Sense of place: Donegal

Donegal and Northumbria—staying still—landscapes at speed—Bernician Studies Group—Lough Foyle ferry—Moville hostel—old friends—Cooley graveyard—shrines and crosses—skeuomorphs—finding monasteries—shugh and bru—stories and landscapes—Magh Tóchuir—Seamus O’Kane’s bodhrán—brainstorming—Joyful Pilgrimage—insights—Malin Head—Kinnagoe Bay—back on the bike—Strangford Lough—Nendrum tide mill




TWO DAYS after returning from Bardsey Island (my son Jack, on his first solo adventure since passing his driving test, had driven down to Aberdaron from County Durham to pick me up), Sarah and I rode to Donegal on our motorbike. The timing could not have been better. I wanted a break from walking. I wanted to stay in one location long enough to immerse myself in the Dark Ages, to draw on its sense of place. Ireland, where the past lives as nowhere else in these Atlantic lands, was perfect.

Two Northumbrian kings of the seventh century, Oswiu and his son Aldfrith, had close ties to these lands; so did Colmcille, a native of Donegal. Several years ago the Bernician Studies Group (BSG) became interested in the landscape of Inishowen, the tooth-like peninsula that begins just west of Derry/Londonderry and extends north to Malin Head. Armed with a couple of special items of equipment (the fluxgate gradiometer and a laser total station theodolite66), the enthusiastic support of colleagues and friends on Inishowen and the energies and expertise of group members, we have been able to recover the outlines of three early Irish monasteries. In 2013, by trial excavation, we proved that at least one of these, at Carrowmore, was founded in the late sixth century during the lifetime of Colmcille and many of the great saints of Wales and Scotland. With my colleague and fellow research director, Colm O’Brien (as bona fide an Irish name as you could wish for, though he is a Cheshire man by birth), we have scoured these lands, poring over maps, crawling through hedges, soaking up the extraordinary wealth of oral and documentary history stored and shared by its generous people. We have been able to build a model of how parts of the landscape worked in the Early Medieval period; and the more we delve into its riches, the more rewarding it becomes. Sometimes walking is not enough, even on the spot. Sometimes it is necessary to dwell. In early September 2014 we returned to Inishowen, this time to study an enigmatic cemetery which overlooks the small town of Moville on the west side of Lough Foyle.

Stranraer, the ferry port for the crossing to Larne in Northern Ireland, is a lot further from everywhere than you think until you try getting there by road. Even on the bike, which makes overtaking a lot easier, it is a good three hours from the Tyne Valley, across the North Pennines via the Tyne–Solway gap, then a little north past Gretna and its gaudy wedding anvils, and west for what seems like unending miles along the A75 through the old shires of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Wigtown. We rode it on a perfect late-summer’s afternoon, warm and clear with no wind. On the bike, with nothing but your wits between you and eternity, the landscape behaves differently: senses go into overdrive; experiences and images stack up so quickly that you cannot assimilate them until night’s rest. But you get a powerful sense of transition—from industry to arable, arable to pasture, pasture to forest, forest to shore, estuary to sea and of the smells that mark these shifts of environment; no wonder dogs get high when they stick their noses out of car windows. The soils change from yellow-grey Pennine sandstone to estuarine clays and then the vivid red sands of Dumfriesshire whose ruddy, soft stone supplies the building materials for its towns, villages, churches and farms. Signs passed at sixty miles an hour (I am being discreet in recording our speed) are dizzying snapshots of missed walking opportunities: the high cross at Ruthwell; Saint so-and-so’s church; Ecclefechan and Eaglesfield (both of them suspected Roman church sites);67 Mote of Mark, a mysterious coastal Dark Age fort and metalworking site; Dunragit, supposed royal fortress of the kings of Rheged; the Anglo-British monastery at Whithorn; inscription stones at Kirkmadrine. And everywhere we saw campaign slogans and banners for both sides of the Scottish Independence referendum (Dumfries looked to be a ‘No’).68 The overall effect is to compress landscape, past and present, into a concentrate of a thousand and a thousand more years, and of journeys, lives and changes. It seems very like flying. It’s an absolute blast.

On the ferry (kindly subsidised by P&O) we met up with the van-bound bulk of the party: Colm, whose career mine has paralleled in many ways, although he is a classicist who digs and I am a classically illiterate digger; Jack Pennie (who engineered bridges on the Irish side of the North Channel in his youth), our chief geophysicist; Joy Rutter, librarian, novelist and lover of all things Welsh; Deborah Haycock, part-time excavator and a veteran of our Heavenfield perambulations; and Sabrina Pietrobuono, a visiting Italian scholar who didn’t know what was about to hit her. Sarah had met some of the group before and, being a nurse, whether she liked it or not she was the senior first-aider. Otherwise, she was under no obligation to play the amateur archaeologist for the next week. Others would join us in Moville.

The two-hour ferry crossing was a chance for a quick snooze and discussions about food shopping and other domestic matters. At some point we must have crossed the now-invisible wake of Eda Frandsen; memories of a long night on watch came to mind. An Ulster girl, Sarah was familiar with the voyage; her grandfather was the harbour-master at Larne and she pointed out his house as we trundled down the ramp onto Irish soil. We left the van to make its own way from Larne, and rode off into the green rolling hills of Antrim.

There are two ways to get to Inishowen: one is the Derry road, which takes you through Antrim, past the north shore of Lough Neagh and across the easternmost hills of the Sperrin Mountains. Instead, we rode north-west to Coleraine, then beneath the massive cliffs of Binevenagh and out onto the sands of Magilligan Point, where the Lough Foyle ferry runs across its mouth to Greencastle. It’s just another excuse to get on a boat; besides, the very kind people who own the ferry company give us a concession; and it’s a fine way to arrive in the Republic. There are never any signs of customs points or security: the ferry leaves from a sloping concrete ramp and cars simply wait to board at the top of the incline.

Already a few vehicles had formed a queue when we got there at about four-thirty. In one of the cars was Sara Anderson, another group stalwart, on her second trip to Inishowen with one of her daughters. Ireland being such a small world of wondrous connections, it was no surprise to find that in another car was a good friend and colleague, Neil McGrory, with his wife Róisin and two daughters. They had just been shopping for school clothes in Coleraine. Neil and his family run a legendary pub and music venue in Culdaff; he is also a local historian and a man of universal knowledge of these parts, without whom we would never have been able to get our project off the ground. On the short crossing we chatted and caught up with news, promising to go over to the pub on Friday night.

