Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
chréacht
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!

 

On the Passing of Poets

Ireland: ‘land of Saints and Scholars’ – and poetry, as we found on our travels. In just a few days we have discovered how three pre-eminent Irish poets – whose passing has spanned a century – are being celebrated and commemorated in their own townlands.

Bellaghy, County Londonderry, in Northern Ireland was the childhood home of Seamus Heaney  who was born at nearby Mossbawn on 13 April 1939, the eldest of nine children. Heaney passed away on 30 August 2013 and, in accordance with his own wishes, he is buried in the Cemetery of St Mary’s Church, Bellaghy. A Book of Remembrance is kept in the church, and on his headstone is a line: Walk on air against your better judgement, from one of his poems – The Gravel Walks.

Exactly a year ago – October 2016 – a new building was opened to commemorate Heaney, the Nobel Prize winner, who has been described as ‘…the most important Irish poet since Yeats…’, ‘…the greatest poet of our age…’ and ‘…probably the best-known poet in the world…’ The quality of the HomePlace centre reflects this reputation and provides excellent facilities for the sheer exploration of words as well as performance, lectures and research.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the death of another of Ireland’s country-born poets: Patrick Kavanagh. We visited Inniskeen, County Monaghan, to search out the old St Mary’s Church, which has been transformed to a Centre – open to the public – which displays information on the poet born and raised on a nearby farm in 1904, the fourth of ten children. The Centre also carries out research into the poet’s life and work, and organises an annual event to celebrate him. I am grateful to the staff of the Centre for allowing me to photograph the interior of the former church.

Appropriately, the grave of the poet can be found in the churchyard. Strangely, an elegant memorial to the poet and his wife (below left) vanished in 1989 and was replaced with a simple wooden cross (below right), said to have been carved by his brother, Peter. I could not get to the bottom of this matter: there are various reports to be found on the internet, including this one from RTE.

Like Heaney, Kavanagh’s strong influences came from his rural background. Some of his best-loved works portray country life, but without sentimentality. He remained on the farm in Monaghan until 1931, when he walked the 80 kilometres to Dublin. At first rejected by the literary establishment, his work eventually received appreciation. Seamus Heaney acknowledged that he had been influenced by Kavanagh.

When Kavanagh died on 30 November 1967, at the age of 62, he was recognised as …Ireland’s leading poet in English…

For our third commemoration we travelled to Slane, County Meath, to find the Francis Ledwidge Museum. This poet died exactly a hundred years ago, a victim of the Great War.

The Museum has been created in the cottage where Francis was born on 19 August 1887, the eighth of nine children. Again, he came from a rural background. His father died when he was only five, and he spent much of his life as farm hand, road builder, and copper miner. He was an active campaigner for better working conditions, became an early Trade Unionist, and attempted to organise strikes.

The Ledwidge cottage in Janeville, Slane, around the end of the nineteenth century (top), and the cottage – now the Francis Ledwidge Museum – today (lower)

Francis had written poetry all his life, and some was published in local newspapers when he was 14 years old. He attracted the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to W B Yeats. Like many other artists, writers and poets, Ledwidge’s life was tragically cut short by the war. In the Third Battle of Ypres he and five companions were hit by an exploding shell. Father Devas, a Chaplain who was a family friend, recorded ‘…Ledwidge killed, blown to bits…’ A memorial was raised to him on the place of his death in Belgium, and a replica of this memorial can be found in the garden of the Janeville cottage.

Seamus Heaney also acknowledged Ledwidge as one of his influences

During our travels we have seen that poets in Ireland have respected the work of their compatriots. Wordsmithing is a time-honoured profession: there’s a common thread running from the Bards of old, who carried traditions, myths and genealogies through generations and over centuries.

Below – a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the Welsh artist Jeffrey Morgan hangs in the HomePlace Centre, Bellaghy

The Seven Whistlers

curlew title

While researching for this post I picked up the excellent book by Niall Mac Coitir, Ireland’s Birds – Myths, Legends and Folklore and got diverted by a section on Eagles: why wouldn’t I, as we live up here in Nead an Iolair, Eagle’s Nest? I was delighted to discover from this book that Adam and Eve are reincarnated as Eagles and live on the island of Inishbofin, at the mouth of Killary Harbour in Galway. This adds to the list of important people of the world who have ended up in Ireland, including St Valentine in Dublin and Santa Claus (St Nicholas) who rests in Jerpoint Abbey. I’m hoping to discover many more…

My real subject today is the Curlew: we have seen a few of them lately below us in Rossbrin Cove. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia. There is a small breeding population in Ireland, mainly centred in Galway and Mayo, but this has declined catastrophically in recent times, and the bird is now red-listed as a globally threatened species, according to Birdwatch Ireland. Every Curlew sighting, therefore, is an important one.

