The Mystery of the Bare-ass Dolmen Dancers

Back in the eighties in Ireland there was a famous ad going around from the Irish Development Authority (IDA), a government agency responsible for developing enterprise and attracting foreign investment. A component of one of their marketing campaigns, it consisted of a series of photos taken around some of our more famous prehistoric monuments (stone circles, passage graves, dolmens and so on). On this occasion though, those monuments were occupied by serious-looking Irish corporate types, standing around in business suits and looking about as comfortable as a funeral attendee in a clown costume.

The inference was pretty obvious of course. We’re the IDA! We are stable and dependable – just like the 2500+ year old prehistoric structures standing there in the background.

Needless to say, the IDA have long since been restructured and rebranded as ‘IDA Ireland’ which puts some of that arrogant hubris in perspective.

The IDA weren’t the only people drawn to the monoliths that dot the countryside, however. People have been visiting these monuments out of curiosity for centuries and to get a sense of perspective it’s good to remember that when the Celts first arrived in Ireland (sometime around 400-500 B.C.), those monoliths had already been standing for over a thousand years. It’s really no wonder the Celts were in such awe of them, an aspect I try to get across in my books (particularly the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and the Liath Luachra Series).

Nowadays, Ireland makes a small fortune from cultural tourism associated with such sites, although such blatant commercial use would certainly have been frowned on until very recently. Up until the late-sixties or so, dolmens and standing stones were still very much localised features, respected and – in some cases – still feared due to the attribution of curses, hauntings and spirits from local folklore.

With the seventies and early eighties however, much of that reverence began to fade and in some cases a less … venerable approach to the monuments began to occur. Occasional complaints began to be heard about people (those feckin hippies!) dancing naked around some of the less-visited (but just as significant) monuments. Movies or television programmes would also throw up the old trope of “comely maidens dancing around a stone monument”. [Outlander anyone?’]

‘Dolmen Dancing’ was a throwaway term that I invented to reflect the societal change taking place over our generation with respect to the increased understanding of native history and the physical structures on our landscape associated with that. In a more practical sense of course, it also described what was actually happening as people got up front and personal with the monuments without fear of breaking any taboo. In fact, in some cases breaking taboos was actually the point.

My own, personal experience of Dolmen Dancing was up at the Poulnabrone Dolmen in Country Clare when I was part of a student group headed to Galway in a minibus for a sailing weekend. We ended up taking a slight detour to go and see the dolmen, arriving sometime in the early evening before it got too dark.

Given that we ‘d been drinking since noon, that we were in an isolated location without supervision and confronted by a famously revered monument … well, I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. In my defence however, I will say however, that I am (of course) a fantastic dancer. No -one can compare after I’ve had a few scoops and my throwing of shapes on the dance floors of Cork is a matter of official record. I’m only sorry that my recall of the events at Poulnabrone is so hazy.

For years after the Domen Dancing incident, there were rumors floating around of compromising photos taken that day, stories in jest that invariably emerged after a fresh session of drinking. To be honest, no-one really believed them. Back in the late eighties, there weren’t any mobile phones – if they were, we didn’t have them. Cameras were also rare enough as they still took film and they were a pain to use after 3-4 pints. I did actually see three photos from that day but they weren’t exactly National Geographic material as the individual who took them had been just as steamed as the rest of us. One of the three he managed to take consisted of a close-up of his own foot (still wearing his boot), one was a picture of a section of rock that could have been anywhere in the country and the last was just a total blur. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly concerned.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year therefore, when I was browsing through a second-hand shop and came across a ripped magazine with the following images:

HOLY CRAP!
For a moment, I swear to God, my heart actually stopped. Even the haziness of the images seemed to fit my recollection of that particular day. I rummaged frantically through those ripped pages and it was only when I saw the photos had been taken by Robert Merrill (who?) that it finally dawned on me.
I wasn’t in them.

A bit more rummaging finally revealed the magazine’s cover.

So what the hell was the Arts in Ireland?
Who were the people dancing around Poulnabrone?

It took a bit of research work to find out what exactly was going on and it was only when I got home in September that I learned the Arts in Ireland magazine was a now defunct publication. Run in the seventies, it had been published by Charles Merill (the photographer) an American described online as a “self-made millionaire” and an “artist, gay activist and iconoclast”.