The hostel at Moville, which we made our base, was welcoming, ramshackle and homely. Owned and run by Seamus Canavan, his daughter Cressida and her partner Chris, it lurks on the banks of a small trickling river at the inland edge of Moville, close to what purports to be Ireland’s oldest bridge. The hostel might once have been an old mill: a clotted assortment of extensions, outbuildings and gardens overshadowed by gnarled, dripping trees that give the whole a thoroughly gothic air, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting. A peat stove burns in the kitchen-cum-dining-room; upstairs are a small library and reading room with internet connection and various bedrooms, showers and nooks and crannies that I never quite managed to explore. Very kindly Seamus had given Sarah and I the swanky room with double bed, loo and shower as well as a kitchen that became the equipment room for charging, drying and generally sorting our field gear. Catering was a group effort: we all mucked in until a rota was established. We ate, refined our plans for the week and were clearing up when our first visitor pitched up (news travels fast in these parts): Martin Hopkins, the man behind rescuing the nearby Early Medieval graveyard from oblivion and a fine friend of the project. We arranged to meet on site in the morning.

The graveyard called Cooley, which sits magnificently on a hill above Moville looking across Lough Foyle to Northern Ireland and out to the sea beyond, is a suitably enigmatic spot in a mystical land of folklore and heroic legend. Past this shore Colmcille is supposed to have sailed for Iona in the year 563. At the entrance to the walled cemetery is an ancient high cross, a pierced wheel on a tall shaft with narrow arms and an odd hole drilled offcentre through the stype—the shaft above the cross head. Otherwise unadorned, it bears no obvious clues to its date, although generally archaeologists suppose that the rougher and simpler the dressing and decoration, the older the cross. It’s a dangerous assumption to make. All assumptions about Irish archaeology are dangerous.

The graveyard’s cast-iron gates are held shut by means of a plastic canister filled with water tied to a rope on a pulley. By that expedient Martin’s vegetation-management operatives (two sheep) are confined to their job of keeping down the weeds and grass which he and his group of volunteers laboured so long to clear some years ago. The cemetery wall encloses a rectangular area about fifty by twenty-five yards. The ruined walls of two buildings, supposedly churches, stand around ten or twelve feet tall. There is a scatter of gravestones and tombs belonging to the last couple of centuries, the names of their inhabitants still legible. Most of the cemetery is a higgledy-piggledy jumble: hundreds of unmarked head- and footstones, some of them bearing incised crosses—a mass of memorial anonymity spanning who knows how many decades and centuries. A sloping path more or less bisects the graveyard and ends at a small gabled building, built almost entirely of rough-hewn stone slabs, about nine feet long by five feet wide and no more than seven feet high at the ridge. It has a small entrance low on the western gable end—only sufficient to poke one’s head inside and squint up at the corbelled ceiling. A tiny slit in the east end admits just enough light to show a few scattered bones lying on the dusty, stony floor—whether of sheep or of a saint it is impossible to say without removing them.



It used to be thought that Molville was the site of a monastery founded by Finnian, teacher of Colmcille and in his own right a famous early Northern holy man; but we now know that was by misassociation with Movilla (whose abbey was founded by Finnian in the mid-sixth century) in County Down, near Strangford Lough. The Donegal Moville—the name means ‘plain of the sacred tree’—does not feature either in the great hagiographies of the seventh century, nor in later martyrologies that record the geographic and genealogical associations of the saints. The cemetery’s origins are, therefore, obscure. However, a Victorian survey of Donegal names the site as Domnach Magh Bhile; and the Domnach element is taken to refer to a tradition of foundations by St Patrick. At any rate it was a term not used for church foundations after the sixth century; and the small building, known locally as a ‘skull house’, looks very much like an early shrine. Thanks to the work of Martin Hopkins and his group, Cooley has in the last few years produced more evidence that it was a place of some ecclesiastical importance during the first millennium. The collection of incised stone cross-slabs known from the site now numbers more than a dozen, identified from careful observation in the right light. It is a very complex, concentrated miniature landscape. Nearly all the features we see could belong to almost any period before the Plantations.69 The whole requires serious analysis; but there are clues to tease the archaeologist. Two years ago Martin noticed that one of these cross-incised slabs, which now leans against the inside wall of the cemetery, has a very special feature. It is about three feet tall, broken at the top but clearly carved with a portrayal of a ring-headed cross. Martin saw that, at the bottom, the cross shaft had been finished to a tapered point, the way a wooden stake would be cut so that it could be driven into the ground. When he offered this inspired observation to Colm and me a couple of years ago, we did a double-take.

This is what we call a skeuomorph: the translation of a design feature from one medium (usually wood; but also metal) into another, often stone. The carver of this stone was used to making, or seeing, wooden memorial crosses driven into the ground and, in making the material transition to the more permanent stone, echoed what the builders of the hut circles at Din Lligwy had achieved: taken the original form and retained it as a decorative feature, in a sense a cultural fossil. Skeuomorphic representations of objects are a special class of artefact; they include wooden lathe-turned bowls from Iona which copied the everted70 rim of E-ware pottery (jars, bowls and jugs in hard granular grey wares) imported from Francia in the seventh century, the finials of cruck-framed71 wooden buildings copied in stone on shrines like our skull house, the Anglo-Saxon Runic script originally designed to be carved across the grain in wood, the mouldings on the Frith stool at Hexham and, in more modern times, the carrying through of carpentry joints into the cast-iron fittings of the Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale. Their significance is to mark a transition in technique and, surely, mental imagery. Thus St Wilfrid was scornful of those English and Irish monks who built their churches from hewn oak thatched with straw ‘in the Irish manner’—it was unbecoming of the dignity of the pontiff and the mother church and more evidence of the schismatic, antiquated practices of the Irish—and of the community on Lindisfarne. Wood, and carved wooden images, carried overtones of paganism. Stone was permanent, orthodox. So a skeuomorphic cross makes us think we are dealing with a memorial tradition belonging to this transient phase. Does this, do all the crosses at Cooley, belong to the seventh century? In our minds was an idea that the skeuomorphism implied an already established tradition of wooden memorials at the same place, which would take the site back still earlier, perhaps into the sixth century like the monastic complex at Carrowmore, a few miles to the north-west.

We had six days, on this trip, to see if we could tease out the many complex elements of the site: how the rows of stones related to the skull house; whether the building remains were those of churches and, if so, whether we could say how old they were. Did the present outline of the cemetery, known to belong to the seventeenth century, reflect its original shape and extent? Would we find any more crosses and could we relate them to other phases? Could we confirm that a monastery had stood on this site? If we could, what could we say about its origins and its location?

