Irish Culture | DeCoding the Landscape with Micheál Mac Gearailt

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Love of Irish Culture and Landscape Shared by Preservationist Micheál Mac Gearailt

It's a pleasure to present this conversation with Micheál Mac Gearailt, an amatuer historian and archaeologist-in-training from East Clare, Ireland. While Micheál is modest about his credentials, he is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for the preservation of his cultural heritage. In particular, he is active in documenting the anglicisation of Irish placenames and researching placenames' role in archaeology and history.

I had the good fortune to cross paths with Micheál last May, after having been invited to attend a session of 'Misneach in a time of Covid,’ an initiative held in County Clare to discuss ways the larger community could support each other during and after the pandemic. The series of gatherings was organized by Opening Space for Leadership, a collaboration of change-makers. Misneach means "courage" and the intent was to create a safe harbour for diverse people. The Misneach organizers had a commitment to be inclusive and, in particular, to ensure that the voices of the area's young people were heard.

I for one would not have wanted to miss the chance to get to know Micheál, and his take on Irish culture of old and today. I know you'll enjoy his perspective and insights on his 'trio of passions': Irish drama, literature and landscape.

Meg: Tell me about your background and how you got involved in Misneach.

Micheál: I'm a teenager and amateur historian occupying the strange space between modern and antiquity, global and local: I grew up in rural County Clare, have been working in archaeology, history, politics and acting under various guises. My passions growing up here were archaeology and the stage.

I got a scholarship to study in United World College Changshu China, where I spent the best part of two years, before being evacuated for COVID. It was a US international school, a limb of the Anglophone with a lot of wealth, a lot of ambition, and a lot of love. Nonetheless the place left me frustrated. Since being back in Ireland, I've been working as a COVID swabber, commercial archaeologist, call-centre worker, and drama teaching assistant, all to gather money for Edinburgh next year to study Archaeology & Celtic Languages.

My generation is fluent, well-equipped and ready for the new language of technology and social media - a language of nuance and social anxiety - but our "local skills" are lacking. There’s a generational gap, one maybe too big to bridge.

Ireland, like much of the world, has become host to rapid urbanisation and mass movement - for ill or for good. Its older generations are an extension of the "White Picket Fence" dream of the United States; they saw the first fraying and eventual downfall of Irish social bonds and societies. Alongside - and perhaps because of - Ireland's rapid globalisation and emergence as a major corporate player, institutions and identities like the parish, the church, farming community and family units have become alien to youngsters like me.

This is not to paint an idyllic picture. The Irish are a mobile people, and have been so even before the Great Famine of the 1840's - Irish society has always been extremely vulnerable to change, from both within and without.

Misneach was pointed out to me by a youth leader in Clare, one who runs this wacky, wonderful youth festival called Synergy, a youth club, and a thousand other things. She gave me the link, I hopped on.

A Lifeline Between Two Worlds

A process like Misneach is not only important - it's a lifeline, and a door between two separating worlds. It enables us young people to work our "social skills" while it allows older generations to understand this new language of technology - one which is constantly evolving. The discussions alone have lighted up my local landscape - the power to put faces and names onto places is not to be underestimated.

Intermediaries are key - conversation starters. The inspirational adult figures in my life have all been these rural, local volunteers, who move mountains in the face of both small successes and endless frustrations, all in the name of connecting people.

The Irish have a strong respect for local history. My own group, Shannon Archaeological & Historical Society, have provided the same innovative, welcoming space in the name of coming together to celebrate the past. Right now we're working on a big project to map the fieldnames and minor placenames of the west - many of these are ancient, many are Irish Gaelic, and all have a story. We have the support of Dublin City University, the National Folklore Collection, and numerous community groups - this is typical of Ireland, where there isn't much of a power difference. The local reaches into the national, and the national reaches into the local. For that I'm grateful.

Old Map Co Clare | Irish Culture

This is why a process like Misneach is not only important - it's a lifeline, and a door between two separating worlds. It enables us young people to work our "social skills" while it allows older generations to understand this new language of technology - one which is constantly evolving. The discussions alone have lighted up my local landscape - the power to put faces and names onto places is not to be underestimated.

Growing Up in East Clare

Meg: What was the catalyst for your interest in cultural heritage?

Micheál: I'm based in Sixmilebridge, about 40 minutes from the Burren. In terms of why I love what I love - I grew up in the mountains of East Clare, where megalithic tombs, pure-form Irish placenames, and abandoned famine ruins abound, constantly being torn down, replaced, planted with forestry, or forgotten.

From my view, the concepts of “culture” and “heritage” entered the public imagination the moment we realised they had begun to collapse. Cultural heritage has always been an act of crisis preservation; most attempts to “reignite” it have strayed into spheres of the political, the arrogant, and the downright dangerous.