When living in Ireland, Charles had traveled to Poulonabrone in 73/74 and taken these photos (God knows with who but at least it wasn’t me!) and subsequently included them with a short written piece in a literary supplement of the 4th edition of The Arts in Ireland.

I read the associated piece by Merrill and, to be honest, it was quite surreal and typical of the romanticised spiritual tosh often written about Ireland during the 70s/80s by people from overseas. Essentially, it involves a story where he sees Isadora Duncan (an American dancer most famous for dying when her scarf got entangled in the wheel of a car – honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!) at Poulnabrone. Isadora talks a stream of nonsense about her Irish background (er….) and leaves Merill a message that “Ireland could become a cultural center in the world in the next few years.”

So there you go. All a bit surreal but the mystery was solved and, more importantly, my ass was – literally – out of the picture.

To be honest, I am a bit miffed by the discovery. Back in the late eighties, I’m sure I must have been all gung-ho and imagined I was doing something outrageously original. Now, of course, its clear someone else had already done it a decade earlier (and probably many others before that).

Either way, you’ll also be delighted to learn that the National Monuments Service have taken past intrusions of Poulnabrone seriously and have since installed a high-tech security perimeter around it. Here’s a picture of me studying it carefully with the son last year, while reliving old glory days! After careful assessment, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could possibly have overcome such an obstacle.
Well done, the NMS!

Next time you visit Poulnabrone I hope you think of me and Charles Merrill!

Congratulations and well done, Mr De Luca.

Note: This article was first published in Vóg, our monthly newsletter in Nov 2017.


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Self-Beauty in Glendalough

This year, I managed to sneak a quick visit to one of my favourite sites back in Ireland, the beautiful valley of Gleann Dá Loch (Valley of Two lakes), anglicized as Glendalough.

The valley’s always been inhabited although, given the spiel at the local visitor centres and tourist offices, you’d be forgiven for thinking life didn’t exist there until the sixth century when a Christian monastic-style settlement was founded by St. Kevin. Following a particular Christian belief system based around strict reflection and meditation, St. Kevin chose Gleann Dá Loch not only for it’s beauty but for its isolated location. The site would almost certainly have had some tribal importance as well but its isolation certainly made it perfect for the monks to live a quiet life of spiritual reflection.

Over a hundred years later, St Kevin must have been spinning in his grave for by the middle of the seventh century, Glendalough was an enormous and very wealthy monastery. By the eight century, the monastery is believed to have employed almost 1000 laypeople.

In some ways, Glendalough success was also its undoing. As a rich site, it was ripe for plundering and between 775 and 1095 it was raided numerous times, not only by Vikings but by local tribes. Generally each time it was raided, the buildings were set alight which is why you won’t find anything there today that dates from before the 10th century. By the time, English forces left it in ruins (1398), the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin had also been united which meant that from that point onwards, its political and ecclesiastical status were also substantially eroded. By the 18th and 19th century, the site was a religious backwater, famous only for the raucous celebrations held on the 3rd of June (St Kevin’s Day) and otherwise ignored.

I was a bit blown away when I got to Gleann Dá Loch. It had probably been at least twelve years or more since I’d last visited (and even then the place was heaving) but I was genuinely gobsmacked by the sheer volume of buses dumping people off to be flushed through the visitor centre, the monastery, the lakes and of course the tourist shops. The tourism turnover at Glendalough is clearly a well-oiled machine.

Having seen the ruins and the visitor centre years ago, I bypassed all of that, making a dash to escape two busloads of westerners in orange, Oriental style ‘monk’ suits (I was tempted but I didn’t ask!). I was hoping to get to the lake ahead of them and have a minute or two by myself but instead I found it was already occupied by several Asian couples. That didn’t particularly bother me but I was struck by the huge number of them taking selfies with the lake as a backdrop.

It was only as I was walking around the Wicklow hills later that day that I began to understand the significance of what I’d seen. Gleann Dá Loch, like all beautiful scenic spots has always attracted seasonal tourists. That’s no biggie. It’s a simple fact of life and you can always enjoy it’s beauty more selfishly outside the tourist period.

No, I think what had really startled me was the selfies. One hundred years ago, fifty years ago and even twenty years ago, when tourists went to see a famous site of immense beauty they tried to capture that beauty by taking photographs so that they could look on it and enjoy it in years to come. Nowadays, when tourists go to a beauty spot, photographic memories are cheap and instantly downloadable online. As a result, they take photographs of themselves at the tourist spot.