Our hope of resolving some of these questions depended on deploying the gradiometer to peer beneath the pastures that surround the cemetery, on conducting a really detailed digital survey of all the features within it and, perhaps most important, staying put in the same place long enough to see patterns emerging from the chaos: patterns which archaeologists are trained to recognise but which are rarely obvious on first inspection. Even walking the landscape doesn’t compete with sitting or working in it, day after day. It’s like buying a house. On a first visit, big, bold things stand out: size, light, garden, décor. On a second visit, it might feel smaller; you look for other, more functional details, like where the stopcocks are; is there room for a washing machine? A professional surveyor will look at the roof structure; at the wiring. Only when you move in do you realise that the front door sticks, the shower leaks and the toilet flush is hopeless, that there’s a damp patch beneath a window and that the curtains will simply have to go. That’s what dwelling does for bringing out the detail.

On our first morning we set the kit up. Jack and his team laid out grids in the fields on either side of the cemetery, chaperoned by five huge Charolais bullocks whose attentive curiosity was amusing to those of us inside the wall and variously annoying or unnerving to those in the field. Our survey method was the same as that which we had deployed at Heavenfield (see page 231–2). At Cooley we already suspected that the fields might reveal features diagnostic of a monastic enclosure like that at Llangian which I had recently visited. An early map showed a kink in the field boundary to the north of the cemetery which hinted at a circular enclosure. And in the last days of our 2013 campaign we had quickly run the machinery over the fields at Cooley and produced what looked like a crude map of ditches and banks. Ideally, this year the gradiometer would not just confirm their existence, but also show the internal detail of any structures such as houses and churches although, inevitably, there would be a large gap in the middle where the cemetery, standing proud of the land around it, masks everything beneath—our machine cannot penetrate so many centuries of built-up grave deposits and disturbances and, besides, it’s impossible to walk in a straight line in a cemetery full of stones, tombs and walls.

Four years ago, on a recce to see if it was realistic for the group to develop a project on Inishowen, Colm and I had come to the conclusion that, given Ireland’s predominantly pastoral economy, aerial photography to detect crop marks and field walking to look for finds in ploughed fields were both closed to us as methods of locating early sites buried beneath the soil. Geophysics was the way forward, and we were incredibly lucky when Sunderland University gave us the funds to purchase our own gradiometer. We wasted no time in bringing it to Donegal and, in 2012, we succeeded in establishing the presence of a classic double-ditched circular monastic vallum at Carrowmore. In 2013 we repeated the experiment at Clonca, a mile north-east of Carrowmore across the peatlands, where a church and high cross still stand, and produced even more spectacular results: a complex series of enclosures, trackways and a possible cemetery focused on the high cross. On the same trip we excavated trial trenches across the two ditches at Carrowmore, with a great deal of help from local volunteers, and proved the antiquity of that establishment. Our soil samples showed that we could retrieve crucial environmental data from the environs of the monastery; and we were fantastically lucky to find five tiny polished pebble gaming counters, of the sort that would have been played with on the merel boards of Inchmarnock (see page 35). We felt we had brought something to the party, that we could make a significant contribution to understanding the development of this landscape.

But nothing is straightforward here. To begin with, the complexity of local place names has us confused—we are mere novices at pronouncing written Gaelic; we find that most places have at least two, if not three alternative names, for whose derivation we rely completely on the local knowledge of our expert colleagues—and sometimes they can’t agree among themselves. Even names for simple landscape features have caused all sorts of cross-cultural confusion. Locally, what we call a ditch is understood as a dyke, an upstanding boundary or field wall. The word for ditch locally is shugh, its bank a bru. Then there is the conflicting evidence of local oral tradition and opinion, often very firmly held, and the testimony of documents. There are numberless associations of all sorts of rocks, trees, crosses and standing stones with various families, holy men and legendary events. There are said to be ancient tunnels everywhere. Layers of continuity and discontinuity, like a much-kneaded geological pastry confection, tease and mislead. Vikings followed by Normans followed by Cromwell’s genocidal rampage; plantations, rebellions, exploitation and colonial repression, all written into field boundary, parish, townland and clachan, place name and record. Pick the wrong straw from the pile and the whole thing collapses.

In England, where the historical evidence is generally a little simpler, there is much less relevant or useful oral tradition to assist or perplex the landscape archaeologist: in Ireland there is a whole universe of richly nuanced narrative which has to be interpreted as a textual source in its own right and woven into the broad tapestry we are trying to create, even if much useful material evidence has been lost or deliberately destroyed in acts of cultural barbarity. On top of that, the numinous quality of many early sites continues to endow them with spiritual meaning in the twenty-first century. At Carrowmore some visitors to our excavations admitted that they had only passed that way to visit the bullaun stone—a natural or hollowed-out depression in a stone that fills with rainwater, which thereby acquires healing powers—in the next field, in the hope of a cure for an ailment. The cutting down of trees such as the rowan is still widely regarded as taboo; roadside shrines and holy wells dressed with beads, photographs, coins and other offerings or mementoes are common sights. Here, past and present, real and supernatural, magic and rational are entwined in a way that wrong-foots the sometimes overrational critique of the hard-bitten professional fieldworker. The cultural texture and depth of Ireland’s north-west, the lyricism and intellectual curiosity of its literary traditions, are part of the charm and fascination of these lands, even if they leave us scratching our heads from time to time.

We have been told an attractive story about the monasteries at Carrowmore and Clonca, which face each other across the River Culdaff and which are said to have been linked in some way—one the daughter house of the other, perhaps; there are rumours of a tunnel. The modern road crosses the river over a small stone bridge; to the north is an expanse of peat which once required a causeway to cross it. The late Mabel Colhoun, a distinguished local archaeologist, wrote that she had seen a section of the causeway—made, perhaps, from hazel hurdles staked into the peat. According to the story, at the time when the two monasteries flourished, perhaps during the seventh or eighth century, monks used to process between the two. Since they were linked by a narrow causeway, the procession must have looked like a thin snake, as the monks crossed the bog in single file. The priest at the head of the column, setting out from Carrowmore, was said to have realised, as he reached the other side of the river, that he had forgotten his prayer book. So he called back along the line for one of the brothers to fetch it. By the time he stepped off the causeway and reached firm ground at Clonca, the prayer book had been passed back up along the line and handed to him. That such a tale has survived a thousand years in these parts does not surprise. Why such a simple, not very miraculous tale is still told is another matter. I think its importance lies in a missing preamble, which I suppose to have gone something like this: There were at one time so many monks at Carrowmore, that it was said that when the priest [ perhaps St Comgall, the traditional founder] was walking from Carrowmore to Clonca to celebrate Easter…, etc. For the academic archaeologist, moulding such stories into the tentative narrative structures built on excavation and survey is as challenging as it is exciting.

