Sites for Sore Eyes: micro-cults and the potential of continuity of late Prehistoric cosmologies

There is something quite ironic about your first proper blog being about modern archaeology when your main interest is prehistory. Today I revisited a graveyard at the other side of the city. I haven’t been in the graveyard for many, many years, and was really only there to photograph an image of a particular grave I remembered from childhood.

It was the dead of winter, back then… late afternoon, and I was very small, and rather scared of the falling dusk in the land of the dead, despite being with my grandmother. Milltown cemetery is replete with amounts of morbid Gothica which would make Tim Burton or Marilyn Manson weep with joy. Huge mausoleums, more weeping angels than any Joy Division album – a sombre place where Death means business, and you better respect that. A graveyard of martyrs and legends, and the architecture is made to reinforce that fact.

There was a grave, engraved in elegant Irish script. I always felt it looked like Tolkien Elvish. Beneath the great limestone slab was an image of a gracile man, with glasses. One of the eyes was rubbed dark and shiny and hollow. My grandmother rubbed her thumbs over it, and made the sign of the cross on my eyes. Something about this action paralysed me with solemn fear even further, the sort of fear that makes you freeze inside as much as outside. Someone knew mysteries, and magic, had a direct hotline to the Other Side, whose land you stood on, and you were on the helpless receiving end.

So, the rubbing of the eyes ritual didn’t work. Decades have passed and I am still exceptionally short sighted, a fact not helped by my accidental stumbling into academia, and subsequent sojourn here. The amount of late night reading has only increased over the years.

Today, I made my way to Milltown cemetery again to find the rubbing eye gravestone. My grandfather and his first wife are buried in there, somewhere. My great grandmother too, with her people, in a large chained Victorian grave, I’m told. My twin sister, stillborn, was more than likely dumped with little decorum into the bogland cilin at the western edge of the cemetery ( . My own personal archaeology is blended in that strange liminal place – and oh boy, if you ever wanted evidence that liminality exists in the 21st century, and that the principle of the ferta never went away, this is your graveyard. The ‘poor land’ reserved for the pauper, the stranger and the stillborn is still marshy despite much draining. The high ground was reserved for the Republican warrior and the Nationalist bard. The rest of the dearly departed are squashed in where they can.

Milltown was designated a formal burial ground in 1869, mostly for the Catholic community, but there are some exceptions. It is a fierce place, conscious of its own place in Republican history. Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty of the 1981 Hunger Strikes all rest here. Joe McKelvey, from the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, and IRA man Tom Williams ; Winifred Carney, the last woman to be removed from Dublin’s GPO in the 1916 rebellion also has a place of honour here. Priests such as Father MacAllister, who accompanied political prisoners to the gallows still presides over his warrior flock. The idea of the Late Iron Age/Early Christian ferta, the burial land of the ancestors as the only place where a body can rest among their own, is strong here. Ancient ideologies (and oh, I do mean ancient)… they never went away , you know, to paraphrase Mr Adams.

The major graves are for the Republican ‘warrior’ classes, followed by the bards of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cathal O’Byrne of ‘As I Roved Out’ fame is buried in a modest grave here. The death mask of the handsome’ Weaver Poet’ Francis Davis, looks out from a La Tene styled tower of sandstone with blind eyes. Davis was a Presbyterian, scion of United Irishman supporters. Finding himself in penury after the death of his parents, he worked as a weaver to make money to attend the incarnation of Queens University, the Queens College, during the Early Victorian period, and dazzled at all he did. He later established a magazine, the first historically aware publication of its kind, called ‘The Belfastman’s Journal’ ( Reilly, 2000, 127).

As I sat by Cathal O’ Byrne’s graveside, talking with the incredibly knowledgeable cemetery keeper, I pondered many things. The morbidly over-the-top graves of crucifixion scenes, placed there in 1934, the height of the Hungry Thirties recession, were plain evidence that visible manifestations of memory are for the quick, not the dead. Sweeping statements that all prehistoric megaliths are linked to solar or lunar events may be partially right in the same way Christian graves align to the East/West axis for Resurrection Day – but what if human ostentation is the main reason? Encapsulations of territory, ideologies and culture, the one-stop shop to scream out ‘ Credo’ for a whole tribe? And if you don’t holla’ back ” preach, brutha!!” and understand the symbols, then keep moving – you’re not part of the gang.

