of the nth century, but was not fully developed till a century later. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, decorated art reached a high state of perfection in this country. Cormac MacCuillenen’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel, which was consecrated in the year 1134, presents a specimen of Irish architecture which has not been excelled. Donough O’Brien, King of Thomond, founded the cathedral, 1152. It consists of nave and chancel, with a square tower at each side, 55 and 50 feet high. The walls of nave and chancel are ornamented with a row of semi-circular arches slightly recessed, and enriched with chevron, billet, and mouldings. We have remains of many churches scattered through the country which exhibit the highest degree of art. These and the beautifully sculptured crosses and metal work which still remain afford ample evidence of the skill the Irish attained in various departments of art prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion.
The training of the clergy was an important matter for the consideration of St. Patrick and his successors. Colleges or seminaries had to be established for the education and training of young levites to fit them for their future mission. St. Patrick again followed the practices that prevailed in France, where monasticism was the established system. The monks founded in that country schools and colleges in which the future clergy were trained in the practices of discipline and piety. Monasticism was thus introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick, and became an important factor in the Irish Church. Monasteries sprang up in different parts of the country. Clerics and others not only from Ireland but from Great Britain and the Continent flocked into them, and received gratis their education. Some of those institutions contained as many as 3,000 pupils. This may be the place to describe the origin of monasticism.

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of political warfare. While the term propaganda has acquired a strongly negative connotation by association with its most manipulative and jingoistic examples, propaganda in its original sense is neutral, and may also be construed to refer to uses which are generally held to be relatively benign or innocuous. In the study of Irish history propaganda sources are, for example, the words of the pagan Bards as transcribed by the Monastic Monks, such words may not have been without Bias and, as such, contain some propaganda.

One of the areas we will be looking at is archaeology where we can find physical examples such as Temples, ritual objects, and statues, and other types of artefacts and burial places, which can tell us a little bit about the religious beliefs of the people of the time. It must be said from the outset that there is not a lot of archaeological clues but the few we have available to us are worthy of close analysis. The application of Genetics as a reliable source of stabling history is not a reliable one for many reasons.

In the case of the Celts it proves very little. As stated earlier Archaeologists contend that there are too few objects found in Ireland to prove any invasion of Celts actually occurred. Interesting, Geneticists support the Archaeologists theory. Geneticists say the Celts share D.N.A. and had a pre disposition to Cystic Fibrosis and were usually of the ‘O’  type Blood Group. In the 1960‘s there were Blood Group studies and the distribution of Blood types and the results may indicate where Celts located. Munster has the strongest distribution of Blood Type O and this may indicate where the Celts had located. In the 1990‘s Studies In DNA And Chromosomes showed that ‘Y’ Chromosomes are Inherited from the father while Mitochondrial DNA is Inherited from the Mother.

However, this can not be deemed a totally reliable source for accurate information and most Scientists are dubious, to say the least, about the results of DNA research because samples have been contaminated both inside and outside of the laboratory. In short, Genetics is far too young a discipline to draw any firm conclusions. Geneticists contend that there is little or no evidence to conclude that there was, in fact, a prehistoric Celtic invasion which leads us to the problem of why then do we speak a form of Celtic language. In point of fact we do know that C.400 CE when St. Patrick arrived on Irish soil he could communicate with the natives in some form of Celtic. From the point of his arrival history started to be documented.

Celtic Myths And Sagas

Celtic Myths And Sagas

Through the centuries many events and stories change in the retelling for many reasons. Exaggeration, bias or perhaps hostility to the subject matter or the outcome of the event led to inevitable distortion and misrepresentation of the reality. We must allow for this fact as we study ancient documents relating the events of the distant past.
Manuscripts started to emerge from Monks and Monasteries hundreds, and in some cases a thousand years or more after certain events were documented by them. One can only imagine what happened to these stories before the Monks and Scribes began to recount them in document form. It is a difficult job to interpret these stories. Nonetheless, these stories are a rich source of information as to the beliefs and religions of the Celts.

The Cathach

We find our information in manuscripts and the earliest of these is the Cathach of St. Columba of Iona which is kept in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin and comes from the late 6th or early 7th Century in date, almost two hundred years after St. Patrick arrived in Ireland (c.400 CE) and is a copy of the Old Testament Psalms and written in Latin. The manuscript known as the ‘Cathach’ ‘, a psalter or book of the Psalms. It is conceivable that this, the earliest surviving Irish manuscript, was written in the lifetime of the saint, if not as traditionally claimed by Columba himself. (Columba died in 597 CE.) The decorative features which characterised the later magnificent manuscripts are already present in simple form in the Cathach.

Book Of Armagh

The earliest known manuscript of Native Stories was The Book of Armagh (C.808 CE) and was kept in a leather satchel. It was a small personal copy of the Old Testament written for the leader of the Armagh community that included a number of stories about St. Patrick and written in Irish and Latin and this makes this document of great help to us. The St. Patrick that emerges from this manuscript is far different from the St. Patrick we learn of from his own manuscripts (St. Patrick‘s Confession, which appears to be a genuine copy written by him). In the former he emerges as a sort of mystical warrior, a hero figure, and in the latter a hard working gentle and humble man. What is really important here is the fact that The Book of Armagh is the first book we have that is a book written in Irish by Irish people. This demonstrates that even though the stories in this manuscript are about Saints some of the material to do with them, appear to be borrowed from earlier stories of earlier Christian mythology.

Book Of Dun Cow

The earliest manuscript relating stories of Ireland‘s warrior society that we know of is The Book Of The Dun Cow which was compiled in 1106AD, The Book of Leinster around 1150AD at the same time as another book known simply as Rawlinson‘s Manuscript.
The Book of Ballymote was written in 1390/91 and was produced by scribes and remains to this day at Trinity College, Dublin and is an invaluable source of information for historians.
We must remember when we start to interpret ancient texts that three dates need to be applied:

1. The date of when the text was published.

2. The date the text was written

3. The date of when the story of which the text relates is set.

When we look at, for example, a manuscript written in the 14th century, the events depicted in this hypothetical manuscript may be copies of earlier texts written, let‘s say in the 13th Century, but relating to events in the 10th Century and thus confusion and disinformation is entirely possible. The first date we can be sure of and the second date more difficult because they may be copies of copies and so on and so forth, copying was very common in ancient Ireland and thus the third date is completely wild because the storytellers set things in the ancient past at supposed dates. All we really know about the third date is that this was what the story tellers choose as the date. Thus, for the most part, the real dates of events are beyond our knowledge.
However, many of these stories are mythological which renders the date unimportant. The stories can still tell us many things about the culture, traditions, religions and beliefs of ancient Irish society and this is where these myths and sagas have their real significance.
The earliest known tales of Irish tradition in terms of language are from the 8th Century just before the arrival of the Vikings. We will be looking at four different strands of Mythology (A modern classification techniques which was different from pre-modern methods. We will characterise the stories by the Characters involved rather than the events they describe which was how the pre-modern documents categorised them.