Inishowen was the core territory of the kin group called Cenél nÉogain (pronounced as ‘Kenneln Owen’); Éogain was a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the legendary fifth-century king who gave his name to the the Uí Néill family that dominated Early Medieval Ireland from the sixth to the tenth century. King Oswiu of Northumbria (r. 642–70), brother of the Oswald who raised his cross at Heavenfield, sired a child with a princess of Inishowen called Fina; that child was Flann Fina, or Aldfrith, scholar and later king of Northumbria (r. 685–704). The Inishowen peninsula looks both towards the sea and inland to Derry (supposedly a foundation of Colmcille) and early kingship sites at Grianán of Aileach and Elaghmore. Since the Cenél nÉogain became a dominant power in the north of Ireland in the Early Medieval period, the landscape of the peninsula may hold the keys to understanding how this early kingdom first established itself and then used the power structures and codes of kin, patronage and church to expand its influence.

The north part of Inishowen is dominated by the Magh Tóchuir (pronounced more softly than its spelling suggests to an English ear), a fertile plain which drains north-west into Trawbreaga Bay and the gaping mouth of Lough Swilly beyond. Around the edges of this plain are dotted prehistoric standing stones, early Christian centres and the ringforts and hilltop enclosures of a secular elite whose origins lie obscurely in the prehistoric past.72 Just as on Llŷn, an understanding of the place and role of early churches and monasteries in their landscape sheds light on secular power structures, on the economy and culture of a period when the kingdoms of the Dark Ages emerge from the mists of prehistory. Add to that a traditional rivalry between Columban and Patrician churches for bragging rights over these parts and you have a heady mix of academic speculation and religious propriety which historically has seemed anything but trivial. Into this cauldron the English archaeologist treads with extreme caution in the knowledge that, apart from the superb field surveys carried out by Mabel Colhoun and Brian Lacey (the latter a kind supporter of our project), not a huge amount of practical archaeology has been conducted up here. With all these marvellous field monuments, and the chance to make a contribution to a key period in Ireland’s past, we are like children in a sweet shop. But we are painfully aware that we might be perceived more as bulls in a china emporium.

In Ireland the social and professional are impossible to separate. We had a busy schedule and not much time to carry out our work; but during that first morning on site there was a more or less continuous, and welcome, stream of visitors: Sean Beattie, highly respected historian, friend and editor of the Donegal Annual ; John Hegarty, an archaeologist who dug with us in 2013; Dessie McCallion, an indefatigable rooter-around in Inishowen’s past, always ready to show you some odd treasure he has turned up; and then another two group members arrived: Cowan and Catherine Duff are entirely responsible for the genesis of the whole project. Catherine is a native of the west side of Lough Swilly; and Cowan, a retired industrial metallurgist and old BSG hand, persuaded us several years ago that we would not be able to resist this landscape. He was right.

Meanwhile, I wanted to get the laser theodolite set up. I mastered these things many years ago when I ran the field unit at Durham University; but I was rusty, and could perhaps have done with shutting myself away for a morning with the manual. Until I established a solid base station we could not start surveying, and I hate to see people standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do. Not that they were unhappy: Cooley Graveyard is a lovely spot: green green hills, low stone walls, few trees, coloured houses dotted about, very like the Isle of Man; those panoramic views across the Lough and down onto the huddled townscape of Moville; the shadow of Rathlin Island far, far to the north-east on the very disc of the horizon; and an ancient graveyard to potter around. It’s a nice spot to be dead in.

Our visitors kept us pleasantly busy all morning, giving generously of their considerable store of local knowledge and understanding. The geophysics team got on with their grid-laying. One or two more volunteers arrived to see if they could help and Colm began a field class teaching Sabrina and local supporters Mary and Elizabeth how to draw to a proper archaeological standard the dozen or so cross-marked stones that had been identified by Martin and others over the years. The plan was for me to photograph them all later in the week. Almost immediately this concentration of effort on a group of previously unrecorded stone memorials yielded results; or at least significant questions. Some of them seemed to have been used as headstones; others to mark the foot of a grave in this crowded burial space. Some faced west, others east; some were evidently on their sides. Our conclusion was that all of the stones inscribed with crosses had been reused, that they had originally been in other positions. The more or less organised rows of graves did not, then, reflect the first phase of the cemetery. So how old were they? And how did such a modest community—Moville’s growth into a small town is a nineteenth-century development, no earlier—produce such a large population to fill this cemetery to bursting?

By the end of the first day’s play I had the theodolite working and had established my base points. The geophysics team had laid out their grids. We shared a convivial supper and as evening closed in on the town Sarah, Deb, Joy and I strolled down the road for a ritual and absolutely essential first pint of what Ireland is famous for.

Fieldwork is subject to fates out of our control. Much of the second day on site was a washout; we spent a couple of damp hours huddled behind sheltering walls or under trees; we retreated to the hostel, tried again and got a couple of hours’ work done in the afternoon. Another friend of ours, Michael Hegarty, who besides living close to the site at Cooley and fixing it for us to get access to the fields, is also a Lough Foyle pilot and a highly entertaining companion, came up to us on his quad bike. He swore richly at us in at least two languages for our stupidity in staying out in the rain and persuaded some of us to retreat to his house to get warm and make tea. The day’s work more or less ruined, we consoled ourselves with the thought of an evening outing to McGrory’s where the food is divine—seafood chowder, bacon and cabbage with mash—and where, every Friday, musicians congregate to play traditional music. Róisin, Neil McGrory’s wife, plays fiddle in the band and occasionally one or other of our number is co-opted. Neil and his brother John have their own band; and musicians come from across the peninsula and beyond to join in. I was delighted to introduce Sarah to the place, having told her many tales about it. We also had in the party an American student, come to work with Cressida and Chris on their permaculture plot at the back of the hostel. She had never experienced Guinness before.

As the bar filled for the evening, musicians drifted in. Neil was the perfect unobtrusive front-of-house host, always attentive, never overly so; his sister Ann always in the background oiling wheels and making sure the place runs as though with no effort. There was a hum of noise: clinking glass, laughter, a fragment of song, friends met and stools scraped on the stone floor to squeeze another in. The bar is a great place for people-watching.

A grey-haired, slightly stooping man with bushy dark eyebrows entered the bar carrying a bodhrán case in his hand. His face looked somehow familiar. I got up and worked my way through the crowd to where Neil was standing at the bar, and asked him if it was Seamus O’Kane. Sure it is, he said. What, I said, the Seamus O’Kane? Yes, he said: you want to meet him? Seamus is not just one of the great bodhrán players but a renowned maker of these Irish frame drums. He is steeped in the tradition of the instrument and its music but is also a pioneer of modern construction methods, dragging the frame drum from its fringe status as the refuge of toneless skin thumpers towards being a tolerated and even respected component of the Irish folk ensemble. He has achieved this by using a much lighter frame, skin and stick than was common in the past; by designing a cunning tuning system to keep the skin at the right tension. The result is that in his hands the instrument sounds like a rather subtle bass guitar, full of tone and resonance, responsive and kinetic. Watching videos of him working, the amateur wonders how the hell he produces such a melodic and gentle beat. We chatted for a while about wood and trees, drums and music; he knew of my friend Stefan Sobell, the luthier, who has his own fascinating views on acoustics and musicality. I thought I might never get another chance, so I asked him if he would make me a drum. Sure he would: could I wait a month or two?

