A reflective moment on the entangled world of research

‘Take a sharp needle,’ he said, ‘and stick it in under the collar of your coat, and not one of them will be able to have power on you.’


The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge

This is from a story that John Millington Synge recorded on the Aran Islands, sometime between 1898 and 1901, years when he spent his summers on the islands, learning Irish and collecting stories and folklore. Of course, people of my generation will know Synge from his Playboy of the Western World, a play which we dutifully studied for the Leaving Cert. I barely remember Christy, although Pegeen Mike is unforgettable, as is the evocative language of Hiberno-English, closely observed and recorded by Synge during his times in the west of Ireland. But I do remember that it caused riots in Dublin when it was first performed at the Abbey in 1907. The riot was because he used the word ‘shift’, to wit, ‘… a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts…’.


Our English teacher for the Leaving Cert explained that shift was another term for nightdress, and that the notion of a group of lovely Irish maidens standing around in their nighties was enough to cause grave offence to the audience, casting aspersions on the virtue of said maidens, and thereby provoking a riot. Of course, there’s always more than one side to a story, and apparently ‘a shift’, at the time, was also a well-known symbol representing Kitty O’Shea and her adultery with Charles Stuart Parnell, a huge scandal. And the whole point of the play, that Christy had apparently murdered his father in a despicable act of patricide, was viewed by audiences as an offence and insult to Irish morals.

But back to the sharp needle. It’s a reference to protecting yourself from the fairies, the good people. Metal objects are common as protective charms – knives, swords, horseshoes, coins and pins have all been used. Synge also suggests here that the attraction of ‘exquisite sharpness’ was a feature, as well as some respect for ‘the instrument of toil’.

But as I read his story, I remembered something forgotten for many years. My father wore a jacket every day of his life, and under the collar was a pin. Always. I asked him once, when I was a small child, why he had a pin under his collar—because when we hugged him, we had to take care not to get jabbed. And he said that he had picked it up and put it there to keep it safe. I always assumed that he had found it on the floor and stuck it under his collar to make sure that nobody stepped on it in their bare feet. But being an accepting and gullible type of child, I never questioned why he hadn’t removed it once he found a safe place to put it—our house was not short of drawers or receptacles suitable for a small pin. So now, after all these years, I think that my dad, a civil engineer who worked with real measurements and tangible constructions, also strived to keep himself safe from the intangible world of the fairies and their deeds. And after all, his grandfather was a local GP known widely as the fairy doctor (and this is another story).

My dad in the 1940s, in one of his first jobs as a draftsman in Cardiff

My dad in one of his first jobs as a draftsman in Cardiff, early 1940s

Which brings me right back in a full circle to the entangled world of research. I read a book to find out more about folk traditions on the Aran Islands in the late nineteenth century. As I was writing up my notes, the act of writing prompted the retrieval of a long forgotten memory. Which led me to thinking about the continuance of rituals and protective practices right through to the present day. Which led me to read Emma Donoghue’s latest book The Wonder (which is terrific, by the way, and you should all read it). And to ponder on why people carry out protective rituals, but don’t talk about them that much (see also my blog post on warts). And now I am going to have to read Hodder’s Entangled again. Just to be sure.

Further reading
Donoghue, E. 2016 The Wonder. London: Picador.
Hodder, I. 2012 Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Merrifield, R. 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. New York: New Amsterdam Books.
Synge, J.M. 1998 [1906] The Aran Islands. Belfast and St Paul, Minnesota: The Blackstaff Press.

Posted in Folk charms, Folk traditions, Material culture, Research, hmmm, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , ,

How goes the shamrock in Ireland?

The shamrock. A familiar Irish symbol, featuring alongside the harp and round tower, thatched house and donkey on all sorts of material destined for the tourist market. Witness my new socks below.

My new shamrock socks

New shamrock socks – celebrating the kitsch!

In primary school, we learned how St Patrick used the shamrock to teach the mystery of the Holy Trinity to the Irish pagans. My father wore a sprig of shamrock on his lapel, on the way to Mass on St Patrick’s Day. He had to find it in the neighbour’s garden or in the field across the road because, being a singular gardener, he would not have allowed such a weed to flourish in his own lawn.

