The Medieval Review 13.01.07

Schot, Roseanne, Conor Newman, and Edel Bhreathnach. Landscapes of Cult and Kingship. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 322. 50.00 EUR. ISBN: 9781846822193. . .

Reviewed by:

Lisa M. Bitel
University of Southern California
bitel@usc.edu

"There is an urgent necessity to contribute to the worldwide debate on kingship," declare the editors of this volume on the ritual landscapes of ancient Ireland.

Is kingship a thing? Are we having a global debate about it? I am not as convinced as Schot, Newman, and Bhreathnach, but Irish kingship is certainly interesting and important enough to deserve a volume of essays. The diverse canon of medieval Irish texts--many long ago translated into English--is filled with histories, chronicles, and laws about ancient Irish kings, the genealogies of kings, poetry for and about kings, and advice to kings. No other European culture can offer as much evidence about sacral places and institutions of the very distant past. Kingship, legendary kings, rituals of kingship, and kingly places have long dominated the Irish historical imagination. What's more, the Irish landscape remains densely littered by pre-modern monuments and other material remains, although some are below the surface. The Hill of Tara (Old Ir. Temair, co. Meath), famous symbolic capital of Ireland's most powerful rulers, dominates the history of Irish kingship, as it does this collection. In fact, the volume resulted from a 1992 conference which was inspired, in turn, by the Discovery Programme's Tara Project and scholarly efforts to protect Tara from destruction during the construction of a major motorway.

Earlier generations of scholars mistakenly assumed that the hilltop structures historically associated with ancient regional kingships looked and functioned the same way for a thousand or more years, beginning way back in the days when rulers were semi-divine men who mated with territorial goddesses. Scholars also previously assumed that the medieval literature accurately depicted the ancient "pagan" understanding of royal places. But the stories never aligned with evidence from the landscape. In sagas such as the famous Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle-raid of Cuailnge), for instance, kings and queens built royal halls atop hilltop sites like Tara and Cruachain from which they emerged to battle other provincial rulers; however, excavations at Tara and other kings' places suggested that they were rarely inhabited. What did it mean to medieval writers, then, when they wrote about the Kings of Tara? Writers of this book deconstruct the literature as evidence for political changes and shifting attitudes about royal power in medieval Ireland, and deploy the archaeological evidence to tag texts and themes to individual sites in specific historical periods.

Conor Newman, for instance, tackles Tara and the many myths of ritual inauguration associated with it. Newman locates Tara's twin hills in a larger landscape of the Gabhra River and the many burials, residences, and sites of ritual deposition that spread from its banks, beginning in the Bronze Age. Newman shows how generations of Irish men and women built on Tara, both literally and culturally, adding, rearranging, and revising its uses. Tara inspired changing styles and practices of kingship, and Tara's ritual use by kings preserved the symbolic and historical importance of the place.

Several essays focus on the origins and various meanings of royal rituals as depicted in medieval stories of much earlier times. Marion Deane explicates the eighth-century Irish tale, Compert Con Culainn (Birth of Cú Chulainn), reading its mysterious triple births, magical horses, and episodes of royal incest as a mythical marriage of king and horse-goddess. In the hands of Christian scribes, Deane argues, the same myth became an allegory of the evolution of kingship from a divine inheritance to an institution conferred and negotiated by men. Similarly, Bridgette Slavin gathers literary references to magical safeguards placed on kings and their royal seats, first by druids and poets, and later by Christian saints trying to build a new kind of kingship.

Other chapters deconstruct supposedly prehistoric myths. Roseanne Schot focuses on Uisnech, located at the center of the island, explaining how an enterprising branch of the mighty Uí Néill (O'Neill) dynasty turned an existing cult center into their "ancient" capital in the sixth century. Their learned men manipulated Uisnech's history and sacral resources to make it resemble the royal sites of other provinces--Temair, Cruachain, Emain Macha, and Dún Ailinne--and thus locate their rule in a more venerable past than it deserved.