In Irish bird folklore, the Curlew does not come over in a good light. It has a very distinctive and haunting call, and this has probably contributed to associations with the Otherworld.

Mac Coitor says: …The Curlew was famous for its whistling and screeching calls, which were believed to foretell the arrival of rain or stormy weather… while Scottish poet Norman Alexander MacCaig (1910 – 1996) describes the Curlew’s voice:

Trailing bubbles of music over the squelchy hillside… music as desolate, as beautiful as your loved places, mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats by the stealthy sea…

Curlews fly at dusk, sometimes in groups: this has given rise to accounts of The Seven Whistlers in both Britain and Ireland. One of the earliest collectors of folkore in these islands, Jabez Allies (1787 – 1856), wrote:

…I have been informed that the country people used to talk a good deal about the ‘Seven Whistlers’ and the late John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold’s Knoll, in Suckley, said that oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, heard six out of the ‘Seven Whistlers’ pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by any one else to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end…

Another account, from William Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders:

‘I heard ’em one dark night last winter,’ said an old Folkestone fisherman. ‘They come over our heads all of a sudden, singing “ewe, ewe,” and the men in the boat wanted to go back. It came on to rain and blow soon afterwards, and was an awful night, Sir; and sure enough before morning a boat was upset, and seven poor fellows drowned. I know what makes the noise, Sir; it’s them long-billed curlews, but I never likes to hear them.’

It’s that long, curved bill that makes the Curlew so distinct a figure down on the mud flats at low tide. The slim, pliable beak is used to probe in mud and shallow water for worms, crustaceans, and insects, and for exploring stones and shells. In flight the bird has a wonderful aerodynamism and reminds me of that beautiful aircraft – now extinct – Concorde. In my younger days, growing up in Hampshire, I watched the test flights of that plane at Farnborough, and always admired its drooping ‘Curlew’ nose.

JgxBY6H

Irish poetry has been enriched by images of the Curlew. Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…

We can’t leave out W B Yeats – He reproves the Curlew:

O, CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Four of Yeats’ poems, including Curlew, were set to music by the eccentric English composer Philip Heseltine, who took the name Peter Warlock. The Curlew is a chamber song-cycle setting written for tenor voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet. Heseltine spent some time in Ireland, including a period on a ‘Gaeltacht island’ (perhaps Cape Clear?) where he sought to learn the Irish language.

Heseltine / Warlock’s The Curlew brings us full circle, as the composer also spent time in Cornwall under the shadow of another Eagle’s Nest – near St Ives – in an area frequented by artists, writers and mystics including D H Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf and Patrick Heron. From Eagle’s Nest in West Cork to Eagle’s Nest in West Cornwall… The Curlew is a much-travelled bird… Be careful of the Seven Whistlers!

view from Eagle's Nest

Curlews be here… view of Rossbrin Cove from Eagle’s Nest, West Cork

Hares in Abundance

exhibition poster

“And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you. God guide you to a how-d’ye-do with me…” (from the Middle English poem – Names of the Hare – translation by Seamus Heaney)

You may know that I am a Hare fanatic. Every day as I travel along through West Cork – driving, cycling or walking – I am scouring the fields and hedgerows in the hope of seeing one of these shy and elusive animals: very occasionally my watchfulness is rewarded. Last year I kept a Hare Diary… on the last day of December I counted up: I had seen only six, and two of these were in other parts of Ireland. Yet, when I first visited Ballybane West – just over the hill from here – back in the early 1990s I saw them on most days; one early morning then I looked out of the window and there was a whole luck of Hares running around the field beyond the house – at least ten of them.

felt hares

A luck of Hares by Christina Jasmin Roser, feltmaker

Where have all the Hares gone? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of Hares in the Heron Gallery, Ahakista at the moment: Annabel Langrish and her husband, Klaus have mounted an excellent exhibition of art and craft works based around images of the Hare.

The exhibition brings together the work of several artists from the West of Ireland: paintings, drawings, feltwork, fabrics, papier mache, jewellery and ceramics. The whole makes a really attractive assemblage, but any one of the works on display – all of which are for sale – would be an elegant addition to your own art collection! I would readily bring them all here to Nead an Iolair but – as we already have numerous images of Hares around the house – Finola has put an embargo on further Hare imports (just for the moment).

Robert talking

Yours Truly was asked to say a few words about Hares at the exhibition opening: a wonderful portait of William the Hare by Sylvia Parkinson looks on

All the works in the Heron Gallery show bring out the magical qualities of this special animal. Mostly it is Lepus Timidus Hibernicus which is depicted: the Irish Hare. This belongs to the Mountain Hare species, related to Arctic Hares. Irish Hares don’t turn white in the winter but they do moult to a paler colour, and sometimes they have white patches then. There are also Brown Hares in Ireland: these were imported from Britain to add to the game stock on landlord estates from medieval times onwards.

