Monday, 11 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 24: Ireland

A rare sight ― Ireland on a clear day
photo: NASA's Earth Observatory
Like the sky above it, a clear picture of pagan Celtic Ireland is elusive. The shortage of clear archaeological evidence in England, Wales and Scotland seems like plenty when compared with that of Ireland. Yet, Irish manuscripts contain more legends of the Celts than anywhere else. The warriors in these tales always fight from chariots, yet there is not a single example of any Irish-made chariots or chariot fittings. There is a wooden part of a chariot from Corlea Bog, where a wooden road appears to have been made for wheeled traffic, but it contains non-native maple studs and might come from the Rhineland, and there is also a British terret ring of simple form. The commonest La Tène objects are horse bits, and they are frequently found in pairs, so their use on a chariot team is, at least, possible.  One has to be constantly aware of the adage: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" because there is no sign of any ordinary house of the period, either ― no post-holes or fireplaces. I suspect that houses were built igloo-style from peat blocks, the later form of stone huts used by the early Christian monks perhaps echoing that form. Another suggestion is that tents were used, and what appears to be wooden tent pegs were found at the Corlea Bog road.

In his introduction to La Tène in Ireland: Problems of Origin and Chronology, Marburg, 1984, Barry Raftery starts with:
"There can be little doubt that the archaeology of Iron Age Ireland is one of the most problematical fields of study in the whole of Irish prehistory. Because of the virtual absence of significant associations, the paucity of burials and clearly recognisable settlements and, indeed, the largely selective nature of the surviving remains, there are still immense areas of uncertainty confronting the archaeologist in almost every aspect of this extremely difficult period.
"The Iron Age in Ireland is illumined, however dimly, by a not inconsiderable wealth of written material. This written record is of undeniable value to the archaeologist but arguably its existence has also had detrimental effects on the development of objective archaeology. This is not only because the written sources have been misused but also because the complete and vivid picture of society in Iron Age Ireland apparently presented by the literature is at variance with, and obscures, the very real darkness which so often confronts the archaeologist in his study of the material remains of the period."
Iron Age objects in Ulster Museum
photo: Notafly
Like northern Britain and Wales, no Celtic coins were issued in Ireland. From this we can assume that no Irish troops served in the Mediterranean campaigns, and that the the Irish did not have very strong economic and social ties with those Celts who did. Yet there are signs of La Tène influence in Ireland from the Rhineland to England. Sometimes, these connections are not that obvious. Raftery (Pagan Celtic Ireland, did not mention that the material (ash with maple studs) used in a piece of fine woodworking from Corlea Bog (fig. 53), was paralleled in Waldgallscheid, Rhineland (Jacobsthal No. 26). Some errors have also been made: the Brigantes identity of the Lambay Island settlers near Dublin was based only on the presence of a beaded torc (which objects have no clear distribution focus). Looking at the brooches and other remains, I was able to state that the most likely tribe for these settlers was the Dobunni. For reasons that I cannot fathom. rather too much attention is given, by archaeologists, to the more spectacular pieces. There was quite a commotion about the finding of the Crosby Garrett Roman parade helmet, but really, high status objects such as this have little archaeological value in comparison with a local brooch, as such items often travelled far. It would make a good display piece, but that has nothing at all to do with archaeology.

As many examples of Irish La Tène art start later and last longer than those of other areas, and because of the evidence of the Lambay Island settlers, it would seem that most of the La Tène influence was sporadic and not particularly focused (save for being largely absent in the extreme south). It seems that the Lambay Island settlers arrived in about 75 AD from the Severn estuary. The brooch type most represented in the finds being a distinctly local Polden Hill variant. I don't think that I am going out on too much of a limb by suggesting that these settlers were seeking a way of life that was not commensurate with the Roman occupation of Britain. Perhaps they were looking for hire, as warriors, from local leaders. The fact of the Menapii tribe from the mouth of the Rhine appearing in Ireland suggests a larger contingent, but without much in the way of material evidence apart from the fact that the Irish La Tène gold bears platinum inclusions not found in British gold, but present in the Rhineland and in a coin of the Boii, might mean that a large segment of the tribe moved to Ireland as did large segments of the Aulerci tribes moved down from the Rhine to Armorica.

 A profession that likely suffered a great deal in Roman Britain along with those Celts who made weapons and chariots was poetry. Bards, who were all members of the Druid class were specialists in singing the praises of the heroic acts of their patrons, but the heroism of such British leaders as Boudicca did not provide much of a market opportunity for the bard, as local heroism against the Romans was not boasted by them for very long. I think it very likely that British and Continental bards also traveled to Ireland seeking patrons. They would have needed to familiarize themselves with the histories of their new patrons, but many colorful passages would be carried forward from verses composed about previous patrons and would have been the stock and trade of their profession. Who knows? ― Perhaps verses about the "hound of Cullan the smith" (Cú Chulainn) had some elements from verses about "the hound of Belinus" (Cunobeline).

Raftery finishes  La Tène in Ireland with an allusion to Diodorus (V.31):
'The Irish  La Tène material gives us tantalising glimpses into a Celtic, Iron Age society but, more often than not, the evidence can be said to "speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood".

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