Although the book's title doesn't suggest it, Christianity is the third crucial element in this collective history of Irish kingship. All of the authors assume, as other historians have, that missionaries brought profound political change to Ireland along with Christian ideas and practices. Hagiographers and religious poets commemorated Christianity's triumph over old cult sites (senchathraig na ngente.) Monastic annalists declared Diarmait mac Cerbaill (d. ca 565 CE) to be the last king who celebrated the royal Feast of Tara (feis or banfeis), the king's symbolic mating with the land itself. However, by the time monks wrote, Diarmait and the ritual feis Temra had become signifiers of the pagan past. Later writers recreated pagan kingship in inventive episodes, just as fifth- and sixth-century dynasts colonized ancient cult sites and necropolises with cemeteries and churches. Edel Bhreathnach's treats this development in her study of the historical shift of royal power from Tara to Tailtiu, as depicted in the hagiography of the seventh and later centuries. Back in the mid-fifth century, Saint Patrick had supposedly cursed the kings and their yearly feast of Tara, yet the saint approved of a similar annual gathering (óenach) at Tailtiu, seat of the kings of Síl nÁedo Sláine. Although both royal sites retained pagan reputations, Tailtiu continued to function as a provincial meeting place for centuries more--but more likely thanks to clerical patronage of its Christian kings than to Patrick's blessing.

Throughout the subsequent medieval and modern centuries, whenever political leaders needed to make public statements about their right to royal power, they chose old sites imbued with dense sacral and historical meanings, which they never hesitated to adjust for their own purposes. Hence, the later medieval Méig Gabhra (Maguires) of Fermanagh gathered on a mound at Cornashee to inaugurate their next Mountain King (as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick et al. show in their essay.) Hence the United Irishmen camped at Tara in 1798 before falling to the British army. Hence Daniel O'Connell summoned his countrymen and women to Tara in 1843 in order to demand the repeal of the Act of Union. And hence this book and the conference that produced it, prompted by twenty-first-century politics as well as scholarly initiative. In September of 2007, 1500 people gathered once again at Tara, not to anoint a king but to demand that the proposed motorway be rerouted. Once again, the meanings and uses of ancestral ritual sites have shifted, for the 2007 meeting used Tara to oppose the national government rather than validating its leadership. This leaves me wondering: did crowds gather at Tara or Rathcroghan or Emain in earlier times too, to protest the abuse of power, the demolition of monuments, the desecration of numinous forces, and the revision of history?

This interdisciplinary collection of case studies proposes methods for future study and promises discoveries to come, but there's still a lot of debris for collaborative teams of scholars to sort through. Too many of the sites examined in this collection and too many pre-modern texts are still difficult to date precisely. The pre-modern literature focuses on a select few of the royal inaugural sites identified by archaeologists. Other complex, multi-period sites remained useful, sacred, and important to the medieval Irish; how do they relate to royal sites? As several authors in this book point out, religion and politics were inseparable in pre-modern Ireland, hence inaugural sites are hardly comprehensible without analysis of the related places where kings lived, worshipped, judged, visited on their constant circuits of their territories, or fought for in battle. Territorial and property boundaries, as Breathnach suggests in her chapter, were as important as ancient inaugural sites--probably more important in both practical and sacral terms. The Irish buried their ancestors on boundaries, made elaborate laws for identifying, keeping, and crossing boundaries; both historical kings and legendary heroes fought major battles on territorial boundaries, and monks built their settlements on boundaries. And as Kay Muhr argues in her examination of selected placenames, just as "the old hag" in a folktale may represent a sovereignty goddess, likewise "a hill or cairn [may be] a manifestation of the boundary with the Otherworld, a hole in the ground a telluric womb" (255).

One man's Otherworldly portal was another's burial mound or property marker. As John Waddell points out in one of the best essays of the book, we cannot assume that the Irish passed down the meaning of kingly centers and landscapes unchanged from one generation to the next. Our job is to demonstrate the mechanisms by which places accrued meaning and to explain the motives of people who used and interpreted those places. This book opens a path to the pre-modern past--we can see the hilltop forts of ancient kings rising in the distance--but we have yet to find a reliable map to landscapes of cult and kingship.