Archive for November 30th, 2007

In Search of Celtic Gold

It’s odd that after so many years spent travelling around Europe, I never before made it to Ireland. It wasn’t a lack of curiosity about the place, though, that said, Ireland did not rank highly in my list of destinations; somewhere between Norway and Estonia to be honest. I’m not sure why I gave Ireland such low priority as I always suspected it to be a beautiful place, in both the countryside and the towns. My perceptions of Ireland were a mixture of images and shabby history gleaned from literature, films, television, newspapers and the occasional mention in university lectures. When I thought of Ireland I thought of a place with an air of mystery about it; a place that was somehow distant, peripheral, a frontier of sorts; a place that had been ignored, neglected or abused for centuries. Ireland seemed to have remained outside of history until Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells. It seemed to be a place that had rarely had a chance to assert itself or impose itself on history except through tragedy or doggedness; a place that had, until the twentieth century, largely exported its talent and suffered for this at home. Ireland had always fought its own wars and steered clear of those that ravaged the continent and the British Isles. In a way it was outside of Europe; too far for an invasion from the continent and insufficiently resource rich to offer much incentive for imperialism. Even the British presence seemed more an a assertion of local overlordship than a genuine desire for Ireland as another jewel in its crown. In my lifetime it had been the land of “The Troubles”; I had first seen Ireland as a violent, sectarian place; a place that was still getting up off its knees, with the double burden of a cancerous conflict and a moribund economy. Ireland had always seemed quaint, but sad, and yet full of a sort of ragamuffin optimism.

Of course Ireland has always had a rich and unique culture – its contribution to early medieval scholarship was pivotal; the literary contributions Ireland has made punch far about its size and weight; its famed friendliness, pubs, bars, the green fields, its towns and villages, its music, both traditional and modern; and last but not least, the significance of its diaspora in the new world. All of these things fuelled a genuine curiosity about the place, yet still I did not go. Perhaps it seemed insufficiently exotic; perhaps it still seemed too peripheral; perhaps, like Scotland, despite all its difference, I expected it to be little more than England seen through a slight twist of the Kaleidoscope. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered exactly why it was I had never come to Ireland.

Then it struck me. There were no visible Roman remains. It was, of course, Roman history that had first brought me to Europe, or, rather, despite my passion for the history and culture of Europe in all historical periods, the classical world was what fascinated me the most and it was, in effect, the core of my curiosity and my studies. When I first travelled to Europe in 1996, I went from Holland to the UK, to France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, overland and over sea. It was designed to be a tour of the Roman Empire, or, at least, as much of it as I could afford to see in six months. When I returned to Europe two and a half years later to do a PhD in history at Cambridge, it was more often than not the chance to visit Roman sites or museums dedicated to Roman history that gave me the excuse for another holiday. Even when, for instance I set off to Samothraki for a five day trance party, you can be sure that I was taking in Roman, Greek and Minoan sites on the way there and back. Perhaps it was the absence of the Romans that had put me off.

Whatever the case, here I was at last in Ireland. As with my recent trip to Austria and Slovakia, I almost didn’t make it. I booked the flights three months ago when Ryanair was having one of its free seat giveaways, and paid a grand total of one Euro cent per ticket, taxes, everything included. I had booked the time off work and was particularly enthusiastic about finally seeing Ireland after the booking was made, yet as the date approached, having just had a holiday throughout which I was plagued with dreadful weather, I began to doubt my commitment. In fact, last week, as I eagerly watched and waited for the federal election in Australia (hoorah!) I came to the conclusion that I definitely was not going to go. I would instead stay home, do a lot of running and weights, and go see every single film about which  I was curious, and, of course, write up a storm.

I changed my mind at nine thirty the night before I was due to fly. I had just been to see Brick Lane and came away with a weight of sadness and some confusion about love; the question of how one determined which country one ought to live in – and mixed emotions about a film which seemed to work well on so many levels, but was lacking on others. What I felt, primarily, was restlessness. Over the previous months, but more particularly, the last week, I had been obsessed with following the election in Australia and this had distracted me very greatly from my writing. I wasn’t sure that if I stayed home I would have the focus and concentration to get enough writing done to justify not going. If I was as restless over the next few days as I felt on Sunday evening, then how could I expect to sit in my chair and finish the two short stories I am currently working on – Everyday Parables and The Final Playlist ?

7323 Cork

It struck me that there could be no better cure for restlessness than travel. And what the hell – I even had the tickets booked – why not simply go? Wouldn’t I regret it enormously if I didn’t? I pictured myself the following day, sitting at my computer, knees hopping up and down, wondering why I could not concentrate and turning instead to timewasting; Facebook, Neverwinter Nights… No! It would be inexcusable.