Three ceramic Hares by Annabel Langrish, from the exhibition

Although the Irish Hare has been ‘legally protected’ since 1930 – and is listed as a protected species under EU legislation – it can be hunted under license, and Hare coursing is still permitted. This seems anomalous to me: those who support Hare coursing claim that the animals do not suffer. They are captured from the wild, caged (usually for several weeks), and released onto a course where they are chased by muzzled Greyhounds. After this they are put back into the wild. As their name would suggest (Lepidus Timidus), Hares are nervous animals and there can be little doubt that they do suffer stress through the ordeal. Many die before being released. Coursing has been banned in the UK since 2005. There have been moves to have Hares fully protected in Ireland.

The Hare’s Revenge: Dean Wolstenholme’s painting of Greyhounds coursing a Hare (right), while in the medieval woodcut (left) a Hare plays a tabor. The tabor is the forerunner of the Irish bodhran: I am reliably informed that the best skin to use for a bodhran is that of the Greyhound!

bugs_bunny_by_nightwing1975The Hare is a most ancient animal. Fossils have been found dating from Pleistocene times showing that the Hare has not changed or developed in three million years: presumably it is just so perfectly integrated to its environment. It also occupies a prime place in our own mythology. Hare is the archetypal Trickster figure in many cultures – helping to create the world, to bring fire to humans, generally being mischevious and getting into hopeless scrapes, but always coming out on top: just like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny in fact – who is, of course, a Hare! Bugs (my favourite cartoon character) is loosely based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by ‘Uncle Remus’ – collected in the 1870s by Joel Chandler Harris from the oral tradition of the plantation slaves in the Southern United States. Br’er Rabbit (in America Hares are known as Jackrabbits) has his origin as a Trickster figure in African folk tradition.

I have gleaned most of my Hare lore from this much thumbed edition of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson – published by Faber – which I acquired when it first came out in 1972. If you have an evening or three to spare I will happily regale you with tales of Hares gathered from far and wide and recorded in these pages.

pendants

Jewellery by Alison Ibbs

When I lived in Devon, on Dartmoor, I was fortunate to have around me many examples of a symbol known as The Tinners’ Rabbits. Chagford was a Stannary Town – a place where refined tin was assessed, coined, and sold and there was a story that the symbol was a badge of the tin miners. It depicts three Hares (not Rabbits) in a circle: each Hare has two ears, yet there are only three ears in total. A bit of a riddle, perhaps – but one which has been found all over the world, as a project carried out by Chris Chapman reveals. In Chagford’s medieval church (and in several others in Devon and elsewhere) there is a roof boss carved with the image.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to connect the Tinners’ Rabbits symbol to the tin miners – however, there is a surviving superstition in Cornwall and in Ireland that if you meet a Hare while on your way to the mine (or, in some places, when you are going fishing) you turn around and go home!

Some of Annabel’s Hares in the exhibition (left) and (right) our own view of the Hare in the Moon seen from Nead an Iolair last week

Part of the universal folklore of Hares reminds us that it’s the Hare in the Moon we are seeing above us, not the Man in the Moon. And… I know you thought it was an Easter Bunny that brings the chocolate eggs – in fact it’s the Easter Hare! The Saxon spring festival of Ēostre celebrated a hero-Goddess who had a Hare as a companion… Well, that’s one of the many interpretations you will find of this moon-based festival.

Hare eggs and Hare ceramic by Etain Hickey

It’s not Easter now – it’s July – but you can go and see this exhibition on the Sheep’s Head for the rest of this month, and enjoy the beautiful gardens there as well. If, like me, you are a Hare fan, then don’t miss it!

Looking on

Irish Farming – 6,000 Years Ago

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre





How did we farm in Ireland in Neolithic times? Turns out, much as we do now!

We’re just back from an inspiring trip to Mayo, the highlight of which was a visit to the largest Neolithic site in the world – the Céide Fields (pronounced Kay-jeh, for our non-Irish readers).

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

When we think of the Neolithic (or New Stone Age, or Early Farming) period in Ireland, we automatically think of the megalithic tombs – spectacular sites like Newgrange and Loughcrew, or the smaller portal tombs, like Poulnabrone or Arderrawinny. But how did these people make their living? What were their daily lives like? We found the answers, going back almost 6,000 years, at the Céide Fields.

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields is an extensive system of enclosures, stretching for kilometres from the sea over the hills, used for livestock farming. Occasionally, besides grazing fields, there is evidence for corrals, grain-growing, and farmhouses. In fact, much like we see around us in West Cork nowadays, people lived in their own farmhouses, surrounded by their fields, within sight of their neighbours.

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

Society was cooperative – it had to be, in order for such an enormous network of fields to be constructed. And life was peaceful: there is no evidence of defensive structures. The weather was warmer than now – warm enough so cattle could graze outside all winter – and there was enough land and food for everyone.