Much later, after I’d moved to Australia, my mother would send fresh shamrock to me every March. This was special shamrock, prepared for the emigrant market, sold in the post office in a see-through envelope, roots removed and sprayed to kill any bugs. It either never arrived at all—I had a number of notices instead from the Australian quarantine service saying it had been stopped in its green tracks by their good offices—or it got through as a green slime, contained by the plastic envelope. After a while, Mam sent badges instead, with harps and flags on them—these were more successful.

There are references to earlier emigrants than me taking the shamrock with them to America. During the Famine, for example, people left the O’Connor Estate at Ballymoe in County Galway carrying shamrock:

At that time emigrants always carried in their little tin trunks—holy water, an oatmeal cake, a fat hen (cooked), a glass of whiskey in a small bottle in case of sea sickness—and they never, never, on any occasion, forgot to bring a bunch of shamrocks and a sod of turf cut from their parents’ turf bank.
National Folklore Collection 485:218-219; KK (78), Ballymoe, County Galway. Collector: Kathleen Hurley, March 1938.

When the Celtic Revival came along in the nineteenth century, it went hand-in-hand with a rise in patriotic nationalism among the Protestant Ascendancy, who had come to identify with their adopted land. Traditional national symbols like the shamrock, wolfhound and harp were joined by other symbols such as the round tower, Tara Brooch, Celtic cross and Book of Kells. All helping to establish a ‘material basis for an Irish national identity’ (Hutchinson 2001:510).

All of this makes me see the shamrock today as one part of a constructed Irishness. An Irishness created first by the Protestant minority to shore up their own nationalism and identity, then adopted by middle class Catholics, and filtering through to the broader community. Ultimately taken on willy-nilly by a newly independent Ireland of the early twentieth century, and absorbed into the national psyche. It means that everybody has an idea about what Irishness is but nobody can define it precisely. Maybe this is what Michael Billig (1995) refers to as ‘banal nationalism’?

Either way, the shamrock is alive and well in modern Ireland. Keogh’s crisps have a shamrock and sour cream flavour. Not as good as their sweet chilli and Irish red pepper flavour in my opinion, but they still give Tayto a run for their money.

Shamrock flavoured crisps

Shamrock crisps

Shamrock fabric is easily available.


Shamrocks for a quilt or skirt, anybody?

I am still coming to terms, however, with shamrock protection. In the gift shops of Dublin, I came across Irish condoms, selling at three for 5 euros. Who wouldn’t be without a bit of protection at that price? And that cheeky green shamrock suggesting that you ‘Rub me for luck’.

Personally, I think I’ll stick with the socks. Or a nice view of the sea.

Shamrocks on a fence at Dun Laoghaire east pier

Shamrocks on a fence at Dun Laoghaire east pier

Billig, M. 1995 Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.
Hutchinson, J. 2001 Archaeology and the Irish rediscovery of the Celtic past. Nations and Nationalism 7(4):505-519.

Posted in Around the world, Flora, Ireland, Material culture, Migration, Travelling | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The view at Loughcrew

I went to Loughcrew a few days ago to see the passage tombs. It’s not too far from my home town of Trim. You can visit Loughcrew any time you like during daylight hours, walk around the outside of the cairns, and enjoy the 360 degree view.

But … if you want to go into the passage tomb at Cairn T, you have to get a key from the coffee shop in the Loughcrew Gardens, about three kilometres away. There are only two keys. I got the last one. As I was heading towards my car, a woman caught up with me. She’d missed the key but I’d been pointed out, and we agreed to drive up together in her car because she’d been to the cairns a few times before and knew the way.

We left the carpark and she drove down the road, heading into a wooded valley. It struck me then (because I could see the cairn on top of the hill, in a completely different direction), that I had just gotten into a car with a stranger, and that perhaps she wasn’t really as friendly as she looked but was instead a murderer, or a starting-off serial killer. After a couple of minutes, when I’d sweated enough to steam up all the car windows, I suggested that perhaps we were going the wrong way. And it turns out that she wasn’t a murderer at all. She was a druid. With a poor sense of direction.