1. The Ulster Cycle.
2. The Fenian Cycle.
3. The Cycle Of The Kings
4. The Mythological Cycle.

The Mythological Cycle is a cycle is very much concerned with tales from the Book of Invasion which documented how various tribes came and settled in Ireland down through the centuries. Our interest in this book for now is what it documents in relation to a tribe known as the Tua De Danaan. They are portrayed as a tribe of people with magical powers but realistically we can infer with some confidence that these were the Gods and Goddesses of pre-Christian Ireland. There are no dating indications with this grouping and we can not imply dates but we can have early or late stories in the Mythological Cycle. These stories were mainly composed by Christians so they naturally embedded religious elements into the stories.

The medieval manuscripts, primarily the Lebor Gabála Érenn imply that the first ever groups of immigrants who arrived in Ireland were some of the descendants of Noah. They tell of a woman named Cessair, a granddaughter of Noah who arrived here along with forty-nine women and three men prior to the Biblical flood which was to eventually sweep all of them away with the exception of Fintan who survives in various guises by becoming a shape-shifter and turning into a salmon for the duration of the flood and eventually, after a series of animal transformations, he becomes a man again and tells his people‘s story.
The next group to settle in Ireland were led by Partholon who supposedly arrived after the Biblical Flood with a thousand followers who multiplies to four thousand and then all were dead within a week after a plague. All of which were buried in Tamhlacht (Tallaght) – the plague grave. Interestingly, many of the stories were tied to real place names and this gave them an element of substance. The story of Partholon was relayed by the lone survivor of the plague and his name was Tuan mac Cairill through a series of animal transformations he survived into Christian times and relayed his tale to St. Finnian. (The story is documented in The Book of Dun Cow).

Tuan told St. Finnian that he witnessed many of the waves of invaders including the Nemedians, Firbolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. He claimed he crawled off to a cave as an old man and went to sleep. When he awoke he was a young stag and this process kept repeating itself each time he became old and he was reborn as a boar, an eagle and eventually as a salmon. During his life as a salmon he was eaten by the wife of a chieftain and passed into her womb to be reborn as Tua mac Cairill (son of Cairill.)

The tale of the Nemed was recounted in some detail to St. Finnian by Tuan. They were the third group (according to the Book of Invasions) to come to Ireland. The country had been empty for many years when Nemed sailed to Ireland to settle at Tory island. His wife Macha died and was buried at Ard Macha (Armagh).

He went to battle with the Formorians (a divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in ancient times) and was victorious but soon after he fell victim to plague, along with 3,000 others and died. The survivors separate into three different tribes, Fir Bolg, Fir Domnainn, Fir Galeoin and all depart Ireland (Eriu as it was known then) to different lands. The Fir Bolg went to Scandinavia and learned magic and decided to return to Ireland where they ruled until the arrival of the fifth group to settle here, according to Lebor Gabhala Erenn, the Tuatha De Danaan.

They went to war with the Fir Bolg in Sligo and the latter were defeated but The Tuatha De Danaan was led by their first King Nuada who lost an arm in the battle which meant he was no longer eligible for Kingship, according to the rules of the Tuatha De Danaan, and he was replaced by King Bres.

The new king was not at all popular because he lacked generosity and hospitality. Under his tyrannical rule times were not good in the Kingdom of Ireland and revolution was inevitable. The people started to manufacture weapons and in time Bres was removed from Kingship and Nuada, who had had his arm restored by physicians, and he ruled for many more years. He eventually became known as Nuada of the Silver Arm and is, perhaps, the statue we still see at Tandragee in County Armagh. Bres, assisted by the Formorian Balor attempted to retake the Kingship and war followed. When the youthful Lugh joined Nuada‘s court he stood down to allow the youthful warrior to lead the attack against the Formorians and during this battle Nuada was killed and beheaded but Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory.

Irish Evidence To Celts.



In County Roscommon, near the village of Tulsk is the Cruachan which is a complex of archaeological sites in what is described as the capital of Connachta. It hosted some of the main ritual gatherings in ancient times and is important to mythologists as the seat of Ailill and Medb (the intoxicating one – related to Meade), King and Queen of the Connachta in the Ulster cycle. This site is also known as the ‘Cave of the Cat‘, an entrance to the other world and at Halloween all sorts of spirits came out of this portal to and from the underworld. Another interesting way of tying Archaeology to Mythology is that here at Cruachan were found a number of Ogham Stones; the first alphabet in Ireland, dating back to 5th or 6th Century and names were recorded on these stones in an earlier form of Irish and it is quite unusual to have mythological figures recorded on stones.

The Ring Barrows

The Ring Barrows are mounds of earth heaped over burial places in use from Neolithic times, though they were typically of the Bronze Age and usually covered a single or at most two people buried in each one. We don‘t find swords, jewellery or tools in these types of graves which implies that they occurred prior to the coming of the Celts with their tradition of the burial of possessions with the deceased. Ring barrows date back prior to the Celts in Ireland and are another good argument against the theory that a huge wave of Celts showed up into Ireland because continental burial traditions were far different from those used at the Ring barrows.

Petrie Crown

1. Petrie Crown (George Pitrie) – This piece of high status metalwork was very much an elaborate headdress and extremely well made piece of La Tene style sophisticated work discovered in County Cork and influenced by Greek art forms. It exhibits the repetitive symmetrical design popular with both Hallstatt and La Tene craftsmen.

Bann Disc

2. Bann Disc – A bronze disc about four inches in diameter found during digging in River Bann in 1939. The design features of an Irish version of Celtic art. We have no clue what it is but it has been speculated that it may have been some kind of warrior jewellery piece.

Tandragee Idol

3. Tandragee Idol. – Found in Co. Armagh this curious piece may have deeper significance than just a common statue. The nubs of horns on this figures head and the cross arm are directly related to what experts suggest may be an image of Nuada, popular King of the Tuatha De Danaan, who had his arm cut off by the Firbolgs during a battle for control of Ireland, but later has the arm replaced by a silver arm by skilled physicians. If so, then here is an example of reality intermingling with mythology.

Tricephalic Head

4. Tricephalic Head – Depicts three faces that probably represented a ‘Trinity’ of some kind. This dispels the popular myth that St. Patrick used the shamrock to demonstrate what a trinity was to the pagan natives because they already knew what a trinity was. It may have represented three divine persons in one or it showed a God who could see in three directions (past, present and future perhaps) at once. We can only speculate as to which.