It’s an interesting variant but I’m still not entirely sure what it means or even what it says about us as a species.

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The Tailor and Ansty- A Review

I first came across a copy of The Tailor and Ansty about 25 years ago when I was dossing in the basement of a large house in Bath (England). I’d been visiting my girlfriend for the weekend and the whole event had taken on a surreal nature as we’d broken up during a burlesque circus that was performing there. I ended up stuck, penniless, in a city where I knew no-one and had to spend a full Saturday night there before I could catch the train (and ferry) back to Cork. In the end, I was fortunate enough to find accommodation in the basement of a (very) large house in the centre of town, where a distant acquaintance was flatting.

I found the copy of ‘The Tailor and Ansty’ discarded on the floor of that basement with some old magazines. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find that particular Irish book there – and a bit curious as well. Over the years, I’d heard it references to it at home but never fully in context, so although I was familiar with the title, I actually had no idea what it was about. I think, at the time, I simply assumed it would be similar to Joyce or Myles na gCopeleen.

With nothing else to do, I picked it up and read it.

The first thing that struck me was the easy readability. Cross had a lovely, nonchalant style that made it a pleasure to read from the very first page.

“In the townland of Garrnapeaka, in the district of Inchigeela, in the parish of Iveleary, in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, in the province of Munster” – as he magniloquently styles his address, lives the Tailor.
His small whitewashed cottage, with its acre of ground, stands at the brow of a hill, at the side of a road which winds and climbs into a deep glen of the mountains bordering Cork and Kerry.

If you don’t know much about the story, it really is very simple and concerns Eric Cross’ record of his interactions with two elderly individuals: Timothy Buckley (the laid back and talkative Tailor) and his ever-nagging wife Anastasia (Ansty) in 1940’s Gougane Barra (West Cork). For me, it was something of a surprise to learn that not only was the setting close to where I’d lived and grown up but that the characters were (or, rather, had been) real individuals.

The book is gently humorous (very funny at times) and gives a beautiful insight into the lives of people in rural Ireland at a time when there was no entertainment apart from shaggy stories and philosophical musings. Mostly, the book concerns the Tailor’s amusingly erudite – if unscholarly – ramblings and various interactions between the couple and their friends and neighbours and their almost obsessive care of their single cow. Because of their age (the Tailor and Ansty were quite elderly and retired at the time Eric Cross knew them) both were very much set in their ways and, after over forty years of living together, had a polished routine of abuse and affection that comes through in the book. If you’re looking for action and high drama, you won’t find it here but you’ll not find a better antidote to modern life either.

Now that you know a bit about what the book, you might be surprised to learn the associated history. Back in 1942, when the book was first published, it ended up being banned by the Irish Censorship Publications Board as it didn’t align with de Valera’s view of what the new Ireland should look like (Ireland had only recently become independent). Neither did the old couples’ belief in the ‘fairies’ align with the spiritual purity demanded by the increasingly powerful Irish Catholic church. The book was described as ‘pornographic’, which was, of course, utter nonsense. That didn’t prevent a number of senior Catholic priests arriving to the Tailor’s house in Gougane Barra and forcing the old man down on his knees to burn a copy of the book.

In this respect, the Tailor and Ansty was really the first troubling signal of the potential abuse of power of the national government. It was also a warning shot for the self-justified cruelty associated with the worst of religious fanaticism (something that would eventually lead to the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries and abuse of children in Irish religious institutions).

Thirty years later, I still have the original copy I found on the floor of that basement in Bath. I’m still exceptionally grateful for finding it. Not only did it provide some timely (and well needed) distraction at a time when I needed it, it remains one of my favourite books to this day.

In case you’re wondering, I woke at dawn the following morning to get the first train out of Bath, although the whole surreal theme continued for a while. As I was making my way through the deserted – but strikingly beautiful streets – towards the station, I kept hearing an odd venting noise (something that sounded eerily like the breathing apparatus of Darth Vader’s helmet). I looked around several times trying to work out what was causing it but, on each occasion, could see absolutely nothing. Finally, something prompted me to look up and there, overhead, was a hot-air balloon in the shape of a large house, drifting low over the streets of the city.

It seemed like an apt end to the weekend.

This review originally appeared in Vóg (our monthly newsletter) in 2016.

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