Memories of Ireland

This blog only began in August of 2005, by which time I was already well into my work with the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, which I write about here often. But before China we used to take students to Ireland, under the auspices of the Burren College of Art and the government heritage agency, the Duchas. These trips (in 1998, 2000 and 2002) focused on preserving Portumna Castle, a fascinating Jacobean building that stands historically on the cusp between the fortified tower house and the emerging Classical manor house. In a sense, it is a Classical manor house with gun loops and machicolations: Renaissance refinement but with the option of drowning guests in boiling oil.

Portumna Castle, 2002

Note the 17th century decoration. And the gun loops.

We would do true lime mortar pointing (NO PORTLAND CEMENT!) and perhaps carpentry and investigations with various experts into various things, like this Gothic window from the castle damaged by fire in the 19th century:

We also did photography in 2002 thanks to Felicity, and did a nice critique of the work back at the Burren College of Art, which is located in County Clare in the Burren, and they even have a 15th century tower house, which, unusually, has a round rather than a square plan. (Traditional Irish round tower are much smaller and were built by monks back in the 9th and 10th centuries in defense of Viking invasions.)

Newtown Castle, Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan

The Burren itself is one of my favorite landscapes on earth, and part of what makes it really fascinating is its role as a cultural landscape. Geographically and geologically, it is a series of pavements, limestone karst that seems phenomenally barren. Oliver Cromwell, who marched through Ireland like Sherman marched through Georgia but with less compassion, famously said the Burren lacked “wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown a man, or earth enough to bury him,” (CITATION NEEDED). The rocky carboniferous pavements in fact hosts a dizzying variety of flora and fauna in their interstices.

The Burren seems barren, although the word comes from the Gaelic for “stony place” and indeed the fissures in the rock are a result of the glaciations. Erratic boulders mark the pavements, as do five-thousand year old dolmens and portal tombs, such as the famous Poulnabrone with its squat menhirs and tilted slab roof.


And here is where the fascinating cultural landscape comes in. In 2000 we toured the ancient monuments of the Burren with a guy named Michael McMahon, who would take us to the Gleninsheen wedge tomb, which stands upon a rise in the Burren, and where a famous gold gorget (collar) was found in 1930. There are five other wedge tombs located just to the east, visible from Gleninsheen tomb on the roadside, two more to the west, a stone fort, Caheranardurrish a few hundred meters down the road. All told you have eight prehistoric sites visible from this spot.

Gleninsheen wedge tomb, shown in 2002

And then he told us to look around 360 degrees across the landscape and count how many contemporary dwellings there were. One. A single farmhouse. The conclusion was clear, and intriguing: the site was more densely settled thousands of years ago than it was today. This cultural landscape had a richer past than present. Indeed, the Burren, like many sites in the Middle East, shows evidence of what people often do to landscapes: they strip them and eventually move on. The rich glacial till that once covered the pavements was eventually worn away, perhaps by farming and certainly by pasturage. Thus Cromwell was stymied by a dearth of natural resources with which to kill the local inhabitants.

Of course, the cultural landscape does exist in the present, not only in ruined castles like Leamaneh, home to the infamous Maire Rua, or Gleninagh, a typical tower house.

Leamaneh Castle, Burren

Gleninagh Castle

Because the landscape is so ancient and has evidence everywhere of its great antiquity, every society that settled it – no matter how diminished in scope – valued it, sometimes in a magical or miraculous way. This is one of many holy springs, surrounded by a well house fashioned from local stones at Gleninagh:

There is something compelling about this simple site of pilgrimage where people would come to pray or leave an object to have a prayer fulfilled. When we would tour the monastic midlands of Roscrea, we would see pisog trees, bedecked with a range of human objects banal and even scandalous as locals tied the tree to its pre-Christian totemic rituals and sought relief from the worldly sufferings of themselves or others by leaving a totem of desire or need on the tree itself, till it nearly bowed down from the weight of want and pleading.

Pisog tree, Sier Kieran

Sier Kieran also boasted a double earthen ring, the type of circular enclosure that defined so much of pre-Christian and even Christian Irish society. Each successive generation claimed and valued that landscape as it had been altered by their forebears and likely altered it further, or revered it, or made it speak with newer words and remain relevant to their daily life.

ringworks at Sier Kieran, Roscrea

Or Cormac’s 12th century chapel at Cashel, a stunning example of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture but one whose chancel also included a pantheon of pre-Christian gods just in case…..

We would stay at an abbey in Roscrea, with the monks, a once and present iteration of the mysteries of the Irish landscape.

Mt. St. Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, with our dear friend George Cunningham

And we would visit restored tower houses repurposed as homes or homestays in the 20th century, some with their Sheila-na-gigs, a slightly pornographic and decidedly pre-Christian talisman affixed to the exterior of some tower houses to ward off evildoers in a landscape washed in a multitude of spiritual forces real and imagined.

Ballaghmore Castle, Roscrea – green triangle points to the “Sheila”

The tower houses themselves are fascinating evidence of the period of English rule (and the Anglo-Irish) who essentially had to fortify the entire landscape of the country with these castles to maintain their conquest. Only in the 17th century when Portumna was built were they able to reduce the military signification in these houses. We toured Ardamullivan Castle each trip as they slowly revealed a 15th century mural that decorated the plaster walls of the interior of this late tower house.

Karena Morton in Ardamullivan Castle, 1998

So now we prepare to celebrate the Irish equivalent of Thanksgiving – St. Patrick’s Day, a tradition barely four hundred years old, and heavily inflected by the American penchant for parades. Other Americanisms in the holiday include of course corned beef (not Irish) and green beer, which is only possible after the 1842 invention of light-colored lager beer in what is now the Czech Republic. More appropriate to our cultural history is Guinness, colored deep black by the addition of 25% roasted barley, which dear Arthur Guinness did to get around the tax on malted barley meant to destroy the Irish brewing industry. This makes Guinness Stout weaker in alcohol than Budweiser, much better tasting, “good for you,” and a valuable cultural artifact worthy of conservation.

And consumption.


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