Beltany Stone Circle

5. Beltany Stone Head – With it‘s ‘Bealtaine’ inference and found in Donegal at Beltany Stone Circle the name implies the festival of May 1st (Bealtaine) which may mean it was some kind of sacrifice and dates from the Bronze Age and thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Celts. We cannot rely totally on the evidence presented to us by Archaeologists because stones are silent and all we can do is try to interpret their meanings as best we can but such interpretations are always left open for further investigation and thinking. We must then look elsewhere for further evidence and thus we turn to the early Irish myths and sagas.

Celtic Conundrum.


It was during the Iron Age that Celtic culture was first introduced to Ireland. There were both similarities and differences between Irish Celtic culture and continental cultures of that period. Archaeology and history combine to give us a vivid picture of the Continental Celts but is that picture accurate when it comes to Ireland? Were the Irish really part of that culture?
It must be remembered that there were two different Celtic cultures coming from Western Europe during the Iron Age, the Hallstatt Celts, the earlier ones and the La Tène Celts who arrived much later. There is little evidence of the Hallstatt Celts in Ireland and with the exception of a few small artefacts such as the swords and bits of jewellery that tell us very little about how they got here and where they came from. Even if they were made in Ireland they were copies of European designs. But, chances are, they may have been imported.

Hallstatt, Germany.

In the period 600 to 300 BCE Ireland would have been in line with the introduction of Iron in Western Europe in the Hallstatt period. This is often described by historians as the Irish Dark Age because very little is known about this period in ancient times but there is some evidence to suggest that the Hallstatt Culture had arrived in some form by virtue of the fact that implements made of Iron began to appear.
These implements indicated the presence of Iron in Ireland and include items such as the Gundlingen Sword, a bronze copy of an Iron sword found in Athlone, Leech Fibula, a broach found in County Clare. But the existence of these items is not really evidence of the coming of tribes in the in the early Iron Age to Ireland.

La Tene Celts

We do know that from the little use of various metals, including Iron, that it is highly unlikely that there was any kind of invasion of Celtic culture but there was some influence. In about 300BC we start to see the influence of the La Tène Celts and this had a big impact on Ireland. Items such as the Knock buffer Torc which was similar to what one would expect to find in the Rhineland (the general name for areas of Germany along the river Rhine). Other objects considerably more La Tène start to appear after 200BC and this suggests to us that there is an influx of Celtic culture into Ireland and manifesting itself in art, jewellery and tools. But what can this tell us about the people?

Firstly, from the evidence we can see that Celtic religion is starting to thrive in Ireland and furthermore, because many inscriptions are in the Celtic language, the arrival of Gaelic to Irish shores has occurred. Interestingly, we don‘t find great graveyards or chariots or other significant symbols of Celtic cultures to the same degree as in Western Europe and this seems to imply that it was small groups who came to the country and because they were skilled with Iron the rest of the culture quickly became Celtic. It is difficult to interpret what really happened but the small group‘ theory, such as the Brigantes, seems to be the most credible theory. In any case, Ireland shows very little evidence for mass migration.


The relatively small amount of Torcs, necklaces and jewellery discovered further implies that those who were coming here were part of the elite classes who enjoyed finery and functionality in their adornments. A brilliant example of this is the Broighter Hoard of County Derry. This find offered good evidence that the richest, most powerful people were coming from Britain and Western Europe.

Why was such very valuable jewellery buried in the ground, not only in Derry, but at random places all over Ireland? Historians suggest that perhaps it was buried as an offering to the Gods and this implies that other world spirits were being acknowledged and sacrifices including very expensive (in terms of time and effort and craftsmanship) trinkets were handed over to the spirits for one reason or another. In Loughcrew, Co. Meath, hundreds of decorated cat’s bones were found and this not only gave an indication of sacrificial ceremonies but also pointed us in the direction that places of burial were used and reused throughout the centuries by numerous different cultures. It begs the question were the people of the latter burials attempting to reconnect in some way with those who were buried in these sites in the past? Some of the expanses of time which occurred between burials can be thousands of years; yet, these sacred sites were being used over and over again.

Turoe Stone

The Turoe Stone located in Co. Galway is one of the most instantly recognisable examples of ancient art of the La Tene culture and is assignable to c.300BC. Its phallic shape implies it may have been in some way associated to a fertility cult. Other stones with La Tène art Castlegrange, (Roscommon), Kilcluggin (Cavan), Mullaghmast (Kildare) and Derrykeighan (Antrim). These were carved between 2nd Century and 1st Century BCE and have been likened to Delphi in Ancient Greece. Delphi was considered to be the very center of the ancient world and here there were similar phallic like stones of similar age. This suggests a clear link between Greek and Celtic cultures.

Lisnacrogher Scabbard

Other pieces of evidence that have come to light in recent decades include the Lisnacrogher Scabbard and numerous other swords, the Loughnashade trumpet, Four trumpets were found but only One survives, the others are supposed to have been given as gifts to visiting foreign nobility. The Corlea Bog Road in County Longford is a tantalising discovery dating back to around c.150BC– the age of the road was ascertained by Archaeologists by checking the age rings in the wood in the Oak used for the actual track way. What makes this so interesting, apart from its immediately obvious historical significance, is that it may link history with mythology because it suggests comparisons with the myth of Etain where King Eochu Airem sets Midir tasks such as planting a forest and building a road across a bog where none had ever been. It‘s fascinating that something in reality ties in so well with mythology.

The Dorsey, County Armagh

The Dorsey, County Armagh is an earthwork, great big banks, constructed in the Iron Age and part of that is one of the most significant finds to demonstrate the clear existence of a strong La Tène culture was what has been named the Black Pigs Dyke. It consists of a shallow ditch and seems to have been defensive perimeters. This is provoking some debate in relation to reality and mythology in Irish history too because stories in mythology regarding raids and battles going on around these types of tribal construction.

Black Pigs Dyke

It is important for us to look closely at the Archaeology of the Iron Age to discover what it may tell us about the so called Mythological Cycle. When we look at areas such as the Hill of Tara we can immediately see significant spiritualistic influences. There are similar sites worth looking at such as Black Pigs Dyke, Dorsey and the Doon of Drumsna.

Hill Of Tara

The Hill of Tara is significant spiritually and is essentially a series of earthworks. It was important spiritually, politically and religiously. It covered a multitude of different dates and one of its most historically significant locations is the Mound of the Hostages. In the Bronze Age it was an important burial ground and in the Iron Age it retained its importance and continued to be used for religious and spiritual purposes.

