High Drama!

tower in context

If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia – or both – then you won’t want to follow us in the adventure we had this week while returning from a visit to Dublin: climbing to the top of an Irish Round Tower! Overcoming any tendencies we might have had towards these phobias, we arrived at the roof of the 32.6 metre high Kildare tower and marvelled at being able to stand on the summit of a piece of architecture over a thousand years old. Kildare has the second highest Round Tower still extant in Ireland: the highest is at Kilmacduagh, Co Galway, at 34.9 metres; however, Kildare now lacks a conical cap, which it might once have had. If so, it would just tip in as the highest of all the towers.

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top - probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top – probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

The print above – dating from 1788 – shows the ruins of St Brigid’s Church, which was fully restored as a Church of Ireland Cathedral a hundred years later. We looked down on this from our vantage point atop the Tower – and had a good view of the (also restored) Fire Temple where a perpetual flame, lit by the Saint, was kept burning for hundreds of years, finally being extinguished by the shenanigans of Henry VIII.

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid's 'Fire Temple' in the grounds

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid’s ‘Fire Temple’ in the grounds

You’ll have heard me talk about St Brigid many times: she’s second only to St Patrick in the Irish Martyrology. In fact, as probably the most influential woman in Irish history, I’m going to declare her as quite the equal of St Patrick: she’s often enough described as one of the Patron Saints of Ireland. You will also know that she is surrounded by folklore and traditional customs, such as the making of her Cross on her day, the First of February.

St Brigid’s Cross – left, at her Holy Well and right, a textile in the Solas Bhride Centre, Kildare

Back to the adventure (although the whole day was adventurous!) – climbing the tower was hard going. There were a series of near-vertical ladders to be negotiated: each one took us to a higher timber platform, six floors in all. At the top of each ladder we had to squeeze ourselves through a narrow opening; this, and the confines of the tower interior – only two metres or so across – certainly challenged the claustrophobiac in me.

The restricted space also made us question some of the theories about the uses of these towers, which are always located at ecclesiastical sites. The definitive work on them is, as it happens, written by someone who also lives in West Cork – just a little distance from Nead an Iolair: Brian Lalor. Brian has led a very full life, involving architecture, archaeology, sketching and printing (his etchings are exquisite). He is also the author of a number of books, many of which are on our own shelves, including The Irish Round Tower, published by The Collins Press, 1999 and 2005.

lalor

Brian is unequivocal in his assertion that the primary purpose for round towers was to house the monastery bell. He also suggests that a secondary function would be as a safe storage place for the monastic treasures: the entrance door was always raised at a considerable height above the surrounding ground level, requiring steps or a ladder to gain access. In the times when they were constructed they would have been visually impressive – and could be seen from a great distance. They would have acted as signposts for travellers who might have been searching for the hospitality which monastic communities always offered. Brian discounts some of the more bizarre theories for the towers – for example, that they might have been places of safe refuge for the monks if under threat of attack by Vikings – or that they are simply phallic symbols! Lastly, Brian considers – and gives some credence to – the idea that the towers were monumental buildings of prestige and local aristocratic patronage: certainly, they required considerable expense and effort to construct.

centre entrance

As is often the case with our days out, one adventure led on to another. When we came down from the tower we found that St Brigid’s Cathedral had closed for lunch. But we knew that the Saint’s trail also involved a Holy Well and we had heard that there was a new building devoted to the work of Brigid just outside Kildare.

Solas Brhíde Centre

Solas Brhíde Centre

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

We were very impressed with the Solas Bhríde Centre: a small group of Brigidine Sisters has put together the project to build a Christian Spirituality Centre which unfolds the legacy of St Brigid and shows that it is still relevant in the present day. We were shown around the Centre by one of these Sisters, Phil, who pointed out that Brigid was attuned to the natural world and would have appreciated that the new building (designed by Solearth Ecological Architecture) is conceived on ecologically sound terms using sustainable materials and techniques which care for the wellbeing of the Earth. The plan of the building is appropriately inspired by the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross.