Like so many movements of the Enlightenment--Romanticism, Marxism, conservationism--these movements exist in opposition to a dominant reality. They suggest an ideal, a return, a magic answer to our problems. So it’s perfect for romantics--or, as we say in Ireland, eejits--like me.

Loch an Dúin (Lake of the Fortress), with Cnocán na mBuachaillí (Hillocks of the Boys) in the background. Photo: Micheál Mac Gearailt

I grew up in the mountains of East Clare, what some call Knockaphunta, what others know as Woodcockhill or Brickhill, the 12 O’Clock Hills or O’Connell’s Mountain. The oldest name we know is Sliabh Oidhe an Righ, or perhaps Sliabh Suidhe an Righ--either where a king was murdered, or where a king sat. That name is no older than the 4th Century--that’s when the king sat, or died, or maybe both. His grave--or his chair--is a stone’s throw from my home, pillaged over a century ago. It might not even be his grave; the archaeological remains suggest a medieval house. An old lady I spoke to said unbaptised children were buried there--a cillín. The real grave-seat might even be a cairn a few miles away. So that’s the why; I think it speaks for itself.

As to what I do, I’m a trainee archaeologist, with a love for these islands and its languages. I’ve worked on commercial and research archaeology digs, I do a lot of work in placename collection and folklore transcription, and you’ll often find me working with local history societies, volunteering in Ireland’s museums, or surveying for archaeological monuments. I am, I must stress – completely unqualified. I love this world of heritage, but all the people who have taken me in have done so out of generosity. I’m young, clueless, and barely out of secondary school.

The Power of Placenames

Meg: You have a special interest in the power of place names, which I share. Can you offer some thinking on why these are important, what they tell us?

Irish Culture | Micheál Mac Gearailt
Micheál Mac Gearailt

Micheál: The power of naming is expressed so perfectly throughout Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Translations, which takes place 200 years ago in Ireland. Take the following excerpt, where agents of the English colonial mechanism discuss their work; the mapping of Ireland, and the Anglicisation of its names:

Manus enters. He is very elated.

Manus: What’s the celebration?

Owen: A christening!

Yolland: A baptism!

Owen: A hundred christenings!

Yolland: A thousand baptisms! Welcome to Eden!

Owen: Eden’s right! We name a thing and – bang! it leaps into existence!

Yolland: Each name a perfect equation with its roots.

Owen: A perfect congruence with its reality. (to Manus) Take a drink.

Yolland: Poteen – beautiful.

We are still reeling from the effects of placename Anglicisation today in the strangest ways. Take the crossroads where I live. One sign points eastwards, with the word “Clonlara”. On the other side of the road is a sign emblazoned with “Cloonlara”. This extra “o” has been the subject of vandalism, live radio outrage, newspaper editorials and mass sign replacement on the part of the County Council. Lahinch-Lehinch. Reaskcamouge-Riaskamoge-Reeinscamogue. There are thousands of examples. One cannot help but feel a sense of mad confusion for it all.

Photos: Micheál Mac Gearailt

Linguistic Re-Conquest

But there is no simple solution, no grand return; no straightforward (as the writer Máirtín Ó Caidhain put it): athghabháil na hÉireann, or more simply, linguistic re-conquest. Even looking to the Irish, there are countless contradictions. After all, this is Ireland we’re talking about.

Take my three examples.

Lahinch’s official Irish name is An Leacht, which means a gravemound. But that sounds nothing like Lahinch, for that name refers to the place in which the modern village arose, An Leithinse--what we commonly translate as “peninsula”. But there is no peninsula here. It’s flat shoreline. Looking closer, we see the village is straddled between two rivers, making it a literal leith-inis; half-island.

Let’s look at Reasckamogue. 19th Century antiquarians told us it’s An Riasc Camóg--the little crooked river on the bog. Today’s national placename authority will tell you it’s Ré na Scamhóg, level ground of the lungs, on account of the damp, spongy pasture.

Cloonlara? It could be the meadow of the mare, or meadow in the middle place. Depends on who you ask. Such is the confusion we have found ourselves in.

And while Irish presents its own contradictions, with it we are given signifiers--symbols--reflecting the contours of a time and landscape that do, or once did, exist. For me, this is a way to find connection with this land. It is a cause that feels more significant than the fight over an extra ‘o’.

A megalithic tomb (2500BC-2000BC) and early modern house (Post 1700AD) side-by-side in Sliabh na Glaise (Mountain of the Stream). Photo: Micheál Mac Gearailt

The Half-Acknowledged History of Irish Culture

Meg: How would you describe the Irish identity, and how it has and is changing?