The buzz in the bar grew louder. In the background the musicians began playing, softly at first. Unconsciously, imperceptibly the buzz dropped and the punters began to listen with more than half an ear. There was Róisin on the fiddle with another, younger fiddler, an accordion player and a flautist; a guitarist strummed chords; Seamus caressed his drum, but concentrate as I might I couldn’t see how he managed to forge his beautiful rhythm with such little apparent effort. Our chat died as a singer began a lament; the noise in the bar melted away and his voice rang out true and clear. The room filled to bursting. I went to the bar for a fresh round and Róisin nodded at me to ask if I had an instrument with me. I never leave home without a harmonica or two, so I sat in on a number, trading some little improvisation with the accordion player; the others joined in, in that unselfconscious way that good musicians can: first listening, then gauging the tune, then coming in for a chorus. Róisin had disappeared, so I stayed in her chair while the band started something else with the flute leading—a jig. Seamus leaned over and handed me his drum, so I had the double pleasure not only of meeting him but also trying one of his marvellous instruments before I acquired one. It was no kind of disappointment. Even so, it was only later on, when I was sitting at the back again and listening with concentration, that I began to see how his technique had become so popular with other musicians—the bass-style rhythm was neither loud nor penetrating but it underscored the melody and guitar chords, the bass notes perfectly clear and syncopating. We drifted away after one in the morning with the music still in full swing and wishing we could have stayed longer.

Saturday: a strong desire to linger in bed, but with the sun shining there was not a moment to lose. We were joined by John McNulty, who had flown into Belfast that morning; by Deb’s husband, Dick, an experienced sailor who has given us useful insights into navigation in these waters; and by another friend from last year’s excavation, Mervyn Watson. Halfway through the day the newcomer, Sabrina, announced that she had found a new, previously unobserved cross, obscured by grass and lying half on its side but immediately recognisable, as Colm and I walked across to see it, as another skeuomorphic wooden stake inscribed in stone. This was more than coincidence; it hinted at a local tradition of wood and stone cross-carving, and the striking similarity between the two representations very likely meant that they were contemporary, if not the product of the same sculptor.

Plotting the outlines of the cemetery, skull house and ruined walls with the laser theodolite, Sarah (co-opted more or less willingly as an assistant) and I began to see some order in the chaos. The entrance and slit in the skull house were perfectly aligned with the high cross outside the gate, which suggested that it (the cross) stands where it was first erected. We also spotted—a new observation—that two of the stones in the wall of the skull house were of dressed stone: they must have come from another building, though where and what that building was we cannot yet say. Patterns watched, patterns emerging.

We needed to understand the relationship between this apparently early shrine and the row-graves, the ruined walls and cross fragments; and while Jack’s team of geophysicists started to produce meaningful results outside the cemetery, Colm and I sat down on a tomb in the afternoon and laid out in a notebook the fundamentals of what we could and couldn’t say about the pure archaeology of the site. It was a thought-experiment conducted in the language of stratigraphy. The study of determining relative chronology by showing what event must come before or after another by virtue of superposition is the primary tool of the archaeologist. An object, building or layer which lies above another must have been placed, lost or deposited there later than whatever lies beneath. A disruption to the stratified sequence—a ditch cut across a boundary, a road running through the middle of a settlement—must also post-date it.

After half an hour of brainstorming we identified more than a dozen phases of activity: an original cemetery in which a small number of graves were marked by carved wooden crosses in various styles, over perhaps a few generations, and very likely focused on a single special grave of the nameless founder, buried in a small wooden shrine (examples have been excavated beneath several stone churches); a phase of transition from wooden buildings and memorials to more permanent, orthodox stone replacements (petrification); then the expansion and filling in of the cemetery by row upon row of—who? Monks? Too many of them, surely. There might be a thousand graves here, and those just the visible ones.

We had seen that the row-graves ran right up to the ruined walls on both sides, disrespecting (and so later than) any floors or interiors of whatever buildings had stood there. So the row-grave system as we saw it was later than the buildings, and by virtue of the fact that the rows bent slightly round it, they were also later than the skull house. At some point the cemetery wall had been constructed on its present alignment. Finally, early modern memorials showed that there had been a late, post-medieval phase of burial. But we could not absolutely date any of these phases except the last. The closer we looked, the more difficult it was to say what was going on where and when.

Sunday. Deb, Joy and I started to plot the positions of all the graves and their accompanying stones: it was the only way to determine if there were hidden patterns in the scheme of burials that might help tease out the cemetery’s phases. We could see that many graves, if not all, had been covered either with a single slab or with several capping stones—these are called lintel graves. If we were able and allowed to remove the turf from the site we would gain a huge amount more detail and, no doubt, find more cross-inscribed stones. It was a tempting idea, but it would leave the site open to the depredations of erosion, vandalism and over-curious tourism, so for the moment we took it off the agenda. In the meantime, it was back to the business of looking for and recognising patterns. But it was a daunting task to map a thousand graves when, half the time, it was not clear where one started and another finished, half-buried as they were under thick turf. We could not complete the task in a week; but we could measure and plot enough of the graves to show that the game was worth the candle. And now, sure enough, Jack’s survey began to show significant results: confirmation that there had been two enclosure ditches, or shughs, concentric like those at Carrowmore and Clonca; and a rectangular structure which might have been a timber building—a church or hall. It was now clear that the cemetery was located right at the centre of a double-ringed enclosure; and that the high cross stood inside that enclosure. And, emerging from the pattern of grey shades that reflect buried magnetic variations, we thought we could see circular structures, the right size for round houses… or for monks’ cells.