Mound Of The Hostages

The Mound of the Hostages was a Stone Age tomb and burials of high status burials took place here. In the Iron Age it was also used for the burial of nobility. It is of some significance that the storytellers (Dindsenchas) who assigned the names to these places merely speculated and perhaps made things up about what actually occurred at Tara. It is a place that was used over and over again and each culture gave it new stories. Inevitably, over centuries, fact was convoluted by fiction and mythology emerged.

Stone Of Destiny

When we look at the famous Lia Fail (Stone of Destiny) at Tara, it was said, that when a true King stood on it that it would cry out to confirm the presence of nobleness. This demonstrates elements of mythology and reality and complicates the true purpose of the site. In fact, Lia Fail (best known for its phallic shape) was also known as Bun Fhearghasa (Fergus’s Penis) which may very well be a symbol of fertility, strength, leadership and Kingship.
Tara is a very complex place with lots of differences influences from different times and was shaped by each culture by its own influences. It throws up unusual questions because when it was excavated some Roman relics were found there. Some important figures from History that are very much associated with Tara are Cormac, Maeve (Medb) and St. Patrick. Tara has remained as a site of extreme importance throughout History and that is still the case today.

Emhain Macha

Tara was the centre of Ireland which, at the time constituted not four but five provinces which were Crachain (Connaught), Caiseal (Munster), Leinster (Dun Ailinne & capital was Kildare) and Ulster (Emhain Macha – capital was Navan) and Cuige (Meath) or the fifth province of which Tara (Tamhair) was the capital. The borders of these provinces shifted and changed in time until Meath was absorbed into Leinster. One of the more unusual places of interest at Tara was Eamhain Macha (Navan Fort) which was a large structure built at c.98BC and what was different about this was that shortly after it was built it was immediately destroyed by fire. Nobody knows was the entire structure built as a sacrifice to God or if it was a deliberate act of destruction. We know it was a temple of some kind. Maeve, Queen of Ulster was at war when her enemy at the time so it‘s not beyond the realms of possibility that it was a deliberate destruction of the temple.
In the medieval period they imagined that Tara was the palace of a King and it was the centre of the Kingdom of Ulster. Conchobhar Mac Nessa allegedly lived here according to mythology and thus Tara became the centre of the Ulster Cycle of Mythological stories.

Celtic Religious Festivals.


We can infer certain things about the religious beliefs of the Celts from the nature of their festivals. To get accurate information about these festivals historians usually turn to the Coligny Calendar which appears to be written in Gaulish by the people of France before the coming of the Romans and this language continued on alongside Latin into the 5th century.

The calendar was clearly influenced by Romans in that, although it was written in Gaulish it used the Roman alphabet. Romans had kept calendars and the Coligny Calendar is based on a Roman prototype. It is what is called a Lunisolar calendar which meant it was based on both the Moon and the Sun. The months would go by the movements of the Moon but every two and half years they would put in an extra month and this would keep it on track. It seems, according to the calendar, that the first month was called Samonios (Summer End) and if we are to interpret this correctly then we may conclude that the Solar year began in Halloween (October 31st to November 1st) which ties in well with Caesar‘s idea that when the Celts celebrated time they celebrated the dark before the light (night before day – a festival began at sundown of a given day and end at sundown of the following day.) It follows then that if the day began with the dark half it is fair to conclude that the year began with the dark half beginning at Halloween.

Halloween was clearly a major festival in Ireland in pre-Christian times and Samonios was considered to be the beginning of the Celtic year. The months in the Calendar were divided into two halves and were also arranged into lucky – 30 day months and unlucky months. They described the lucky months as ‘Mat‘ and the latter as ‘Anm‘ or ‘not good‘.

The whole cycle runs for about thirty years and then starts over again.

To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. It is also reflected in their year beginning with the festival Samhain (Halloween) when nature appears to be dying down.

The Months were as follows:

1. Samonios – Seed Fall – Oct/Nov

2. Dvmannosios – Darkest Depths – Nov/Dec

3. Rivros –Dec/Jan – Cold Time

4. Anagantios – Jan/Feb – Stay Home Time

5. Ogronios – Feb/Mar – Ice Time

6. Cvtios (Sonnocingos) – Mar/Apr – Windy Time

7. Giamonios – Apr/May – Shoots Show

8. Simivisionnacos – May/Jun – Bright Time

9. Eqvos – June/July – Horse Time

10. Elembivios – July/Aug – Claim Time

11. Edrinios – Aug/Sept – Arbitration Time

(The translations are based on those of Caitlin Matthews)

When we study the Coligny Calendar we can see certain dates are marked. It is thought that these marks indicate important points in the Celtic year. When we look at Irish tradition we see that these same dates are included in the Irish Celtic calendar:

1. Samhain – Oct 31st – Halloween.

2. Bealtaine – May 1st – Bonfire Night.

3. Lughnasa – Aug 1st – Lughnasa.

4. Imbolc – Feb 1st – St. Brigid‘s Day. (1st Day Of Spring)

12. Cantlos – Sept/Oct-Song Time

Gaulish Influence On Celts

Sculpture Of An Armoured Torc-Wearing Gaul


Generally speaking the basic tenet of Celtic religion was polytheist (belief in many Gods) as opposed to monotheist. We can clearly see from the number of Gods worshipped by the ancient tribes that they were polytheists. It seems that they were also an animist culture – which means they believed that not only people but also animals, places and objects had a soul. They had basically an inherent spiritual presence of some kind. But we see that they worshipped in places of natural beauty which implies they were close to nature in their religions. We find evidence for ritual objects in ritual places and vice-versa. They imbued the world around them with religious significance. Things like the sky and the sun would have been associated with religious ideas. They had a concept of the underworld. They communicated with the underworld through the burial of objects and this was their way of interacting with the realm of the dead which they clearly acknowledged.

Sacred spots in the landscape included rivers and springs, which seemed to have great importance both in Irish and Gaulish religion. Rivers are normally associated with Goddesses; all the rivers of Ireland are given grammatically female names. For example, the River Shannon was associated with the Goddess Sionna.

The people for the most part were rural agrarians and this comes through in their deities of fertility, nature and agriculture and similar themes. Animals were also important to the tribes and we see this when we look at the God Artio (a sacred Bear), dogs and wolves held great importance too, probably associated with the warrior tradition in Celtic society. There was a warrior class within Celtic society and war and the creation of war was a significant part of life.

They had specific sites for religious practise and worship and they named these locations Nemeton (sacred place amongst the Oaks) which is related to the Gaelic words for holy and place. It was in such forests that they conducted their rituals. There is a very interesting account of Druid rituals to do with Oaks and this is by the 1st Century CE natural historian Pliny who recounts that; “The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon. Hailing the moon in a native word that means healing all things, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.

A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.