Architect's drawing of the newly completed building

Architect’s drawing of the newly completed building

The next stop on our itinerary was the nearby Holy Well – a popular place of pilgrimage and veneration on St Brigid’s Day:

Finally, we arrived back at the Cathedral. I’m always a little disappointed by restorations – particularly those which were carried out in Victorian times; nevertheless there are some impressive features. The possibly twelfth century font is one of them (below left), and another has to be the hidden Sheelagh-na-gig under the lip of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb (below right). I reached under to feel this little carving, and was then told by the Cathedral’s guardian that anyone who touches the effigy is ensured everlasting fertility!

The excellent Heritage Centre opposite the Cathedral entrance is informative about the town’s history and the important connections with this special Saint. There is much more to be discovered – and written – in respect of St Brigid, and other places in Ireland which are connected with her still to be visited. Do go to Kildare and, at the very least, suspend your phobias sufficiently to allow you to climb the ancient Round Tower. But make sure you go between May and September – and not during the lunch hour…

tower poster

Shenanigans

running fox

The word shenanigan (a deceitful confidence trick, or mischief) is considered by some to be derived from the Irish expression sionnachuighim, meaning ‘I play the Fox’. That’s by no means the only definition of shenanigan that you’ll find, but – for me – it’s a good one.

The Red Fox stops by Nead an Iolair on most days. He’s such a frequent visitor that he’s trodden a furrow across the lawn – which he follows meticulously in order to keep his feet dry: he’s a fastidious creature is our Ferdia.

It’s a bit unkind, perhaps, to always think that the Fox is up to some kind of shenanigans. That would be playing up to his reputation of being cunning or sly. Our Ferdia is pretty open about why he takes an interest in us – purely and simply, it’s his stomach. His patter is always the same: he stands at the window and presses his nose against the glass, managing to look somehow downtrodden or neglected (we know he isn’t at all – in fact his current winter coat is magnificent: not just red, but with a silver grey sheen, and his legs, paws and ears are a beautifully velvety black).

on the wall 2

The Irish word for Fox is Sionnach, and there are stories that this animal was brought over here by the Vikings, who reputedly used them for hunting. Now the tables are turned: in Ireland Fox hunting is a legal sport (which it no longer is in Scotland, Wales and England), and we have very occasionally seen The Hunt crossing the fields during our travels. If you read the highly amusing Irish RM by Somerville and Ross you will quickly gather that actually apprehending a Fox is something very rare for The Hunt: more usually it results in a loss of balance, life or dignity for the participants. This is probably a realistic picture: Edith Somerville was herself a MFH and therefore had considerable experience in the matter.

Well, Ferdia’s ploy usually works, and he frequently deprives us of the last morsel on our own plates. I’m sure I’ve heard him chuckling to himself as he disappears off into the fields clutching a bone or three. Foxes are good family animals: generations can live together for a few seasons, helping to look after the succeeding offspring – the collective noun for Foxes is A Skulk. Ferdia himself has got his act together: if we give him some scraps he’ll eat a good chunk first and then carry the rest off home – which I’ve worked out is quite a distance away. That’s fair enough: as Alpha Male and number one provider it wouldn’t do if he was debilitated with hunger.

We have on occasion seen Ferdia lead another Fox into the garden – either a wife or a daughter, but they are so nervous that their visits are rare and short. Ferdia, on the other hand, is totally confident that he’s got us wrapped around his little finger… In the summer he has been sitting out with us on the terrace, passing the time of day in a very relaxed fashion.

img4954Only yesterday I noticed our Fox sorting out some scraps on the lawn. Suddenly, there came into view two magpies. As I watched, one of them hopped around to the front of Ferdia and he stopped what he was doing to chase it away. Immediately, the other Magpie jumped in and took a good helping. Ferdia rushed at this competitor, and Magpie number One hopped in and had his share… From which I deduce that the cunning of Magpies is equal to that of the Red Fox.

In folklore, the Fox has a big presence. The animal is said to be able to foresee events including the weather and its barking is said to be a sure sign of rain (the only time we heard Ferdia bark was when we hadn’t noticed him standing at the window).