On a clear late-summer’s day like this the cemetery gave views as far as Rathlin Island, a key landmark and stopping-off point between Derry and the Western Isles of Scotland. We had passed it at night, from the other side, in Eda Frandsen; now we could see how intimately it was connected with points further west and with the monastic and kingly hinterland of Ireland. In June 1963, had we been standing on this spot, we might have watched the passage of a traditional lath and tarred-canvas curragh up the lough from Derry, carrying thirteen cloaked men in two watches pulling at six oars, with a square sail set amidships bearing the image of a cross. This was the Joyful Pilgrimage, sailed by Wallace Clark and his motley crew of companions, celebrating the fifteen hundredth anniversary of Colmcille’s departure for Iona by re-enacting the saint’s voyage from Derry to the Inner Hebridean island. Clark was an extraordinary man: consummate sailor, expert on the history of linen, commanding skipper and reviver of the traditions of the curragh. His boat was designed by Richard McCullough and built by Jim Boyd at a workshop in Bunbeg on the west coast of Donegal. Such vessels, though they survive in modern form, were a rarity in the 1960s; not many men knew how to go about constructing a traditional craft from scratch. This old style of boat-building, echoing an even older use of hide-covered curraghs mentioned in the Life of St Brendan and tested brilliantly by Tim Severin in The Brendan Voyage, was longer and narrower than the traditional fishing boats of the West coast. Designed for a large crew, with a high seagoing prow and a square transom, it must take on all weathers during an open sea voyage that might take a week, or two weeks. Such is the enduring potency of the name of Colmcille that Clark’s expedition was part-funded by the then Bishop of Down and Dromore, as well as by many gifts of unasked-for help. For the safety of these twentieth-century avatars of Colmcille’s original crew, and because many thought them mad, a naval fisheries protection vessel and a diesel-engined tender were on hand to fish them out of the sea at any time.

Canon John Barry, rector of Hillsborough, Co. Down, was the initiator of the project, crew member and chronicler of this latter-day peregrination in the book he called Joyful Pilgrimage. Remarkably, despite flaws in the design of the craft that became increasingly evident as the days went by, and despite having too few oars and too many passengers, the crew of the Iona curragh accomplished their journey in just eight days, via Port Ballintrae on the north coast, the south-west tip of Islay, the tidal island of Oronsay and the south coast of Mull. They were met on the strand below Iona Abbey by a large crowd, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey.

Their first night’s stop out from Derry had been on the shore at Castle Cary, less than a mile from Cooley cemetery. They had designed the boat, in the ancient way, both to be carried ashore and to be upturned to form their night’s shelter; they could stop where they wanted so long as they had a strand to pull her up on. They were met everywhere with kindness, generosity, huge amounts of hot food and a shared pleasure in their achievement and their homage to Colmcille. They proved that even relatively untrained crews could pilot a craft across these seas at good speed; that the Early Medieval curragh was indeed capable of open-sea travel.

We were talking with some of our friends about this trip (I had some years ago met a member of the original crew by chance, in Greencastle museum, just up the coast from here, where there is a very similar craft). I think it was Sean or Martin who said, oral tradition has it that people came by sea from many parts to be buried at Cooley, partly because of its perceived holiness as a site (the Irish have long memories) and partly, perhaps, because of its special location close to the mouth of Lough Foyle and en route to the Western Isles where Iona lay. That might, at least, explain why the cemetery is so full. If only we knew who the founding saint was, could place them in time or in a genealogy of a known clan, it might tell us why this site had such resonance in the regional community.

As the week went on, doubts were, at least, assuaged on one count. The original monastic enclosure at Cooley was a busy place, full of internal structure and complexity. As we had shown at Carrowmore, high-density magnetic anomalies showing up in the shughof the outer vallum appeared to provide evidence of metalworking. South of the graveyard another apparently rectangular building began to show, and there were signs of structural activity to the east, outside the outer enclosure ditch. This was a serious establishment. We now began to think of the following: we supposed that the founding saint had been interred close to the centre of the monastery or that the monastery had developed around the existing cemetery. Either way, the skeuomorphs suggested that the first phase had involved a wooden church and wooden memorials (as had the well-documented establishment at Lindisfarne). That phase had been followed by the erection of a stone shrine to house the relics of the saint (our skull house), possibly on a small mound, and around this a long-lived cemetery developed, with some of the graves marked by stone crosses of various styles. A high cross visibly marked the site for pilgrims and visitors. Perhaps a full monastery then developed around the cemetery, including a church and workshops, cells for the monks and perhaps guest houses. Sometime, we do not know when, the monastery fell into disuse (we might tentatively blame the Viking raids of the ninth century—this is, after all, a horribly exposed spot), the legends of its saint lost to record. After that it was still used for burial, perhaps by people from far distant places, at least until the fourteenth century (a date suggested by a decorative carving of that period on one of the slab covers to a grave). This phase was perhaps ended by the Black Death. What we know from our work at Carrowmore is that, given sufficient funds and permission, we could answer many of our questions by excavation.

On Sunday we carried on more or less uninterrupted: the rest of Moville had, it seemed, gone off to Croke Park in Dublin to watch County Donegal play in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland Gaelic football championship. It was a chance to take stock, for the unglamorous process of recording to take its course. Colm had undertaken not only to have all the known early crosses drawn—and we were finding a new one every day, it seemed—but also to write detailed notes on them. I doubt if there are any more crosses of this period to be found in mainland Britain, a landscape scoured by scholarly vicars, antiquarians and professional archaeologists for over two centuries. In Ireland it is still possible to make such discoveries, and there is a professional obligation to record and publish them which, for the archaeologist, goes hand in hand with the immense privilege of discovery. Our count was now nineteen crosses of various designs. Not only did we have our two wooden skeuomorphs, but a cross previously known had revealed, with a bit of cleaning, the incised shape of a square stone base—an even rarer example of the skeuomorphic translation of a free-standing carved cross into an incised ‘drawing’ of it.

One of our autumn jobs, apart from report writing, is to get group members making inked versions of the drawings, to go alongside the photographs, so that we have an archive made available for other students of the Irish cross tradition. Because we now have so many new examples from a single place, we can start to look at typologies and to compare them with traditions in other parts of Ireland, as well as the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Wales. Detailed recording of the graves also yielded important insights into how the graveyard had been managed. It looked as though graves towards the west end of the cemetery were more widely spaced than those close to the skull house; and in the south-east corner, where several of the row graves have early modern inscriptions, we were able to show by their subtly different alignment that they had been inserted after the wall was built: they did not date the mass of graves, just a discrete later phase. I relished this week of being in a single place, watching, looking, recording, steeping myself in a landscape.

On Monday evening we gave a group presentation to the Moville community about our work. We had been allowed the run of Rosato’s bar in Moville, our local when we were at the hostel, so we were guaranteed an audience; as it happened we had about thirty. That sort of event makes us feel we are not just taking from, but able to give something to the town, and perhaps to galvanise them into taking more interest in the amazing past on their doorstep.

