A Cultural Theft in the West Cork Heartland

Travelling to a favourite West Cork site this July took on a somewhat surreal edge. Over the morning, the drizzle congealed to mist then back again (several times) before finally deciding to settle on a light grey fog of soupish consistency. Taking the old road right some time after the Coosane – a road I’ve taken all my life – I somehow went astray, heading up into the mist coated hills and ended up negotiating an unfamiliar labyrinth of grey-green botharíns. Beside me, my French friend said nothing, calmly trusting my driving skill as he did his best to locate a view.

When we got to the lake, the water was black and still, the air heavy with moisture. Even as I parked the car however, I could see a busload of tourists down by the water and exploring the island so we retired to the Gougane Barra Hotel until they were gone. Before I went inside, I looked back just in time to see the fog come down hard, swallowing up the tourists. In the odd, fog-bound silence that followed, I could hear the sound of clicking cameras and an occasional laugh and wondered what they could possibly be taking photos of.

One of the girls serving in the café told me that there’d been a theft from the island two months earlier.

‘The mass box?’ I asked, assuming they’d have gone for the little donation box in the rectory, the only cash on the island.

‘No,’ she told me, her voice full of unexpected outrage. ‘An altar stone.’

That threw me. The altar stones are flat, very heavy stones that mark some of the stop points for pilgrims doing a round on the island (the prehistoric ritualistic route still followed by pilgrims today). Most are a few hundred years old and bear deep white marks on the surface where generations of pilgrims have carved crosses when they stop to pray or meditate. The stones themselves have no monetary worth. Their value is entirely historical, cultural and spiritual.


There was a lot of talk in the café about who might have stolen the stone. No-one believed it was local people. The alter stone was a respected fixture in their lives and, more importantly, it would have taken at least 2-3 people to carry it. Impossible then, to keep it secret.

The initial suspicion had fallen on vandals from Cork city but given the amount of effort required, it seemed uncharacteristic behaviour. Divers had also searched the shallow waters around the island but there was no sign of it, suggesting it had been transported away from the site.

The latest theory was that it was some over-avid tourist or an overseas collector of antiquities, individuals so impressed by the site they decided to destroy it.

Later, on the island, a small poster and photo in the rectory confirmed the theft and plaintively asked anyone with information to pass it onto the Gardaí. Staring down at the empty spot where the stone used to sit, I shared some of the girl from the café’s outrage. I wondered whether the stone was now lying in some idiot’s garden, or in their home like a prized museum piece.

I’ve always had a sense of key aspects of Irish culture being eroded but generally these have been mostly at an intellectual level – the different way of thinking we have compared to other cultures, the different way we look at and see the world. The stone however, was a physical representation, a corporeal snippet of native culture.

In some respects, we can consider ourselves quite lucky. The stolen stone is now just a stone with a few crosses on it and has no other meaning that that. In Gougane Barra however, the ritual continues, more popular than ever.

And there are plenty of other stones in West Cork.

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

Then consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.



Update on the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

Less than four weeks now remain before submissions close for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (closing date is 10 December 2016).

Feedback on your submissions:
After some discussion amongst ourselves, we’ve decided to offer the possibility of feedback (from the judges/editor) to those authors whose stories didn’t make the final Celtic Mythology Collection. Having gone through a number of competitions ourselves in the past, we know what it’s like to have work rejected and this is our way of giving something back to those of you who’ve made the effort of submitting.

Given that this is a last-minute decision however, we’re going to implement the process as a limited pilot (to see how it might be more effectively implemented in future competitions):
At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback:
(1) as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author)
(2) for a percentage (yet to be decided) of the total submissions that didn’t make it to the final selection.


Given that we’re still feeling our way on this we can’t guarantee your submission will receive feedback but if you’d like to be eligible for this feedback, please make a note of that in your email when you make your submission.

Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of the various judges and is only meant to be of assistance. Because of workloads, we won’t be entering into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

A link to this post will be sent out to those authors who’ve already made submissions.