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They had a spiritual life, building their own version of megaliths – the Court Tombs. We were fortunate to meet the manager of the Céide Fields site, Gretta Byrne, who gave us directions to Rathlackan Court Tomb – a site she had excavated. Court tombs are a type of chambered tomb, generally oriented towards the east and featuring a forecourt at the front of a long mound that covered the chambers. Rathlackan is a fine example, with three chambers and a nicely preserved forecourt. It took a highly organised society to build a complex structure such as this.

In the 1930s a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield, first discovered what were clearly pre-bog collapsed walls when cutting peat in the deep blanket bog that covers this part of Mayo. Decades later his son, Seamus, now an archaeologist, headed the investigations that led to the realisation of how extensive the field system was. Mostly this was done by probing – sending a thin metal bar down through the soft peat until it hit a rock. This technique was so successful that miles of walls could be charted without the need to excavate. Excavation focussed on uncovering small sections of wall and features like enclosures and house-sites.

I take a hand at probing

I take a hand at probing

About 5,200 years ago, a combination of climate change and forest clearance led to the development of the blanket bog that covers the land today and ultimately forced these Neolithic people, after 500 years of successful farming, to abandon their fields. The ecology of bogland and the conditions that create it are the subject of some of the museum exhibits and also of the excellent guided tour that covered two hectares behind the Visitor Centre.

A section of wall disappears under the bog

A section of wall disappears under the bog

If you find yourself in this part of Ireland, do plan a visit to the Céide Fields. Take some bug spray – although they weren’t in evidence when we were there, the Céide midges have a reputation for ferocity. Enjoy the display in the award-winning Visitor Centre first and fortify yourself with a coffee and cake.

This pine came from the bog

This pine came from the bog

Once outside, as you walk along beside the ancient stone walls, look across the valley towards Downpatrick, and marvel at the continuity of a way of life – small cattle farms among stone-walled fields – that began almost 6,000 years ago.

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

We’ll let Seamus Heaney have the last word. His poem, Belderg, was inspired by the Céide Fields:

When he stripped off blanket bog

The soft-piled centuries

Fell open like a glib;

There were the first plough-marks,

The stone-age fields, the tomb

Corbelled, turfed and chambered,

Floored with dry turf-coomb.

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patternings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo.

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

The Irish Elk

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Have you seen an Irish Elk?

It’s not something I’ve bumped into…

You’d know it if you had! Megaloceros Giganticus stood over two metres high at the shoulders and had antlers up to four metres wide. It was the largest Deer that ever roamed the Earth.

And it was Irish?

It actually lived all over Europe – and in Russia and China. But the best fossilised examples have been found in Ireland, preserved in the peat bogs.

Giant Elk

Have you seen an Irish Elk?

I certainly have: there are some whole skeletons in the wonderful Natural History Museum in Dublin, but their antlers hang in many a hall – by which I mean a ‘Baronial’ hall or castle. They seem to have been popular trophies to have mounted on the wall along with all the Foxes and Salmons that didn’t get away… And these ‘trophies’ became sought after in the boom years: Christie’s sold a pair of antlers for £52,850 in 2001, and another pair from Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, sold for £77,353 in 2005.

largeelk

Dublin’s Natural History Museum

Trinity's pair of irish Elks - female and male

Trinity’s pair of Irish Elks – female and male

But trophies means that someone would have hunted them. Surely they were never around at the same time as people?

It’s a good chance they were. The latest dating of Megaloceros is around 5,000 BC, although others assert that they died out several Millennia before that. The first humans are supposed to have settled in Ireland around 8,000 BC – the Mesolithic period.

Lascaux Cave Painting - estimated to be 17,300 years old

Lascaux Cave Painting – estimated to be 17,300 years old

And why did they die out?

There are a few theories: being hunted – not being able to adapt to changing climates and environments – or simply that their antlers were too big…

I like that theory…

Yes. We saw this one at Ballymaloe – but it wasn’t on the menu!

Ballymaloe Trophy

Ballymaloe Trophy

Such a shame that it doesn’t still exist.

True… although it might be a bit scary if you met it on the slopes of Mount Gabriel!

Along with Ireland’s last Wolf?

Exactly.

Closest relation: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

Closest relation alive today: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

But you know…

Yes?

I read that some scientists believe that if they found a good enough specimen – preserved in the permafrost perhaps – they could extract enough DNA to re-establish the species through cloning. And others, too: Mammoths maybe, and Sabre-Toothed Tigers.

So, one day, our view from Nead an Iolair could be enhanced by a herd of grazing Giant Elks.

Now, there’s a thought…

I’ll give the last word to Seamus Heaney – who found inspiration in Megaloceros:

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening–

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

(Bogland, Seamus Heaney 1969)

meg stamp