At a recent academic meeting, it seems that the new sexy theory is that the use of symbols to express a shared identity loses or changes its meaning over time. It’s okay to think of it as diffusion, but not remembered meaning. Maybe that’s how it is in some places, but here, set your clock back some 1800 years, sometimes more. Ireland does not forget. The symbols which are shorthand for our chosen identities, and therefore subsequent political issues persist and are instantly recognisable over 300 years and sometimes more. Even the resurrection of La Tene-derivative artwork as ‘Celtic’ is a bit of a 19th and 20th century ‘up yours’ politically, as artists and dreamers and the odd crafty politician crafted an Ireland which didn’t ever really exist. Don’t get me started on this – there’s enough of it in my literature review. The real Iron Age Ireland is a lot muckier, bloodier, with a lot less gauzy clothing or faeries.
The Dark Rose, Roisin Dubh, is a metaphorically dangerous and lovely Ireland at the Flight of the Earls, with a deeper meaning after the 1798 Rebellion. The symbol is still well enough understood that it was used by Thin Lizzy (and oh, I do love some good Lizzy guitar riffs) some 200 or 300 years later.
Oh.. yeah. The United Irishmen. Probably need to explain for a few out there. The urge to support independence for England has existed for quite some time. Sorry, lads. The very Protestant Ascendancy, aided and abetted by the Church of Ireland attempted a cheeky wee bit of ethnic cleansing via the Penal Codes. These were not, as popularly thought, confined to Catholics. They extended to Presbyterians and Dissenters, with the draconian rules meant to either break them into helots or chase them out of the country… all the more luscious land for the claiming when they left. The American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century inspired a glorious and doomed bunch of dreamers and idealists.
Loved ones, let me introduce you to the United Irishmen, the most Romantic set of losers this side of Firefly. They wanted change. Needless to say, the British government didn’t. None of this ended well. As the leaders were all from extremely educated, liberal backgrounds, they often communicated in symbols, hence the imagery of the Cailleach Beara, Kathleen Ni Houlihan and Roisin Dubh; Ireland as a woman to be fought over, and died for love of. It’s always about sacrifice and mourning, it’s always about blood. Because identity and being culturally awful special comes at a price.
Now, the black rose kept her meaning pretty tight, and of course the 1798 rebellion spawned numerous political symbols and secret codes ‘ for they’re hanging men and women for the wearin’ of the Green’. The United Irishmen used green coloured cockades or scarfs as a means to recognise each other – and perhaps not a very smart one, it has to be said. The extremely flattering painting of a young Henry Joy McCracken, held in the Ulster Museum, has the babelicious rebel wearing a suit of green and looking far too cute to be a political agitator. When the green accessories didn’t work, the shamrock was used, and well… doesn’t everyone know the shamrock symbol as being Oirish? Sure aren’t we the Emerald Isle, bejabers, begorrah, etc?
Symbols do remain, but sometimes their meaning gets a bit twisted depending on who uses it to make a political point. If you don’t get the endurance of a symbol, and how emphasis changes, think on the instantly recognisable ( to us anyway) symbol of the Lámh Dhearg, the Red Hand of Ulster. It sort of tickles me that a pre-Christian symbol can make some of us quite leery, due to who and what hijacked it, even though we know the original meaning. What’s that? You don’t know this one? Ahhh….you’re not a Northie, I’m sorry. Now, this is an identity thing. So here, like a good story? Sit down. Get popcorn. This is pure Game of Thrones.. but then, isn’t most of our history?
Way back as the rowdy pagan Iron Age gave way to the princes of the Church, land was being contested as to who was the chieftain of the north of the island here. Whoever touched the land would own it, and the story goes that one of the Ui Neill was so desperate to claim the land as his own he cut his hand off while on a boat and used a catapult to fling the severed hand, dripping fresh blood, onto the land of Ulaidh. However, even that was contested in the 17th century, when a version was put forward that the hand was never severed – which, if you knew your legends, makes sense. A leader had to be physically perfect to rule, so a one-handed man wouldn’t be allowed at all (sorry, Twin Peaks dude, the Old Irish were pretty damn Ableist).