I went straight online, planned my route, booked a couple of hotels, printed up maps, purchased a coach ticket, then packed. At midnight my Irish housemate Garret returned from Cork, his home town and my first destination. He was just in time to give me some very hand tips about what to see and do. Now I was properly excited. I sorted everything, set my alarm for two thirty and lay down for an hour’s sleep. At five past three I found myself marching down the street in the damp early morning, wondering how all this had come to be…

7355 Cork

And so, at seven thirty, in a heavy fog, I flew into Cork. The forecast had been for “sunny intervals”, and were it not for this positive outlook, I should almost certainly have stayed at home. I watched the sky closely from the bus stop outside arrivals. There were positive signs of a breakthrough on the horizon, where the cloud was thinner and seemed to be dissipating as the sun reached it. If there was fog and sunshine, dark rain cloud and bold, silver light, then it might prove to be just the right conditions for “Gold”

7336 Cork

It is worthwhile digressing at this point to mention that I have a number of classifications for the quality of the photographs I take. Gold is the highest ranking that can be awarded and it is very, very rare. Out of two hundred shots I might only get one gold photograph. On my recent trip to Austria I managed only two gold out of about eighteen hundred. Gold essentially denotes a photograph in which not only is the composition perfect and captivating – either through spectacular symmetry or idiosyncratic asymmetry – but the light and colour must also be absolutely first rate. Without a doubt my strength is shooting directly into the sun in black and white. I was always fond of socialist realism and the stark silhouettes of workers at toil in their blocky rhythms. This interest has translated to photography, though with a much greater tendency towards more fluid movements in figures. My attempts to find gold in Austria were largely hampered by a lack of direct sunlight. I can still get shots that I consider okay in poor lighting conditions, though I prefer then to wait until dark and shoot with a tripod to obtain a similar level of contrast between light and darkness, as opposed to the greys of dull daylight.

7394 Cork

7402 Cork 1

7395 Cork

So, I came to Ireland looking for Celtic gold, and upon arrival in Cork, I had high hopes that I might strike a rich vein should the climate play its part. Sadly, however, the fog had long cleared from the town and the sunlight was to break through only infrequently. I did not let this get me down and, as soon I as arrived in the centre of town, I climbed straight up St Patrick’s hill; a very steep incline that affords lovely views. I hovered about up here toying with angles, then made my way down the dip towards the other rise on which stood Shandon Steeple. As I descended upon a vast Heineken brewery, I was briefly handed gold conditions; yet the subject matter did not lend itself so easily to great compositions and in the brief time I had, I was forced to make do with a few silver and bronze.

7351 Cork

Ever since reading Moby Dick ten years ago, I have been a big fan of digressions, and I will indulge myself once again here on the subject of systems of classifications. In my first month of my post-doc at the British School at Rome, January 2003, I was fortunate to have a group of graduate students from the University of Melbourne staying there for a course on Renaissance and Baroque Rome. Three of the students who were staying there, Con, Dom and Willie, (no pun intended) developed a system for classifying the many beautiful women to be found walking the streets of bella Roma. This system was based on the general attractiveness of women in artworks by the great painters of the Renaissance. I can only remember the basic outline and have thus made some adjustments based on subsequent research, but it remains broadly the same. I thought I might throw it in here as it will likely be out of place wherever I put it. I have also included links to some fine examples of their craft.

10. Botticelli


9. Raffaele


8. Filippino Lippi

Filippino Lippi 2

Filippino Lippi

7. Bronzino


6. Caravaggio


5. Da Vinci

Da Vinci

4. Massacio


3. Michelangelo


Much as I love him, my old pal Buonarotti comes last on account of the fact that his women all have male bodies and the sort of biceps that could gather up all the pieces of the True Cross and rebuild Noah’s Ark. It has to be said that Mother Mary in the Pieta is seriously fit – however, we are talking about painting here. Ranking anyone below Michelangelo and Masaccio seemed ungentlemanly and unnecessarily cruel. Though he did not originally appear in the list, I have promoted Lippi as a personal favourite. There are many others who belong here, perhaps as half points between the big men. For instance, Lukas Cranach could be worthy of an appearance if only for the pokey little smirks so many of his women wear.

Lucas Cranach

It is worth mentioning that it is also possible to qualify a ranking by identifying a mix of styles. For instance, one might spot on the streets of Rome a Lippi with Bronzino tendencies, which would constitute, in my book, about as good as it gets. Indeed, it was not long before “Bronzino tendencies” became a byword for cool. Please feel at liberty to use this system of classification with any amendments you might feel are necessary. I’m sure that a similar system of classification could equally be devised for men. It’s probably a good idea to stick to the Renaissance as they all become a tad more paunchy, poncy and somewhat less roguish by the time the Baroque rolls around. Although, that said, Caravaggio could provide a handsome bridge there I’m sure; if you like effeminate men with clumsily oversized hands, that is.