Micheál: Allow me to return to Friel’s Translations. Here the Englishman responsible for anglicising the village’s placenames has found himself coming to love the place:

Yolland: The day I arrived in Ballybeg – no, Baile Beag... I had moved into a consciousness that wasn’t striving nor agitated, but at its ease and with its own conviction and assurance. And when I heard Jimmy Jack and your father swapping stories about Apollo and Cuchulainn and Paris and Ferdia – as if they lived down the road – it was then that I thought – I knew – perhaps I could live here … (now embarrassed) Where’s the pot-een?

Owen: Poteen?

Yolland: Poteen – poteen – poteen. Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be … hermetic, won’t it?

Owen: You can learn to decode us.

The code has changed. Now our identity is one whose contours can easily be felt and moulded, with a somewhat-clear, half-acknowledged history - but pinning down the shape, defining it, has become more difficult.

The Irish are less ideological than most. Pinned between the two great pillars of the Anglophone world, the UK and USA, we are defined by them, but I think in many ways exist in opposition to them. Ireland is not an island of pride; our deeply-held ideas of conformity and community sit somewhere closer to the Law of Jante of Nordic Countries - the ultimate “nobody is better than anybody else” social rule.

As I was saying; the code is now open - no longer “hermetic”. And that means a lot of wounds are being healed. I can’t quite pin down the Irish identity, or where it’s going - but we are now coming to acknowledge the deep wrongs inflicted under the stewardship of the Catholic Church, the effects of a strict 20th Century censorship programme that saw Joyce, Beckett and Shaw banned, and the realities of our divided island and the painful legacies which exist in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. As well as this, Ireland is at a crossroads with Brexit, Europe, and the fact that we have rapidly changed in regards to ethnic diversity, gender equality and LGBT rights. I think now is a time of flux, and nonetheless a time of hope.

Christianity Meets Irish Culture

Meg: You are very interested in the relationships between Gods and saints, the transition into Christianity, Holy wells, pagan continuity in Ireland. What are your thoughts on all these dimensions of spirituality?

Micheál: Christianity’s adaptability ensured its phenomenal success. Firstly, it incorporated pre-existing motifs of sun gods, resurrection, and the cult of motherhood; secondly, in many ways, it was a class-revolt, a new voice that told those in poverty and slavery: You matter.

Carved stone in Rath Church, Co. Clare. Photo: Micheál Mac Gearailt

It’s because of this, I think, that Christianity so easily embedded itself upon Ireland. We are not a people who react well to authority or radical change; thus the Reformation never reached here en masse; in some ways the emergence of Protestantism was a cleansing of the more divergent, superstitious and archaic elements of Christianity - a “modernisation”.

I think the Irish resistance to conversion can be understood, in part, as a refusal to adopt deeply embedded traditions which can be conjectured to be older than Christianity.
While such traditions are now in the midst of their collapse, there are still communities and practices to be found on this island which cannot be fit into an orthodox Christian context.

For instance, there are people in my region who curse others by throwing rotten meat into their fields; making corn-dollies and leaving it in their sheds. You will encounter the last few villages who dress in mummer’s costumes and straw crowns on the 26th of December, carrying a dead wrenbird from house to house and singing songs. A fraction of holy wells, reputed to have healing powers, are still kept clean and given offerings.

There’s often a strange sense to be found in folklore.Take the example of Boho graveyard, in Fermanagh; a folk remedy says to take the soil from a grave and place it under your pillow to cure numerous infections; upon investigation, the soil was found to contain unique streptomyces, which are used to create antibiotics. It has been sent to the microbiology labs in Ulster University for further study in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

To illustrate the degree to which the Irish consciousness has historically seen “Christianity” and “paganism” co-existing as part of the same, dynamic world, I give an excerpt translated from the Triumphs of Turlough, a 14th Century account of the war in my county of Clare from 1276 to 1311. Here an army, preparing for battle, comes upon a banshee, supernatural prophesier of death:

“On the shining mere they saw the monstrous and distorted form of a lone ancient hideous hag… every hair of her eyebrows was like a strong fish-hook, and, from under them, bleary dripping eyes peered with malignant fire… The crone had a cairn of heads, a pile of arms and legs, which she washed, so that the water was covered with hair and gory brains… “I am the Dismal of Burren”, she said, “‘tis of the tuatha dé Danann I declare myself.”

She goes on to declare their doom, and flies away into the air. The men still fight the next morning; the army is annihilated.

Shakespeare had a lot of material to work with when writing Macbeth.

Ceann Boirne (Point of the Rocky Place), abode of the Brónach and other spirits. Photo: Micheál Mac Gearailt

Meg: What is it about archaeology that intrigues you and what would your dream situation be as far as working in archaeology?

Micheál: I think it’s a fatal obsession with preservation - with dead and dying things. Archaeology is the material culture of what has come before us - it provides an intersection for linguistics, architecture, folklore, geography, and history. For me the art of archaeology pumps a sense of urgency into preservation - it allows a marriage of convenience with science, a mutual comprehension that can be difficult to achieve in the 21st Century.