This testimony is much debated and arguably fanciful on Pliny‘s behalf but it can still be accepted at face value. There is very little written about the Druids so it remains one of the few pieces of documented testimony available and as such has some merit.

We can conclude from Pliny‘s evidence that Mistletoe is sacred amongst the Celts. Further to this we also find in certain pillars and statutes we see embedded carvings of mistletoe and in one case we even find what has been interpreted as a crown of mistletoe leaves.

We also find great importance was given to bog lands and lakes which implied that natural water was extremely important to them. They often placed objects of religious significance into the water perhaps by way of returning a gift for the gifts given by water. (Other sacred elements were the Sky, the Sun – the wheel in the sky – and Lighting and Thunder). Danu was an important God of water and the fertility it brings about. Moisture and fertility went hand in hand and the Gods, such as Danu (The Danube), had rivers and other expanses of water named after them. One of the more important Celtic Goddess was Sequena (fast flowing one) and she was a Goddess of healing and water and often depicted standing in a boat. In 2nd Century BCE there was a shrine dedicated to her.

In fact many of the offerings, over 900 in all, found at her shrine indicated that it was a shrine of healing (as in Lourdes). The relics were mostly statues of body parts. Interestingly there were also statues of internal body parts such as livers and lungs which remains a mystery as to how they could have been depicted. In short, she was perhaps one of the most important of many of the European River Goddess and very much worshiped. These cults and customs may have come about from the fact that the Gauls were animists (everything had a soul) and that included rivers and these souls are the basis of these deities. It is possible that local deities eventually became bigger deities through word of mouth and thus, Goddesses evolved.

Some other shrines or temples have been discovered and one of the most notable one is known as Roquepertuse which is near Marseille, then Marcillary, a Greek town, in Southern France. The statuary discovered here was Celtic in origin. Evidence suggests that because few homes were found nearby that this was not a place of general worship but one used exclusively by the Druids themselves.

Yet another shrine of note was Gournay Sur Aronde in Northern France was a site similar to Stonehenge and was near a marchland and excavators found that a perimeter was built round it and within the area they were digging pits and burying Oxon. These animals may have been sacrificed. The reason why Oxon were sacrificed was to ensure new herds would thrive. What is interesting here is the fact that excavators found human remains which implies that human sacrifice was not beyond the Celts. On this particular site a number of pillars were constructed and on spiked on top of these poles they had warriors. It suggests that both people and animals were slaughtered at this site and then sacrificed. It seemed that the site had a military theme to it but it remains uncertain whether the humans who were sacrificed here were tribe members or enemies or victims of war. There was also weaponry destroyed and buried in the ground and so we know that these weapons were being ritually damaged and perhaps the souls destroyed or somehow rendered powerless in this world. Over 500 warriors were sacrificed and buried at Gournay Sur Aronde.

Decapitation of those sacrificed was a very common practise and at sites such as Gournay Sur Aronde many of the bodies excavated had their heads chopped off. No real significant conclusions can be drawn from this fact because this practise by modern standards is barbaric but perhaps this was not the case at all for the Celts. It may very well have been the case that the already deceased warriors were decapitated as a matter of honour. We can‘t know if such an honour was something the warriors wanted, it is possible, and maybe decapitation was part of the burial process for a warrior. There is evidence to suggest that it may not have been against the persons will because it may have been part of their religious belief. Maybe they considered decapitation to be part of a greater good or way to be united with the Gods in the next world. In short, the process of decapitation does not imply barbarism or bloodlust. With the passage of time what seems barbaric to one society may very well have been natural to another. There is no real evidence to suggest either way. Other cultures were also carrying out beheadings as much as the Celts. It was a way of life. We are not entirely sure if in Celtic tradition the beheading of somebody clearly indicated a barbaric act. It is possible that in their culture it may have been a way of honouring them, or a cult tradition but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this was also another form of human sacrifice in the fact that decapitation seemed to be commonplace. Scholars are somewhat divided on this point but there is strong evidence that it did definitely take place. If it was not an object of veneration the head seemed to have symbolically represented the whole person and thus the taking of the head perhaps meant somehow disempowering the whole person. Livy (a Roman Historian 59BC/AD17 – Titus Livius) records that in 216 BCE a Roman general called Postumius met his end at the hands of the Boii. (A Gallo-Celtic Tribe located in Central Europe but mostly in Bavaria, Bohemia) After he was killed they: stripped his corpse, severed the head, and bore their prize in triumph to their most sacred temple. There, according to their habit, they cleaned it, decorated the skull with gold and employed it as a sacred vessel for the pouring of libations for the priests and acolytes of the temple to drink from.‖15 From this we can ascertain that beheading should not be seen as entirely barbaric, it may have been done out of a mark of respect for warriors but this is very unlikely.

Diodorus Siculus, (A Greek historian) in the 1st century had this to say about Celtic head-hunting: “They cut of the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold; thus displaying what is only a barbarous kind of magnanimity, for it is not a sign of nobility to refrain from selling the proofs of one’s valour. It is rather true that it is bestial to continue one’s hostility against a slain fellow man.”16

So obviously the Celts were being judged pretty harshly by implying that the Celts continued their hostility towards those they conquered by keeping their heads as trophies. There is some direct evidence for this as well. When we look at some of the statuary we find niches are often cut into stone and heads were put into these niches. Whether these were the skulls of persons captured in war or part of the group or tribe we are not entirely sure and so we can only see it as a piece of evidence in defence of what the Romans were saying at the time.

The pillar at Entremont has heads carved into it and there were skulls found in this place and there were holes in the skulls which suggested that they may have been pierced and descended on spikes of some kind.

Further evidence of the use of heads as objects of adoration can be found in Ireland, specifically the famous triple Corleck Head which has three faces on it. Whether this represents the trinity or some kind of God we don‘t know. But it probably recognises some kind of cult activity.

Celtic Gods.

The Druid priests of the Celts did not write down the stories of their gods and goddesses, but instead transmitted them orally, so our knowledge of the early Celtic deities is limited. Romans of the first century B.C. recorded the Celtic myths and then later, after the introduction of Christianity to the British Isles, the Irish monks of the 6th century and Welsh writers later wrote down their traditional stories. Here are some of these Gods. Some of them were stolen and raised to Sainthood by Catholicism in order to begin the conversion of Ireland. Those left behind (according to legend) were cast underground and turned into Leprechauns.  

Gods Of The Celts.


1. Lugos: There are hundreds of inscriptions across Europe and Britain to a God known as Lugos whose name is dedicated to Contracts and Commerce and was also a God of travelling and a patron of the arts which included the art of Commerce. Mistletoe was sacred to Lugos.