So, there I was in Ireland! I marched about Cork, snapped some a few silvers, some bronzes and a whole swag of also-rans amidst a sea of worthless pap. I liked Cork; it had a northern English working-class uniformity to it; the boxy houses lay across the hills like Lego bricks, but their serried ranks were reminiscent of the patterns one sees in vineyards. I was left thinking of the corn-crop hair style, oddly enough. Here the spires all had the greyness of lamb fat, yet the colourful houses did not restrict themselves to pastel.

7439 Cork

I walked to the campus of the college, where I drifted around spotting Bronzinos. Garret had recommended the Glucksmann Gallery, which was impressively designed, but unfortunately closed. I wandered some more then made a decision to head for the bus station and take a trip out to Blarney Castle. I had been warned that it was a tourist trap, but likely worth the trip anyway. Once at the bus station, owing to an alertness deficit brought on by mounting exhaustion, I promptly missed the bus to Blarney Castle. As it was, I then found myself with three hours to kill before the bus left for Kilkenny, so, in a desperate attempt to keep myself alive and interested , I decided to walk up the hill again, but this time, go all the way to the very top of the town.

The walk took just under an hour and afforded me ever better panoramas of Cork. From the top of the rise my lens dropped and fired down the gully streets; foregrounding people and junk against the blurred background of a staggered town. I descended slowly, windingly, prospecting, as it were. The results were mixed, though they shall likely make nice enough snaps.

Down below again, the river at low tide was a mere dirty canal full of muddied, blackened discards. The sun stayed behind the clouds and, out of frustration with the prevailing dull light, I photographed two dumped and muddy shopping trolleys lying back to back, the way dogs stand when they mate and get locked in a tie. I gave it the title “dirty love”. Though I knew the photo to be utter rubbish, it amounted to perhaps the most original thought I had all day.

At three o’clock I got the bus and set off for Kilkenny. In the warmth of the coach I was soon assailed by sleep and drifted off for the first hour of the ride. When I woke up, I felt annoyed with myself for not taking the chance to view the landscape. After all, I had a strong suspicion that I was missing out on this trip by not having allowed for any chance to get into the famous countryside of Ireland. I slapped some water on my face, washed my eyes awake and fixed a stare through the window to the struggling sunset.

7516 Kilkenny

With my eyes resting on the low, cloud-crowded hills behind the fields before me, we sped along into evening. As it sank lower, the sun began to break through behind the hills and a bright glare flared from one pyramidal mound, whose western slope was slewed with such a rich, white smoke as to appear smoothly snow-capped. It was as I gazed on this gorgeous light that I very suddenly felt the weight of history.

I have often failed, when looking at ruins, to see my way into the past quite as well as I can when looking at geography. For, while the dusty, broken structures might make plain the nature of ancient habitation, they are also very clearly dead sites. Yet, should one see a geographical feature – the outline of a mountain or hill, the misty damp of a forest – and consider that it has likely not changed since ancient times and that the light shining upon or around it is just as it must have been at the same time of day in a winter two thousand years ago, if one is in the right frame of mind this vision can bring home the past more strongly than anything else. I have had such moments in Italy, Greece, Croatia – many places, though it comes quite rarely – the true, gut-wrenching, melancholy tug of the past. Once more I found myself taken by it in Ireland. I knew that I was looking at history in the outline of the hills; other men and women had seen these same shapes – had been seeing these shapes for centuries. Yet, oddly enough, what got me the most when looking into the sunset was the thought that for all those four hundred years the Romans were in Britain making it a going concern, they had never bothered to come over and conquer Ireland. Why on earth was that? Why, oh why, did they not complete the picture?

7562 Kilkenny

It is worth pointing out at this stage that as a historian of the late Roman Empire, my mind turns all the more readily to this period. Now, as I turned again, I was suddenly struck by the most unexpected and jolting thought. For the first time ever, I was in a European country that had never been a part of the Roman Empire. Despite years of continental exploration, I had not yet made it north of Germany or north of the Danube. This was my first time outside of Roman Europe. It seemed so odd, so strange, that right there and then I could not, for the life of me, conceive of Ireland as a part of Europe at all. It became in my mind in that instant, something else; more akin to Scandinavia, to Iceland, or even Greenland – so peripheral as almost not to qualify as European. It was then that I realised just how much my perception of Europe was intrinsically tied to the map of the Roman Empire, which likely explains why I’ve always felt that north Africa and the Levant ought to be included in the European Union. I do believe this will be one of Europe’s ultimate goals, though certainly not for at least two decades if ever. But, once again, I digress.