On Tuesday, our last full day in Moville, we broke off in the early afternoon. I had promised to show Sarah a little more of the peninsula. So we got on the bike and headed west and north for Malin Head: first to the small town of Carndonagh, all brightly coloured houses and narrow, shop-crowded streets converging on a busy central square. A huge modern church sits on a hill so that the Almighty (or perhaps just the Pope) could look down on his congregation from a suitably lofty perch. The remains of a high cross depicting the crucifixion lie in the graveyard of an older, smaller church. Another, with classic interlace and the outline figures of holy men, sits beneath a thoughtlessly designed shelter that looks as if one ought to wait for a bus beneath it and which cuts out all the light. It is flanked by two smaller standing stones, like bollards: one showing the profile of a warrior with a sword on one face and a harpist and his instrument on another; on the other stone, a cat-like creature glares disconcertingly. These last two are decidedly Pictish in style, evidence perhaps that Colmcille’s travels among the Caledonians were reciprocated.

From Carndonagh, sitting above the plain, we rode north and down into the Magh Tóchuir, the ‘Plain of the causeway’, the fertile fringe that gives onto lowland peat bogs and the tidal salt marshes of Trawbreaga Bay. We passed across the mouth of the bay on a long straight road raised above the marshes to Malin, a small, pretty village that calls itself a town and is set against peaty brown hills to the north.

On the bike, familiar scents, like the tang of a peat fire and silage, mixed with the sights of bright crimson fuchsia hedges and long rows of turf cuttings stretching out into the peatlands. Low whitewashed houses, now and then with a traditional thatched roof, echoed an older Ireland. Parts of this landscape as, sadly, is the case across most of the west of Ireland, have been blighted in recent years by the profusion of Celtic Tiger breeze block and concrete mansions, large, brash modern houses set in a half acre of land, many of which can’t be and won’t ever be paid for now that the recession has bitten so deep into Ireland’s economy. Often these garishly decorated houses sit uncomfortably next to the earlier family home or farmstead that has been abandoned but never demolished. Often the new house lies unfinished because the cash has run out, and one hears tell that the government in Dublin will have to buy and demolish them; it’s tempting for the tourist or archaeologist to bemoan the loss of vernacular architecture and the apparent littering of this lovely land by what seem ugly incongruences. But the people who live in the new houses like them, if they are not crushed by debt; their standard of living has risen dramatically in the last thirty years and there’s no going back. Ireland moves on; but still, this part of Donegal seems a long way from the heart of government. Sitting out on a limb to the north of Northern Ireland, Inishowen seems more cut off than it should. To the west, on the other side of Lough Swilly, lies the ragged and beautiful coastline of the peninsula known as Fánaid, part of the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking area of the county. The county town, Letterkenny, is seen up here much less as a central place than nearby Derry now that the border is effectively down and geographic rationalism has returned.73One reason, we have been told, why our work here has been so well received, is that we are seen to be more interested in this part of Ireland than the authorities in Dublin; not many central government funds seem to come this way. Donegal does not have a single mile of public railway (the last of its narrow gauge lines closed in the 1960s) and the roads, so far as tourism goes, are poor.

The entrance to Trawbreaga Bay is narrow; on its south side sits Doagh Island, now connected to the main peninsula by a grassy spit but once only reachable by causeway. It is rich in memorial and rock art and may, in very ancient times, have been a preserve of the dead and the ancestors. I took the road slowly: you never know what piece of lumbering agricultural machinery will come round the next corner. The winding, twisty lanes that carry the intrepid out to Malin Head, the most northerly tip of Ireland, require caution. Despite the roads, there was a little huddle of parked cars and even a mobile coffee and refreshment van had set up shop in the grey car park beneath a grey Napoleonic-period watchtower on a grey afternoon. Concrete, car park and barbed wire together gave the place a tawdry feel; but you would only have to walk half a mile in any direction, or ponder on the weighted ropes that hold the old thatched roofs down on nearby cottages, to feel yourself in a place as wild and remote as Cape Horn. The wind does not let up. The pounding of salty white waves against the rocks, the dark, almost blue-black sea, the odd island set off in the distance can’t fail to impress itself on any member of an island race. Just on the edge of the earth’s disc, some six miles north-east of the point, lies the now uninhabited island of Inishtrahull, Ireland’s most northerly land. It seems to have been the site of an early Christian cell, an extreme example of the hermit’s preference for solitude and hardship.

Below the prominence where the old tower stands huddled close to a meteorological station and a navigation transmitter, there is a grassy plateau above the cliffs, an ancient raised beach. For years beyond recall visitors have taken pebbles and stones from the scree slopes around and arranged them into names that can be read from above. They reminded me forcibly of the Latin memorials of Wales, albeit with less exotic names: THERESA; JANA; DES; CAITLIN; the one that says EIRE is big enough to be seen even on satellite images.

Along the jutting line of the coast squat farmhouses sheltered in low folds of the land; in small inlets fishing boats had been pulled up onto the shore. Dark patches of undrained bog and dull saucers of light reflecting from small tarns pockmarked the green-brown mantle of autumn heather. Sheep and hardy cattle grazed in green fields that ran right down to the shore. One of the most remarkable features of this landscape is the absence of the barn—on the mainland they are a ubiquitous and unnoticed feature of British rural life. Here, hard winters are so rare—I mean hard as in months of lying snow; the winds can be searingly harsh and unremitting—that they graze their livestock the year round.

We took another road back towards the east coast, along the north edge of the Magh Tóchuir, and crossed the narrow River Culdaff (where McGrory’s Bar was open, but much quieter than it had been on Friday night) that gives out onto the north-east coast of Inishowen. I had been meaning for a couple of years to locate Kinnagoe Bay, said to have a very fine beach and located on the east coast of the peninsula. After some tutting and helmet-scratching when we couldn’t make sense of map and road sign, we passed through a tiny hamlet—the local term is clachan—perched on top of a hill overlooking the sea—a much flatter sea than at Malin Head—and negotiated a couple of vertiginous hairpins before coming down onto a sable-brown strand, absolutely deserted, where we parked the bike. The tide was halfway through its ebb. The beach, fringed by tall, scrubby machair grass and the odd blackthorn shrub, was set against cliffs draped in rampant, creeping vegetation. The sea was smoothly ironed, with only the long, menacing outline of a freight ship heading into the Foyle interrupting a perfectly flat horizon. I sat on a convenient, polished boulder in the middle of the beach. Sarah stripped off and swam. Apart from the almost silent lapping of wavelets on the shore, nothing stirred. It was a desert place suitable for a hermit to end his peregrination, build himself a modest cell, and set to contemplating his lord and master. It was either a metaphor for the gentle wind-down to a mad year, I decided, or the start of a horror film. Fortunately, no shark fin or siren from the deep appeared to spoil the moment and neither of us was mysteriously transported to some parallel reality. Sarah struggling, all wet, back into her bike gear provided the bathos to counterbalance the sublimity; and we rode back to Moville happily contemplative, to join in with a last-night meal in town.