Dis Pater

2. Dis Pater (Father God or The Good God): Other Gods were descended from Dis Pater and was named by the Romans and not by the Celts. We can conclude from this that he was a teutilary or God of the Tribe‘ (Teutonic God) deity. Julius Caesar called him Dis Pater and linguists have concluded that this name is a derivative of Good Sky or Good God. This is very significant to us when we look at Irish Mythology because there is a similar God known as Daghdha, a leading mystic character in Irish literature, one of the Tua De Danaan, who was demonstrably the principal deity in ancient times.

The greatest of the Gods was Daghdha (Dagda), who had beaten off the monster Formorians when they attacked, in a mystical mist. He is usually referred to with the definitive article; namely, the Daghdha (the Daghdha). He was the founder or the father of the tribe of Tua De Danaan and so, indirectly, we can link Dis Pater as described by Julius Caesar.

This seems a logical step but is not inconclusive evidence. In fact, when we look at the Irish image of an Daghdha we see many Romanic motifs and ideas. Dis Pater is depicted in Roman accounts as an underground God and people would make Oaths or promises to him. In Roman Mythology he is sometimes associated with the Dead and the underworld. In Ireland an Daghdha was related to another God called Donn‘ (Brown or dark, or Dead) and is God of The Dead. When we look at Gods or Goddesses we find that many of them can manifest in different ways. The same God can sometimes have different names so, sometimes, we can find the same Gods with different functions.

Camas (Or Camulus)

3. Camas (Or Camulus): When we look at Continental material in relation to Camas we are still somewhat unclear as to who or what he may have been. We take our definition from Irish mythology because it is somewhat clearer and better defined.


4. Epona/Equna: She was a horse Goddess and her name would have been pronounced in two different ways. As mentioned earlier there were two different types of Celts, Q-Celts and P- Celts. The former laid more emphasis on Q and thus Epona became Equna while the reverse occurred with the P-Celts. Epona was a horse Goddess and in her depictions she is often seen riding side-saddle on a horse and holding a Cornucopia, a basket with corn coming out of it, a symbol of fertility, life, grain, fruit and drink, which featured heavily in all Mythology. It seems that Romans adopted her from the Celts probably because they were great admirers of horsemanship. She was a very popular Goddess and what is interesting here is that the Romans adopted her from the Celts whereas with other Gods the opposite was often the case. In fact, there have been statues and plaques found in Rome depicting Equna and in many cases these artefacts are found in stables.


5. Matres (The Mothers): A triple Goddess (Trinity) and depictions in the classical style show three women side by side and is clearly Romano-Celtic (deeply influenced by Roman Celts) in design. However, regardless of the style of the depiction, it is still generally agreed that the Celts worshipped Matres long before they ever encountered the Romans. Not a lot is known about the Matres but they were depicted as triple Goddesses and this idea of triple form (or trinities) is something that crops up in Celtic mythology regularly. In the statues the three women are often sitting down while one on left, often bare breasted, is holding a baby, the one on the right is holding loaves, bread or cakes, the one in the centre is holding a scroll of some kind perhaps depicting knowledge. The Matres may very well be a tripe-form of three Goddesses, it could be one or all of them but it is not really known if this is, in fact the case.


6. Brigantia (The Exalted One) – St. Bridget: Under the Interpretatio Romana where she was referred to as Victoria and they see her as dictatorial because she ensured victory to warriors. There were tribes known as Brigantes who mostly came from France and Britain arrived in Ireland in the 2nd Century. They were the followers of the Goddess Brigantia. Most of the information we know about her comes from the Irish material to do with St. Bridget. It is thought that the St. Bridget that we know was a follower of Brigantia; she may have been a priestess of the Goddess who later converted to Christianity and is now more famous for bringing this new cult of Christianity to Ireland. We know that Brigantia was worshipped in Gaul, Britain and Ireland and possibility as far as the Iberian Peninsula as well. We do find coins and artefacts depicting her image in many parts of Europe. There are a few place names that remember her name including Brigantio in Hungary. Brigantia was also a Goddess of healing, of blacksmiths and is very much steeped in folklore and tradition. She is also very much associated with Poetry and Poets who were deemed to be very important people who could see into the mystical world. Their poetry was a mystical language and they spoke the language of the Gods.


7. Ogmios: (Ogmios Herakles) – God of Eloquence – Was said to be very strong and associated with Hercules. His name comes from ―Leading One‖ because he could lead people around with words or the Golden Chain which was a chain of Gold from the tip of his tongue to the ears of a merry band of his followers which implied that he may have had a amazing word power. Being that public speaking was the only real form of communication having a Golden Tongue may very well have given one enormous power. The Irish equivalent to Ogmios was Ogham who it is believed brought writing to Ireland and the first Irish Alphabet was known as Ogham‘s Alphabet. Ogmios was said to be physically very strong and the Romans associated him with the God Hercules. He is depicted carrying a club, as did Hercules, and he sometimes was described as bald and his name Og came from the Celtic word Leading One. In an oral culture – public speaking was of paramount importance and the fact that we find a God dedicated to oral power is important.


8. Taranis – (Thunder God as with Jupiter) – Taranis was a merciless God who required sacrifice. He is not a very well known Character but is mentioned by Roman Poets who depict him as merciless. In the 9th Century a trio of Gods, of which Taranis is one, Asos and Toutates the others, were appeased by human sacrifice. We know little about Asos while Toutates was a God of Tribal protection and in Interpretatio Romano he was associated with Mars. He was a Teutonic God (Germans in pre-history but referred to as Teutonics because they lived in Tribes). He may very well have had some sort of war function as well.


9. Cernunnos: (Horned God) –His named only once on the Pillar of The Stone Men. He is very much associated with animals and holds a Torc in his right hand and about him is a purse, usually overflowing with money, which implies he is a God of wealth. In Irish mythology he is linked with Derg, a God of poetry and wisdom and wild deer but the evidence for this is pretty scant.


10. Maponos: (P Celts: Maponos/ Q Celts: Maqungs) – Mostly found in Britain and has its origins in Gaullist French tradition. There is not a whole lot of information about Maponos but what we do know is that he is a youthful God mostly associated with the God Apollo and that his name suggests that he may have been a divine Son. When we look at other similar son images in Irish mythology we see that there are parallels in the figure of the divine son. According to a sacred 12 line prayer text known as Chamalieres found in France the ancient Gauls regularly prayed for help to Maponos.


11. Rosmerta: This Goddess is often shown embracing a Cornucopia or a purse with coins coming out of it or a petera (plate) with food on it and she is a God of fertility and abundance, as is the case with most female deities, she is also best known as a carer of people. There are many examples of inscriptions where people literally wrote to her for their requests. Her name in Gaulish means the great provider or carer. People often wrote to both Mercury and Rosmerta so, if we take Mercury as being another Gaulish God then it may be safe to assume that both these Gods appeared together.