So we turned around, and we got to the car park and panted up the hill to the cairns, which date to around 3000 BC. The hill is also known as Slieve na Cailligh, the hag’s mountain, and pretty much the first thing you see when you get to the top is the hag’s chair. It faces north, and forms part of the kerb of Cairn T. In some stories, the cailleach (hag) sits on the chair to smoke her pipe. Local folklore says that you should sit on the chair and make a wish. This I did and my new druid friend took my photo.


Hag on a rock

Cairn T is the largest on the Carnbane East hill, and dominates the other smaller, ruined cairns.


Cairn T, with collapsed cairn in foreground

Opening the gate and entering the passage tomb feels like a huge privilege.


Entrance way in Cairn T

The entrance and the chamber are lined with massive stones, carved with the most amazing rock art.


After leaving the passage tomb, I walked around the hill, soaking up the landscape. The cailleach is said to sometimes appear in the form of a crow, and on cue, one flew down and gave me a long and piercing look. Slightly unnerved, I concentrated on looking at the stone circles and the view from Loughcrew.


When we could no longer feel our fingers from the cold, and as dusk was drawing in, the druid and I walked back down the hill to the car park and the twenty-first century. And I had a large pot of tea and a warm bakewell tart in the coffee shop.

Further reading
McMann, J. 2005 Loughcrew: The Cairns: A Guide to an Ancient Irish Landscape. Oldcastle: After Hours Books.
Zucchelli, C. 2016 Sacred Stones of Ireland. Cork: The Collins Press.

Posted in Around the world, Folk traditions, Folklore, Ireland | Tagged , , , ,

A few words on the art of sieving

Archaeologists use various tools to survey and excavate sites. Some are very expensive and require specialist expertise – see Geophys at dawn for images of us working on Baker’s Flat with some of that particular kit. Some are much cheaper and easier to recognise – I’m thinking plastic buckets and the archaeologist’s trowel here.

But something that is dear to my heart is the sieve. Archaeologists sieve excavated dirt so that smaller remains that have been overlooked in the trench can be found. When we excavated at Baker’s Flat earlier this year, we started by sieving every bucket of soil that was excavated. At some stages, depending on the needs of the trench, we sieved one in two buckets, or one in three.

By the end of the dig, I estimate the sieved pile was about 16 tonnes of dirt. The  picture below shows the pile when it was tiny, and anybody that knows me may recognise the silhouettes of my two sons, who came to visit the site on a Saturday and were immediately drafted in to work.


Below is the pile as it got bigger – two sieves standing sentinel waiting for the next buckets.
IMG_3349 cropped

And then there’s the lonely walk back to the trench, carrying the empty buckets, on a sort of Sisyphean journey – up and down the hill carrying buckets that are emptied only to be immediately filled again.IMG_3202

And the close examination of sieve contents. At Baker’s Flat, most of the material being found in the sieves were bits of rusty metal, most likely corrugated iron that had been used as roofing. But we also found two green glass beads, which might be the spangles or weights from a lace bobbin. And some metal trouser buttons – from hard-working Irish trousers? There were also numerous ceramic and glass shards.IMG_3520

And why do I love sieving so much? It always reminds me of Christmas. All that wrapping, in this case dirt, hiding small treasures.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Kapunda, South Australia | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Shortlisted! Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016

Update 31 August 2016: I’m through to the finals! Thank you readers for the votes, and thank you judges for the judgement. 

I was very happy this morning to open my emails and see that Don’t Forget Your Shovel has been shortlisted for the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016 in the Diaspora category, sponsored by Littlewoods Ireland.

Thanks to everybody for reading the blog and making comments, and to the judges who thought the blog merited being shortlisted. If you want to cast a vote, you can click on the picture below. Voting closes on 23 August, and 20% of the vote is from blog readers, 80% from the judges.


Posted in Ireland | Tagged , , | 4 Comments