As to my dream, I really don’t know. Vaguely speaking, I’d like to see my community at a place where it appreciates its heritage, uses it and prides in it and profits from its preservation. Because we’re most certainly not there yet.

Celtic Identity

Meg: You have an interest in Celtic languages. I’ve done some research of my own into this subject and it's murky and has a much different history than what I had originally thought. How do you define “Celtic” and what is it about this branch of the human tree that interests you?

Brigid’s Cross, made every February 1st. Overlooking Cúil Uí Cathasaigh (O’Casey’s Nook). Photo: Micheál Mac Gearailt

Micheál: I think there is a grain of truth in what Tolkien once said: “Celtic 'is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come . . . Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason.”

The Celtic identity, like many in the age of nation states, came to exist in opposition; namely opposition to a rapidly industrialising “Anglo-Saxon” England in the 19th Century.

Nonetheless, there are commonalities. A Celtic language group is a tangible reality--namely Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Manx, Scottish, & Irish. In terms of mutual intelligibility--common understanding of languages--a Manx, Irish or Scottish speaker (together known as the Gaelic languages) can communicate without much trouble. Think of Spanish and Portueguese. The Gaelic speakers, however, cannot understand the Brythonic languages--Welsh, Cornish and Breton--but they share a somewhat more distant level of mutual intelligibility amongst themselves.

As well as this, we share folklore customs, a hypothetical “pantheon” of gods who share cognate names and features. The Celts share traditional music practices and forms of song, and in terms of archaeological culture you’ll find a lot of similarities. Migration was always happening; to present an oversimplification, the Scots are a product of Irish colonisation, as the Bretons are a product of Welsh and Cornish settlement.

I think ultimately the Celtic persona is a product of geography and mentality. At the Atlantic Fringe of Europe, harboured in the bogs and uplands, the Celts have often found themselves squabbling over fields and petty injustices while a bigger, stronger neighbour looms nearby - Roman, Saxon, or technological. There’s always going to be a sense of sorrow and defeat for a people clinging to a cold, rainy coast straddled between a continent and an ocean. Geography has been the shepherd of Irish culture.

The Riders of Sidhe | Irish Culture
John Duncan, The Riders of Sidhe, 1911 | Image Credit: fineartamerica.com

Micheál's Trio of Passions

Meg: I am intrigued by your trio of passions: drama, literature and landscape. Why/how do you see the three as interrelated?

Micheál: I’ve danced a few dances to the Playboy of the Western World, The Cripple of Inishmaan and the Leenane Trilogy. We love our Shakespeare here, our Tennessee Williams and gobstopper Americana; you’ll find a Chekovian hiding in the odd city basement.

I’m no expert in drama, but I love it, I do it, and here’s my take on it. The Irish might not have mastered many things, but they sure found new ways around the English language. The island’s drama is filled with tongues and innuendo, bitterness and half-hearted wounds - it’s a drama of longing, of suggestion, of a wondrous before that we dream into existence for the briefest glimmering moments between the rain and wind and crooked hedges. It’s a canon tied, imprisoned even, with its landscapes - every good Irishman feels a pang of dread the moment he hears the old words “O stony grey soil of Monaghan."

As much as I’m aware I’ve turned this interview into a bibliography, I think your connections--aptly drawn--are nowhere more palpable than in the splendour of Buile Suibhne - the Madness of Sweeney. Here, an Irish king, cursed with madness by a saint, flees into the wilderness and insanely narrates with passion and intensity the elements and landscape, weaving rhyme and meter. In his death throes, he declared:

You are welcome to pledge healths

And carouse in your drinking dens;

I will dip and steal water

From a well with my open palm.

St Mullins Irish Culture
Suibhne met his death in Tigh Moling - now St Mullins | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Shared Histories and Futures

Meg: You will be relocating to Edinburgh to continue your education. What drew you there?

Micheál: While I was originally set to go to university in the U.S., I changed my mind for a number of reasons. Firstly, I got a feel for the “bubble” of liberal arts colleges. There’s a sense of echo chambers, ivory towers, and isolation which scares me. Secondly, it’s a cultural context which I don’t understand or don’t feel I have the right to speak in, as an outsider. And thirdly, the polarisation of politics in the US gives cause for concern. Every day it appears louder and louder to an outsider, and in my evaluation, I figured there was no way I could at all help it.

So why stick to the arrogant, blood-stained and haughty institutions of Europe? Well, the first question might be 'Is Scotland Europe?' Who knows. But I feel, if even by folly, that Scotland presents a degree of mutual comprehension--shared histories and attitudes, shared languages and geographic realities--that I feel it’s just alien enough for new exploration, yet just close enough that I have a right to live, listen and understand it.

I believe Ireland and Scotland have a shared future. I can only hope one more Irishman will do more good than damage in this time of loud, angry voices.

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