12. Sucellus: Is related to other Gods in European mythology and is known as a good Striker. He is often depicted with a massive hammer perhaps symbolising hard work, blacksmithing, axe wielding or some such activity. Perhaps a working class God and seems to be adored by ordinary working people in farming, forestry and, interestingly enough, alcohol. He is not associated in any way, like Thor, to Thunder, as the hammer may suggest but what we do find is that he is more than likely in some way connected to a Roman God named Sylvanus who was a God of forestry and wild places and both these Gods are interlinked in the Interpretatio Romano.

Nanto Suelta

13. Nanto Suelta (Nantosuelta): In Gaulish religions she is a Goddess of Nature, the earth and fire. Her name means the sun worn valley and she was a Goddess of fertility and abundance. Her imagery shows her surrounded by greenery, trees and fine-looking meadows. In general she is associated with fertile places.


14. Esus: His name means the Lord and is most often portrayed as a woodman, forester or lumberjack. He was associated with strength and would give strength to those who prayed to him. In Interpretatio Romanio he is most associated with Mercury or Mars. He is interesting in that he was one of the Gods that appeared to be worshipped with human sacrifice.

Tarous Trigaranus

15. Tarous Trigaranus: We don‘t really know much about this God. Esus seems to be somehow connected to Tarous Trigaranus and this has been established through imagery whereby both Gods are depicted falling trees or depicted as lumberjacks or woodsmen.

There are, of course, many more Gods but these seem to be the ones that had widespread following and were believed in by lots of different tribes. There were also lots of local Gods that would be purely belonging to a given tribe. There are over two hundred different deities recorded but these seem to be the most widespread and consequentially influential Gods.

Four Celtic Cycles.

Four Celtic Cycles.

The Irish evidence and international evidence as to how life must have been, not only for the Celts resident in Ireland, but also for international Celts living across Western Europe is mostly based on mythology. The international evidence can show us, for example, what kind of religion the Celtic speaking people of Europe believed in. The first thing we must do is define what exactly we mean by the word ‘Celts’, what exactly is a Celt? It is after all, a rather complex term worthy of close analysis.

We need to understand the Celtic societies all across Europe, not only in Ireland, but also in France, Spain and Germany. Looking at the Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic tradition we can ascertain many of the religious beliefs of the Celtic peoples. One of the areas most fruitful in our understanding of the Celts is archaeology where we can find physical examples such as Temples, ritual objects, and statues, and other types of artefacts and burial places, which can tell us a little bit about the religious beliefs of these people.

It must be said from the outset that there is not a lot of archaeological clues but the few we have available to us are worthy of close analysis. One needs to also look at history which includes pseudo history, tribal names and place names. This ‘pseudo history’ came about long after events took place and, with the passing of time, stories became somewhat romanticised or, depending on the agenda of the storyteller, would have a political or religious spin to it. Tribal names and place names can tell us a lot about certain different cults and figures. However, our primary source is Mythology.

There are four main cycles in time to be concerned with when trying to understand the Celts but when we talk about some of these cycles we have a problem in that the information available to us was, more than likely, prepared long after events actually took place. In many cases, evidence suggests, that such stories were relayed thousands of years later. In fact, some of the mythology available only came to us in the medieval period. But the fact is that the mythology survived in medieval manuscripts for the most part and modern scholars have broken it up to four different strands. Four different areas of mythology which are known as the Mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, Fenian cycle and the Historical cycle.

Mythological Cycle.

The mythological cycle, which is mainly based on the contents of a book known as ‘The Book Of Invasion’ which was not really a history book but it discusses at great length the different tribes, one after another, which came to Ireland until eventually the final wave of invaders arrived to conquer the land, the Gael, who became the masters of the Ireland. One of the most important tribes to arrive prior to ‘The Gael’ was a tribe known as the ‘Tuatha De Danaan’ who were presented in ‘The Book Of Invasion’ as a group of magicians or magical figures whereas, in reality, they were a pantheon of Gods.

Ulster Cycle.

The ‘Ulster Cycle’ concerns a warrior and aristocratic society in the province of Ulster and is supposed by historians to have taken place around C.1 CE. It is primarily concerned with a mystical King known as Conchobhar MacNeasa (one who is desirous of warriors) and the various different peoples of his kingdom and rival kingdoms as well. There is a single story that is very important to this cycle and is known as the Brown Bull of Cooley. This tale is significant because it introduces a character known as Cu Chulainn who single handedly defends the province of Ulster against a great army. In any study of Irish Mythology one should be concerned not so much with the stories themselves but with the symbolism used in them. One should try to understand from where these symbols came and what is their true meaning or substance in history. For example, Cu Chulainn probably represents the warrior cult that came to Ireland from parts of Liverpool in the 1st century CE and the Kings may have represented a phase of kingship in Ulster in the centuries BCE. In short, if we break open the stories we can see clues to the realities of history within their meaning. We should never take the stories at face value. We could always examine them and try to find out that‘s underneath.

Fenian Cycle.

The next wave is known as the Fenian Cycle has a lot to tell us about certain cult figures. These stories are basically about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna (Young Hunters). The story of the Salmon of Knowledge tells us of Fionn sticking his thumb into a salmon and tasting the juices thus gaining great knowledge. This can be interpreted as the salmon, having it‘s origin in the mystical world, and Fionn acquiring mystical knowledge by tasting the juices, and is therefor in some way super powerful. There are many stories in the Fenian Cycle of Fionn and the Fianna going to the mystical world and fighting supernatural warriors and it is from such stories that we can acquire a greater knowledge of how the Celts may have lived and what beliefs they may have had.

Historical Cycle.

The historical cycle is also known as the cycle of the King‘s because it mainly deals with kingship, how King‘s are viewed, what powers King‘s had in both mortal and spiritual worlds. There are lots of stories of Kings taking trips to other worlds or encountering visitors from other worlds who were to bestow the role of Kingship upon them. It‘s all essentially political propaganda but these stories can tell us a fair amount as well about the Druids and the Druidic rituals.

Pre-Christian Ireland.

Early Medieval Ireland.

Historians and Mythologists often disagree in relation to when the Celts first arrived in Ireland. Very little was documented prior to the C.600 BCE and this, according to historians, is taken as an indication that this may very well have marked the arrival of the Celts. It was somewhere about 600-500 BCE that the race perhaps most associated with the early Irish history first appeared on the scene.