The priest with the rubbed eye is one Fr Donal O’Toole. I can find no details of him as yet, or why the ritual of eye rubbing sprung up at his graveside. I’m going to presume the little micro-cult comes from rural folks, working in the hellish mills who remembered ancient traditions by wells and stones, all conveniently sanctified for saints, of course – Holy Mother Ireland and all that, but really were manifestations of elemental worship so hated by Patrick in his conversion trips through Ireland ( Bieler, 1979). You can take the people out of the Late Bronze Age ( or perhaps even earlier?) but you can’t take the Bronze Age out of them….

As a small child, I remembered Milltown as a place of terror, where you weren’t just up against the disapproving Warrior Dead, but magic and ritual as well. When you’re face to face with The Other Side, you don’t say a lot. Rather reverential circumstances from which ritual springs, I think. had believed the grave of O’Toole to be in a different place, a different shape. As an adult, in sunshine, devoid of fear, my perspective was very different from the myopic, terrified child who was confronted by taboos and The Great Unknowns, with granny as High Priestess of mysteries.

I think there’s an important lesson here about utilising folklore, anecdotes, and ( whisper it) phenomenology here. When we are the powerless ones, reliant on others interpreting ritual for us, we see landscapes in a very different manner. What is it Shakespeare said? ‘ .. in imagining some fear, how easy is a bush mistook a bear’? Everything contains a more potent meaning, reinforcing our own mortality and weakness and lack of the smarts. Even such a landscape on a sunny day moves through us, in our minds and hearts.

I allowed myself to stand and gaze down on the low land of the cillin, wondering what it would have been like to have a sister. Would she have accompanied me into archaeology? Would I have been a hare-brained Aunt Mame sort, dragging my nieces and nephews off on research fun while my sister face palmed ? Sober thoughts for a hot day.

Even the fact that the Milltown ‘poor ground’ is on swampy land, I think is important here. Ancient traditional ferta often became unsanctioned places on the boundary of heaven and limbo for the socially unacceptable dead, such as strangers and unbaptised children ( O’Connor, 2005). This has been shown in several locations, such as the secular cemetery/ cillin of Faughart Lower, in Louth ( Potterton and Corlett, 2010).

I may some time think about Victorian Irish graveyards as reinterpreted ferta. I may consider some poking at pre-1869 maps of the Milltown region to see if there were any traces of early structures such as raths, standing stones et al. If I get time, I may have a look at a few other Victorian graveyards as comparisons – I know Knock in Belfast once contained  prehistoric earthworks of some form. The choice for these sites in the 19th century may not be just matters of land and convenience. However, the choice to rejig the ideologies or cosmologies of an ancient pre-Christian past is probably no further than a stone, a rubbed finger and a whole lot of superstition. Such things are so far ingrained into this island consciousness, I don’t think we can separate them from the 21st century.

We are what we are.

And frankly? I love it.




Bieler, L. 1979. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

O’Connor, A. 2005. The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore. Berne: Lange Publishing

Potterton, M and Corlett, C ( eds). 2010. Death and Burial in Early Medieval Ireland in the light of recent archaeological excavations. Bray: Wordwell Press.

Reilly, C. 2000. Mid Victorian Poetry 1860 – 1879. New York: Mansell Publishing


5 thoughts on “Sites for Sore Eyes: micro-cults and the potential of continuity of late Prehistoric cosmologies

    1. Thanks Sarah. Powerlessness is one of the things perhaps more people on the planet have felt, and those ‘initiates’ of any insider club know how to work it, either intentionally, or as believers unintentionally.

    1. In that we move and interact with landscapes; however, when you really think about it, landscapes interact with us also! You have a gloomy glade, makes us feel uneasy, perhaps. A beautiful rolling hill of grassland, with a rocky promontory will make us feel uplifted perhaps. The landscape affects us, and our emotional responses. A ritual landscape affects our moods, or emotions in a very direct manner.

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