We said our goodbyes that night, packed all the kit away into the van, looked at Jack’s latest images from the highly gratifying survey of what we were now happy to call the monastery at Cooley. Sarah and I set off early in the morning. I wanted, before we sailed away from Ireland, to visit one of the great monasteries of the North. In the perfect, ethereal light of sunrise across the lough, we rode south along the west bank of the Foyle and crossed the border at Muff just before Derry, city of culture, religion and conflict now much revived and reinvented and a fascinating place to visit. It was from here that Wallace Clark’s curragh departed in those seemingly more simple days before the civil-rights movement of the late 1960s inadvertently triggered thirty and more years of sectarian violence: an entire generation lived in fear. From Derry we rode east on the A6, through Dungiven, home to both the former Republican hunger striker Kevin Lynch, who died in the Maze Prison on 1 August 1981 after seventy-one days without food and whose face adorns placards mounted on telegraph poles along the main street, and to Seamus O’Kane, bodhrán-maker.

At the eastern edge of the Sperrin Mountains a spectacular escarpment gave onto the lowlands of Antrim and Lough Neagh, all sparkling in the sun. As a relative newcomer to these parts I am still struck by the overt affiliations of communities across Ulster: the odd tricolour here and there or a mural to a fallen warrior; kerbstones painted red, white and blue and defiant Union flags strung from lamp posts; the names of villages dimly remembered from atrocities reported in the news bulletins of my youth. Belfast, negotiated with the help of Sarah tapping me on the shoulder to point out the correct turn off a roundabout (and occasionally to a house where a relative lives, or lived), smelled of heavy industry, the air thick with smog. Giant yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, redolent of empire, hubris and the Titanic, passed to our left at the head of Belfast Lough. The Newtownards road heading east out of the city into a pastoral, gently folded countryside that might never have seen a gun or a bomb offered a sectarian fanfare of Unionist sympathy and passive-aggressive self-conscious identity. For those of my generation who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, it speaks of fist-thumping rhetoric, sordid violence, establishment stupidity; or bravery and collusion, betrayal and stoicism. If, as a distant witness, I find it hard to credit how brutalised and psychopathic it all became, as a historian I can see the Dark Age parallels all too clearly. Bede, the great scholar and historian, was a monk who believed that all Britons were schismatic, and damned. St Wilfrid and Gildas were as uncompromising in their beliefs as any of the rabid sectarians of Ulster’s twentieth-century Troubles. And one man’s freedom fighter, the warrior hero of myth and legend, song and memorial, is another’s terrorist, praised in poetry or cursed and damned, imprisoned or martyred.

We reached the seventh-century monastery of Nendrum, which sits on a small emerald island at the head of Strangford Lough, by a causeway that must be of equal antiquity, after a very slow, winding, beautiful approach that ate into precious time but led us gently by the hand away from the political strife of the twentieth century. It reminded us both, immediately, of St Blane’s church at Kingarth on the southern tip of Bute; the same concentric, rising series of enclosures that give it a shape like a three-tiered wedding cake: sanctus, sanctior, sanctissimus. At the centre, on the summit of the hill, were a small church, a cemetery and tower, the latter a typical feature of Irish monasteries but probably not contemporary with the original foundation. On both sides the view was of narrow inlets and misty sun-graced islets with boats moored off them and flocks of geese gathering for their winter’s passage south: all Swallows and Amazons. We were the only visitors and had the place to ourselves apart from a man with a strimmer: heritage sites here in Ulster are trimmed by the hand of the Ministry of Tidy Monuments—just as they are in England, where green lawns and well-pointed ruins give visitors the mistaken idea that this was what the past was really like. The small museum, discreetly tucked behind trees, was excellent. Otherwise, a ruin is much like any other ruin except that Nendrum’s setting allows you to indulge the mind’s eye in giving a flavour of its meaning in the landscape: its isolation intentionally half-complete, with one foot in a very real world of economy and authority, the other in a dreamworld of contemplation and divine love.



At Nendrum the real deal was waiting down on the shore. Here, where the tide laps just across the road from the foot of the outermost enclosure, almost as if the whole floats on the tidal mud of the lough, two low banks of stones, looking like unfinished breakwaters, betrayed a very special Dark Age marvel. These were the man-made lagoons of Nendrum’s tide mills which, until 1999, had lain unrecognised for well over a thousand years. A brilliant series of technically challenging excavations by a team under Thomas McErlean (Colm and I met him on a visit to Coleraine University a couple of years ago: a splendid hands-on, old-school archaeologist whom we instantly took to) recovered the sequential remains of two mills of considerable sophistication. Much of the second mill survived intact, and because enough timber and structural details of the first were retrievable, it was possible to date the original construction to the year 619, just over twenty years after the death of Colmcille on Iona and the arrival of Augustine at Canterbury. Northumbria was the pre-eminent kingdom among the English and King Rædwald, the warrior buried in his ship beneath a mound on the banks of the River Deben, still ruled the kingdom of the East Angles.

Like the latter-day example at Stratford on the River Lea east of London (see page 105), the Nendrum tide mill exploited differential levels of high and low tides. Incoming water was allowed through a sluice or sluices into the mill dam; at high tide the sluice was closed and, when the level of the outgoing tide fell below the penstock (a small, very carefully constructed stone chute through which water was funnelled), the penstock sluice was opened and water fell in a directed jet onto a horizontal turbine, several of whose paddles were retrieved during the excavation. Thomas McErlean and his colleague later produced a magnificent, beautifully produced volume74 on the excavations that gives a vivid picture of their findings and of life at Nendrum. The engineering skills employed in its conception, construction and maintenance give the lie to any idea that the Dark Ages were inhabited by semi-savage primitives rooting around in old Roman rubbish heaps for a crust before retiring to their hovels. Hovels there were; but the elite of the Early Medieval world had lost nothing of human society’s curiosity towards its universe, nor were their imaginations bound entirely by hand-to-mouth subsistence, a horrified superstitious fear of capricious spirits and a dread of the afterlife. They were intrepid and ambitious. The contract by which holy men and women were allowed freehold rights to land in perpetuity, fiercely protected by their descendants, allowed clever, industrious communities to invest sweated labour (their own and their serfs’) in capital projects of increasing ambition. The products of these investments were, firstly, an agricultural surplus; secondly, a kingship with increasingly rational and legitimised ideas of statehood and governance; thirdly, the fruits of intellectual contemplation and craft specialisation: manuscripts, books, sculpture, stone churches, mills, a learned tradition preserved and transmitted by writing; and a knowledge network that linked the furthest ends of the earth on the North-west Atlantic coasts of the British Isles with the centres of the ancient world.

Rightly, archaeologists and Early Medieval historians do not use the term Dark Ages in academic journals and among themselves, even if it is a convenient and evocative tag for a period buried in obscurity and seen, for the most part, through a glass darkly. Out of the Dark Ages there came light.

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