The Last of the Fir Bolg (Irish Mythology)

Earlier this year when visiting the Aran Islands I came across a story I’d not heard before concerning the Fir Bolg.

But first, a bit of context:

According to that very dubious source of Irish history/mythology, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), the population of Ireland was derived from a series of numerous (well … six) consecutive colonising invasions from six different population groups. The fourth of these invading groups were known as the Fir Bolg and were said to be descendants of the third group (the Nemed) who died from disease or fled the country (commencing the long tradition of Irish emigration!)

According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fir Bolg were enslaved by the Greeks and obliged to toil by carrying bags of stone and soil, an uneasy rationale for how they got their name (one possible interpretation for “Fir Bolg” is “Men of bags” although it’s now believed actually mean “those who swell up” with battle fury). Somehow surviving 230 years of slavery, the Fir Bolg manage to depart from Greece and returned to Ireland where they divided the country up into Ireland into five separate provinces.


Unfortunately, after all that effort, a mere thirty-seven years later, the fifth invading population group (the Tuath Dé Dannann) turned up and defeated the Fir Bolg in battle at Mag Tuired (Moytirra). At this point the narrative of the text varies with some versions indicating the Fir Bolg left Ireland altogether and others saying they retreated to Connacht to live in peace.

For a long time, as a result of the Lebor Gabála Érenn and other sources, many people believed that the inhabitants of the more isolated islands off the western Irish coast were the descendants of the Fir Bolg. More importantly, these people were also believed to be almost direct descendants as the population on the western islands had remained relatively untouched and unspoiled by the undue influences of civilization and progress.

From 1859 onwards, this particular belief became more important as a result of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of the Species”. Following its publication, there was immense interest in theories of evolution and the idea that physical characteristics such as height, hair and eye colour etc. might show a direct line of progress from ‘ape/uncivilised’ man to ‘civilised’ man. With reference to the Irish situation, Alfred Haddon (an English anthropologist and ethnographic) co-founded Dublin’s Anthropometric Laboratory in 1891, ‘with the explicit aim of understanding the racial characteristics of the Irish people’.

The people of the islands in the west of Ireland suddenly became very important because their “pure pedigree” (as descendants of the Fir Bolg) meant that they potentially held the key to the origins of the Irish race. In an increasingly nationalistic Ireland, there was keen interest from many nationalists to use these new ‘sciences’ to justify and support their own political beliefs. From the English camp meanwhile, there was also great interest in locating evidence that might explain the existence of the ‘black’ or ‘Africanoid’ Irish and the presence of such a primitive (white) race living so close to the United Kingdom (during this period, the Irish were regularly portrayed as apelike in English newspapers such as ‘Punch’ etc.)

It came as no surprise therefore, when Haddon and an Irish doctor by the name of Charles Browne arrived on the Aran Islands in 1893 and started recording the head size, cranial capacity, eye colour, skin pigmentation etc. of every islander (whom they referred to as “Aranites”) they could get their hands on. Women, of course, following the prejudices of the time, were excluded from analysis.

The study created immense interest and in the end, the results were published in 1893 in the Proceedings if the Royal Irish Academy. In terms of the Fir Bolg theory, unfortunately it all turned out to be something of a damp squib for all concerned with the report author’s summarizing it as follows:

“To what race the Aranites belong we do not pretend to say, but it is pretty evident they cannot be Firbolgs, if the latter are correctly described as small, dark-haired and swarthy.”

[Final Note: These days, the general academic consensus is that the Fir Bolg were an early Celtic group called the Bolgae (not to be confused with the Belgae) who established a settlement in Ireland.]

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

The consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.



Literature, Bob Dylan, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

litearture competition

I’ve never really been a Bob Dylan fan. That’s not because he particularly annoys me or anything, it’s simply because I never actually got around to listening to his music. Growing up in Ireland, we had a significant number of local and national musical influences that competed strongly with the international acts in demanding our attention. Bob kinda fell between the cracks and as a result, even now, if I tried to name one of his songs, I’d be struggling to come up with would anything beyond “Mr Tamborine Man” (and I’m sure he’s put out one or two more tunes since then).