It is thought to be unlucky to meet a woman with red hair when setting out in the morning, especially if you are a fisherman. We may assume that the woman is a Fox in disguise.

There are legends about both St Ciarán and St Brigid finding and taming a Fox, and there are medieval carvings in churches showing Foxes: in one instance a Fox is in a pulpit preaching to Geese!

Where does the word Fox come from? One theory is that it derives from the French word faux – false. Interestingly there is also a possible link to the flower – Fuschia – so prolific in the Irish hedgerows. Theories abound, but we know that the Fox is above us in the night sky, in the constellation of Vulpecula – once known as Vulpecula cum Ansere – Fox and Goose.

Vulpecula

The story of Fox and Goose has been immortalised in what is reputedly one of the oldest folk songs in the English Language: The Fox or Daddy Fox. This version is from the 14th century:

‘Pax Uobis quod the fox,

‘for I am comyn to toowne’

It fell ageyns the next nyght

the fox yede to with all his myghte,

with-outen cole or candlelight,

whan that he cam vnto the town.

When he cam all in the yarde,

soore te geys were ill a-frede;

‘I shall macke some of youre berde,

or that I goo from the toowne!’

when he cam all in the croofte,

there he stalkyd wundirfull soofte;

‘for here haue I be frayed full ofte

whan that i haue come to toowne.’

he hente a goose all be the heye,

faste the goos began to creye!

oowte yede men as they myght heye,

and seyde, ‘fals fox, ley it doowne!’

‘Nay,’ he said, ‘soo mot I the

sche shall go vnto the wode with me;

sche and I wnther a tre,

e-mange the beryis browne.

I haue a wyf, and sche lyeth seke;

many smale whelppis sche haue to eke

many bonys they must pike

will they ley a-downe.’

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Here’s a more accessible version:

The fox went out on a chilly chilly night

He prayed to the moon to give him light

He had many many miles to go that night

Before he reached the town-o, town-o town-o,

Many many miles to go that night before he reached the town-o.

He ran ’til he came to a great big pen

Where the ducks and the geese were kept therein

He said a couple of you will grease my chin

Before I leave this town o, town o, town o

A couple of you will grease my chin before I leave this town-o.

He grabbed the grey goose by the neck

And he threw a duck all across his back

He never did heed the quivvy quivvy quack

Nor the legs all a dang-ling down-o, down-o, down-o

He never did heed the quivvy quivvy quack

Nor the legs all a dang-ling down-o.

Old mother Flipper Flopper jumped out of bed

Out of the window she pushed her little head

Cryin’ O John, O John the grey goose is gone

And the fox is away to his den-o, den-o, den-o

O John, O John the grey goose is gone

And the fox is away to his den-o.

Well, the fox he came to his very own den

And there were the little ones, eight, nine, ten

Saying Daddy you better go back again

‘Cause it must be a mighty fine town-o, town-o, town-o

Saying Daddy you better go back again

‘Cause it must be a mighty fine town-o.

Well, the fox and his wife without any strife

Cut up the goose without any knife,

They never had such a supper in their life

And the little ones chewed on the bones-o, bones-o, bones-o

They never had such a supper in their life

And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.

stamp

March Miscellany

shovel

Another selection of Irish ‘normalities’ which have caught my English eye over the last few months (the previous selection is here). They have amused me, surprised me and sometimes baffled me. I have the greatest respect for their ‘Irishness’ – a unique outlook on life and culture from a small island which has made a big mark on the world. Mostly the images need no commentary but I have provided a little information for the curious at the end of the post.

them jobs

holy water

scrap

sprigging

ford hare

red light

shrine

luckyhouse

posterity

till he comes

walker

walking

offerings

Most of the images are from our own neighbourhood, but the spectacular wells and shrines – including the one above (to St Brigid) were seen on our trip to Clare. Can’t resist just one more image: it’s the view we enjoy every day from Nead an Iolair, constantly changing and always arresting.

panorama