The other version had the red hand symbol as being a dab of defiance by a personal favourite character of the Ulster Cycle, Conall Cearnach, who smeared his bloodied and fighting hand print on an enemy standard while avenging CuChulainn’s death. This is very much something the old grizzler Cernach would do. He’s Die Hard 0, or maybe Bás-Chrua 1?
There’s a goodly link to this in the refs, and you’ll see the sort of thing that wins my heart, but the key perhaps in all this is that the hand is bloodied by desire to defend the land to the death, and legitimise your tribal claim to it. The symbol has been accepted as the crest of the O’Neill family from the 16th or 17th century no matter what the legends are, so we know the story certainly pre-dates the Elizabethan era. So, let’s skip forward about 2000 years or so to now. We’ve got some good Gaelic clubs called Lamh Derg (shout out to the Hannahstown Homies), because, y’know, it’s ‘Celtic’ and all. It’s the logo of the Ulster GAA Also, they do indeed wage decent war on the field! But, if you know your Troubles history, you’ll also know the symbol was hijacked by a Loyalist paramilitary group, The Red Hand Commandos, who toured around murdering Catholics in the 70s. Yet it’s also used by the National Graves Association to mark out specifically conserved Republican graves. The symbol is also used non-politically on the logo of Ulster Rugby, the Irish Transport and Workers Union. It is a symbol of the grim and dour north who will never go down without a fight, and a political symbol for both sides of the fray, intransigent to the end, defending ….something. After 2000 years or so, the symbol is well understood, even though it has negative connotations for both sides of the community here. But we remember. These, and many others I could list, are still understood as shorthand of our origins, real or fabricated; and let’s be fair, with Irishness sometimes even we aren’t sure.
So, how does that tally to my beloved La Tène-derivative stuff?
The symbols matter, because once upon a time, they held our ancestors together.
They were something understood well enough to be re-used over and over again across Europe. They bonded memory like cultural glue. Problem is, we’ve no idea what they actually meant. Sometimes, after a few too many aperol spritzers, I think I understand them, but that’s also when I flirt with people’s houseplants and goldfish at house parties, so maybe not the most reliable or quantifiable methodology. Memory is the fabric of time and culture, and we can embroider it as we wish according to the trends, but the fabric exists without our embellishment. Memory has its own warp and weft, and bits of it are caught in song and word and fireside story. Despite all their failings, and mucked up contexts as they were written down in the Middle Ages, I am eternally glad Ireland has the ancient texts of the Lebor Gabala, Lebar na hUidre, Tain, Togail… ach, all of them. Because fragments of shattered memory and symbol is captured in the cloth of time, shimmering in the right light. It’s always about identity, and remembrance. And it’s usually connected to land and luck, the things our ancestors couldn’t really do without. Their hopes and fears and identities are within those magical twists which dance and shape-shift across metalwork. Ignore them, try to squeeze them into meaningless ordered filing systems or dismiss them, at your own cost.
Yes! You can do Irish proper too! Reading starts…here.
Cullingford, E.B., 1990. ’Thinking of Her… as… Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney. Textual Practice, 4(1). 1-21.
Curtin, N.J., 1985. The transformation of the Society of United Irishmen into a mass-based revolutionary organisation, 1794-6. Irish Historical Studies, 24(96).463-492.
Hutchinson, J., 2012. Dynamics of cultural nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state. Routledge.
Kelleher, J.V., 1971. The Táin and the annals. Ériu, 22, pp.107-127.
Ó Riain, G., 2011. Varia III: Quatrains relating to the controversy of the Red Hand. Available at: https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/5838
Ó Riain, G., 2013. Varia I: 1. Two quatrains in Cath Maighe Rath; 2. An unrecorded scribal note in RIA 23 Q 16; 3. IGT II 1258. Available at : https://ulir.ul.ie/bitstream/handle/10344/5837/Eriu_63.pdf?sequence=4
Tuama, S.Ó. and Kinsella, T., 1981. An Duanaire, 1600-1900: poems of the dispossessed. Dolmen Press.