All the same, Dylan came to my attention over a week ago when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (this is one of the five Nobel Prizes – the others are for Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and, of course, the Peace Prize). This was all fine and dandy of course. Yet another celebrity getting an award (or a knighthood) is hardly anything new. What did prick my interest however was the reported absence of any reaction from the singer/songwriter in response to the announcement. Dylan never issued a public statement, he didn’t return the Swedish Academy’s phone calls (the group responsible for choosing and awarding the prize), he made no comment on his website. Strangely enough, although Dylan didn’t actually decline the prize, neither did he acknowledge it.

litearture competition


Again, I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of that either if it hadn’t been for the surprising bitchiness of the Swedish Academy’s subsequent commentary. One member of the Academy sounded particularly petty when he came out publicly and stated that Dylan’s behavior was “impolite and arrogant”. There was a delicious kind of irony to the fact that what he was really saying, was ‘how dare Dylan not acknowledge the prize that WE decided to award him.”

And therein lies the key problem with the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s chosen and awarded by a small group of Swedish critics (and occasionally some exclusively invited add-ons). When you think about it, that’s pretty weird. How can such a small group have such influence and power with respect to international literature.

The reality of course is that it can’t. Unless …
Unless it has the tacit support of a whole sector or infrastructure behind it.

And that’s pretty much the situation here. The infrastructure consists of the Nobel Foundation (which is of course a renowned institution, although it’s just not entirely clear whether it’s a good one or a bad one) and the mainstream commercial publishing industry. The latter in particular has strong vested financial interests in ensuring society as a whole accepts the authority of the Swedish Academy, the Man Booker Prize Committee, the Hugo Award Committee yadda, yadda, yadda, in deciding whether a book has merit or not.

The reason for this is fairly simple. Despite the millions of published works available out there (more than any one person could possibly hope to read over their lifetime), the only ones you’ll ever hear about are those that are commercially advertised or which you’re told have literary merit (as decided by someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you).

Oh, and you should really go out and buy them, by the way.

That pressure from the commercial literary sector has an important downstream effect. Because so many critics, publishers, and arts funding agencies accept the authority of entities like the Academy to decide ‘literary merit’, writers too are obliged to toe the line and go along with the established storyline. There’s prize money associated with the prize after all. And lots of publicity and prestige which the more insecure writers seek for validation and, the more canny ones, for leverage.
Given its subsequent influence, the Swedish Academy is accustomed to a degree of ‘forelock pulling’, bowing and scraping from the privileged individuals blessed by their munificence.

This time around, in awarding the Prize for Literature to Dylan, the Swedish Academy shot itself in the foot. Bob Dylan is someone who doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s already made his millions, he’s achieved more fame than he’s probably ever wanted. He has no need for the official validation the Swedish Academy offered and he has no need to pander to them. In essence, they probably have no little relevance or value to him.

The Academy are furious with Dylan of course and it’s not because he was “rude” but because he’s exposed the whole “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario associated with literature and, in particular, revealed the worthlessness of what the Swedish Academy offers. That revelation threatens the justification for their existence (and possibly the Nobel Foundation’s existence) but it also threatens the personal income/ kudos of those connected with the institutions. In their view, what Dylan has done is unforgiveable and as a result you can probably expect a substantial number of ‘safe’ (mainstream) winners of this award for the years to come.

To quote the New York Times, “Dylan’s refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.” It would be fascinating to see writers who are brave enough to step forward in that regard.

[Note and update: This article was originally published in the October Irish Imbas Books newsletter. Since then, a vague reference has been included on Bob Dylan’s website in that it now includes the declaration “winner of the Nobel prize in literature”. No other statement has been made. Go, Bob!]

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

The consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.