The Celts, as they were known had been living in central and Western Europe, prospering as both farmers and fighters. From these locations they had begun to fan out across the continent and beyond, eventually ending up in Ireland. These Iron users were soon to become the dominant people on the island. They spoke a form of Gaelic and, although they had no written language, they developed a system of writing that we know as Ogham. This was made up of the series of straight and angled lines of varying lengths, which were carved onto large standing stones. Initially the Celts were pagan and celebrated the great festivals of Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. By about 400CE, however, they had begun to accept Christianity. That said, many of the deeper pagan practices were slow to die out.
The history of human life in the island of Ireland begins in C.7500 BCE with the arrival of hunters, gathers and fishermen. It is thought by Historians that the first farmers did not come to Ireland until around C.4000BCE and Bronze appeared on or about C.2000BCE. The Celts may have arrived in Ireland at around C.600BCE and they brought with them Iron tools and weapons. Mythologists seem vague in relation to whether the Celts were here or not prior to C.600BCE. The races that occupied the land when the so called Milesians, named after Milerius of Spain whose sons invaded and conquered the country in 1000BCE, were chiefly the Firebolg and the Tuatha De Danaan both of which were not exterminated by the conquerors. Prior to the Iron Age, according to legend, three tribes of the Celtic family who had separated from the main stem and blended into Gaels came across Europe to end up on Irish soil. The Firbolg came first from Greece where they had been enslaved and they were followed by the Fomorians who landed on Tory Island but the Firbolg were defeated by the capable and somewhat cultured Tuatha De Danaan (people of the Goddess Dana).

However, what is relevant for now is that documented history began in C.300BCE and so when we discuss pre Christian religions of Ireland we are usually talking about an era known as the Iron Age which was the years from C.300 BCE to C.500 CE. In point of fact, the Iron Age actually may have started around C.600BCE but Historians have little or no idea of what was going on in Ireland at that time but they do suspect that Celtic speaking people were not present in the country priorto 300 BCE. It was indeed a very long period of time and very little remained static. Very little was documented in any way, shape or form prior to the arrival of the Celts.

In general, during the Mesolithic Period (8000BC – 4500 BCE) it is most likely that the native Irish were not agricultural but Hunter/Gatherer tribes. They probably did not have hugely complex societal structures but Historians can tell a little bit about their religious beliefs from shrines, monuments and graveyards. Archaeologists have found mass graves in which burned remains of humans were found clutching stone tools and this demonstrates that funeral pyres not only destroyed human remains but also any flammable attachments to the stones. It shows that objects were placed in the hands of the dead prior to cremation. It seems then that the dead were treated in an extraordinary way in that bodies were not abandoned but cremated and buried. Unlike modern cremation techniques, it was not a dust that remained but bones and these final remains were interred in shallow graves.

The Dying Celt.

The objects buried with the dead were expensive objects in that they took some time to make and were deemed to serve some purpose in the other world. This indicates some kind of sophisticated belief about the dead and the post-death journey and the afterlife. This is the earliest evidence that exists about religious beliefs in Ireland. This period happened around 4500 BCE to 2500 BCE and from this period there still exists different types of tombs in different parts of Ireland. For example a Court Tomb had a U-shaped area on the front of the tomb and is known as the horseshoe shaped tomb and was more than likely used, not only for burial of the deceased but also as a sacred space for the adoration of the Dead. It clearly shows that the Neolithic people were going to great effort to take care of their ancestors. There was also ‘portal tombs’ or ‘Dolmens’ and they varied in size and one of the best examples of this still stands in Ballyvaughan in Co. Clare.

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co. Clare, Ireland.

Again, this demonstrates that sophisticated tombs indicate a reverence for the dead and the journey in which they are embarking. The most prominent of the passage tombs in Ireland is Newgrange and uses over two hundred thousand tons of stone and soil and is a massive construction. It had taken over thirty years to build. If the average age of a person was fifty or so then this clearly indicates a very significant commitment.

Newgrange Passage Tomb.

These tombs are best known these days for how the sun beams its light down the otherwise pitch dark passages at certain times of the year and again this indicates religious symbolism of some kind. Adoration of a Sun or Sky God influencing celestial events and linking such events up with the realm of the dead involved a very sophisticated set of religious beliefs.

It can be argued that these ancient societies were every bit as complex as today‘s society. They came up with as interesting, complex ideas and designs as modern human beings can produce in modern-day life. If such societies were capable of such sophistication then it is also possible that they were capable of intricate and abstract ideas such as the existence of superior other world powers of some kind. Furthermore, such massive commitment from the workers of these civilisations was clearly encouraged by superior members, such as priests, Druids or Kings, or High Priests perhaps proffering eternal reward in the afterlife in exchange for dedication in the construction of these massive tombs. We also get powerful art like engravings on the tombs and these were possibly in some way related to their mythology. Some beautiful objects were found inside of these tombs. This, again, may indicate an acknowledgement of some sort of purpose for such beauty in the afterlife and indeed the existence of the afterlife being somehow beautiful.

Stone Circles At Grange Co. Limerick.

With the Bronze Age came stone circles, a tradition which continued into the Iron Age and nobody really knows the true purpose of Stone Circles, as in Grange, Co. Limerick, where the biggest stone circle has been located, and any conclusion is no more than guesswork. Archaeologists suggest they are probably some form of religious expression but there is no real evidence to prove or disprove this theory. It is possible that these stone circles were some kind of burial ground and there are examples of human remains buried in pots or urns within these circles. These pots suggest, from remains, that gifts of food and tools or weapons were interred with the dead, just as in Ancient Egypt, so perhaps there is a basis to believe that religion had a role to play in this society.

In short then, relics and tombs from both the Mesolithic and subsequent Neolithic ages clearly show an acknowledgement of the existence of some kind of mystic belief in relation to the afterlife. Death did not seem to indicate the end of life but a step into the next life or realm. Just as politics and religion interweave in the Modern world, evidence suggests that this was also the case in those times. The existence of a societal stratum of some kind whereby workers made enormous lifelong efforts at the behest of their overseers for eternal reward may demonstrate religious belief.

In order to better understand the Celts we should try to understand their religious beliefs and the main religious festivals‘ were:

1. Spring – 1st Feb – St. Bridget‘s Day – Imbolc.

2. Summer – May 1st – Bonfire Day – Bealtaine.

3. Autumn – August 1st – Lughnasadh.

4. Winter – November 1st – Halloween – Samhain.

The calendar the Celts followed was mainly an agricultural calendar‘ with festival days to mark the start of each season. In Winter, the grass stops growing and the harvest is in, Lughnasa is when the crops are ready to toil, Imbolc was when the ploughing and planting began and Bealtaine was mostly about Animals and care for them. It can be therefor concluded that as a well as religious, spiritual and mythological elements to the calendar there was also some very practical components to it. It clearly indicates how the Celts considered farming a very significant part of their lives.

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