7511 Kilkenny 2

7496 Kilkenny

So, back to Ireland, why had the Romans not come? Obviously some must have done. It is difficult to believe that in all the time they were in Britain, Roman traders never crossed to Ireland. We know that Irish raiders crossed to Britain, and it seems difficult to believe they were left unchastised. The problem is the paucity of written evidence about Roman Britain. Tacitus’ Agricola, c. AD 98, is the best source we have for the early period. The only mention of Ireland is the following, where Tacitus is discussing events c. AD 82:

“In the fifth year of the war, Agricola, himself in the leading ship, crossed the Clota, and subdued in a series of victories tribes hitherto unknown. In that part of Britain which looks toward Ireland, he posted some troops, hoping for fresh conquests rather than fearing attack, inasmuch as Ireland, being between Britain and Spain and conveniently situated for the seas round Gaul, might have been the means of connecting with great mutual benefit the most powerful parts of the empire. Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches, and that through the intercourse of commerce. One of the petty kings of the nation, driven out by internal faction, had been received by Agricola, who detained him under the semblance of friendship till he could make use of him. I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.”[1]

Richard Warner has argued that the Irish myth of the return from Britain to Ireland of the exiled Irish prince Tuathal Techtmar is in fact a folk memory of a Roman-backed invasion. [2] Tuathal Techtmar is alleged to have returned to Ireland backed by foreign forces called the “Goidels”. Warner and others have pointed to increasingly convincing archaeological evidence for a possible Roman settlement at Drumanagh, around fifteen miles north of Dublin. The presence of artifacts could just as easily be evidence of trade, which must have been frequent owing to the proximity and location of Drumanagh, facing towards Britain as it does. Scholars have also pointed to the coincidence of the following line from Juvenal’s Satires:

“Indeed, we have sent forces beyond the shores of Ireland, to the recently conquered Orkneys Islands, and to Britain with its short nights.”[3]

Juvenal may well have served in Britain under Agricola, which certainly does lend weight to the suggestion that this legend of the return to Ireland of an exiled prince refers to a Roman-backed invasion by the same prince mentioned in the Agricola.[4] The evidence is scanty, and we must also consider the fact that the mytho-historical figure of Tuathal Techtmar might not have been an exiled Irish prince after all; it is a commonplace enough historical phenomenon to fabricate ancestry in order to enhance the rightfulness of conquest. Incidentally, I’ve always thought of this practice as indigenuity – a bullshit little term I cooked up one rainy day.

So, did the Romans have a client king relationship with a Romanised dynasty they had backed? If so, then for precisely how long did this continue? Was it for this reason that they never conquered Ireland and directly administered it themselves? And why not Scotland for that matter, in order to complete the set, as it were? They were certainly capable of doing so militarily. Was it a concern over having then to guard so much coastline? Yet contrast this with the increased chances for piratical activity if they did not control the coastline. Was it because they believed it to be easier to filter and channel the externals through Hadrianic and Antonine walls? Was it a strategic concern over the power that might be wielded by provincial governors in charge of such a large area? For, surely, the British isles would have come to constitute a single prefecture or unit of administration. Perhaps it was simply that these regions were deemed too resource poor – that they could see no economic advantage from ownership. All the same, one has to wonder what stopped them and what caused them to resist the temptations which must have cropped up. Through recent historical and archaeological research we now have a much better picture of Roman Britain as a thriving, prosperous, resource-rich province. Constantine was first proclaimed Emperor in York (Eboracum) in AD 306 and his father, Constantius, had based himself there very successfully. Was there not pressure from wealthy merchants and traders to ensure Roman monopolies around the whole of the British Isles, Ireland included? Dare I say it, and no offence to Ireland, but perhaps they just thought it was crap.

7565 Kilkenny

This question will continue to mystify me now, I suppose. Short of the discovery of the foundations of a long-buried Roman settlement, we are unlikely to have a definitive answer to the question of why the Romans failed to conquer Ireland. I guess I’ll just have to keep my eyes and ears open for any developments.

And so, there I was in Ireland, on a bus to Kilkenny, watching the creamy slopes of the hills in the rain-grey glare and thinking of the past. Soon it would be night and day one of my three day jaunt would be drawing to a close. Would I push on and go to a pub looking for action, or would I simply lie down and fall into a deep and welcome sleep?

Either way, all this thinking was making me very hungry indeed…

7483 Kilkenny

7747 Dublin

7684 Dublin

7662 Dublin

7767 Dublin

[1] Tacitus, Agricola 24, (trans.) Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.

[2] Warner, R. ‘Tuathal Techmar: a Myth or Ancient Literary Evidence for a Roman Invasion?’ Emania, 13, 1996.

[3] Juvenal, Satires, 2, 159-60.

[4] See also, Vittorio di Martino, Roman Ireland, The Collins Press, 2006

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