It’s amazing how Monty Python jokes are all making sense now. We’ve watched the movie trilogy again (Holy Grail etc.) and downloaded a lot of the classic skits from Flying Circus and find ourselves appreciating them all over again but from an Irish point of view. The Irish are a very modest lot, never boastful, always generous but with a wicked sense of humour that usually includes “slagging”, pokin’ fun at ya. I think it has to do with being invaded and occupied so many times over the past 1500 years. You can’t get away from history here. It’s all around you.
We drove out to the west coast to the Burren and found traces of the Neolithic people who first populated the island. The Burren is massive landscape of grey, limestone hills that has archeological evidence of human life from 3500 BC – a stone circle, tomb and a fort but there is more evidence all over the island.
But the Celtic occupation is really where the first recorded history of Ireland begins. The Celts moved in around 500 BC, forming the first division of the island into four Kingdoms and many legends exist today of their mighty warrior kings and beliefs. We see Irish Celtic writing, symbols, stones and crosses everywhere and the road signs are printed in both Irish and English. The language is still spoken a lot especially out west and is learned in school.
Further down the timeline, around 5th century AD, St. Patrick and other Christian missionaries moved in and Christianity took over by the year 600.
Glendalough is one of the first monasteries built at that time in a beautiful wooded vale between two lakes. Picture this Monty Python sketch – It was first discovered by a lone monk, St. Kevin, in search of solitude. He built a small shelter on a rock ledge over the lake but was pursued by a female admirer who wouldn’t leave him alone. (“Get away, get away”).
He acquired so many followers that he ended up as the head of a monastery and a whole village grew up around him.
Then came the Vikings. (yes, picture the Spam sketch – singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam”). They invaded from 800-900, destroying monasteries and regional dynasties but were eventually assimilated.
Then came 1066. That nasty Norman, William the Conquerer became King of England and relations between the French and the English were never the same. Setting their sights further, the Normans who had settled in Wales invaded Ireland in 1169 led by Richard “Strongbow” de Clare beginning more than 700 years of Norman, then English dominance. We saw his tomb in Dublin.
Across the field from us is a castle ruin just sitting on someone’s property while they live/farm around it. We see these medieval ruins everywhere in Ireland. The early versions were just tall round towers with windows at the top to throw spears or burning oil (or cows- oops!) on the raiders below.
This castle though came later, maybe 1500’s and is Norman in form so has a square tower with fancier windows. By then, wealthy Anglo-Normans built castles to really impress the neighbours and to intimidate the poor Irish that worked for them on the land below.
The castle’s surrounding architecture is Elizabethan so it must have been around a while before catching on fire and abandoned. A lot of the stonework would have been dismantled and taken away to build other houses in the area as more and more people began to own their own land.
We visited a beautifully restored medieval castle just outside of Limerick in Bunratty village, county Clare.Built originally in 1270, the castle underwent many transformations as it was seized in various wars by opposing forces, burned to the ground and rebuilt. But the final version is really well restored.
The village below has been reconstructed to look like a typical medieval town. We got a good look at what life was like for tenant farmers, merchants and labourers. The small cottages have thatched roofs and go up in scale depending on your status in the village. Taxes were partially based on how many rooms and windows you had and the size of your chimney. So the poorer you were, the smaller your windows and the smokier your room
1845-50 were the Potato Famine years and during that time the poor still lived as tenants subject to the whim of the landlords. Many estates fell into disrepair and were auctioned off to English speculators who were only interested in taking advantage of a tragic time and making a profit. They took a harsh view of the penniless farmers living on their land and either raised their rents or evicted them. That was the time of mass emigration to the Americas. It wasn’t until 1903 that tenant farmers were actually allowed to buy their holdings ending the centuries-old landlord system that had exploited so many people and caused so much suffering.
I say “Ni!” to all that. Glad to see that Irish eyes are still smiling.