Vikings of the Irish Sea (David Griffiths)

(Why, yes, school DID just start again…it’s no accident I haven’t posted since June 13th, when school got out for the summer.  It’s difficult to think, let alone type, with children chattering at your elbow.  So many of their sentences this summer started with “HeyMomCanI..” I was beginning to think I’d acquired a new nickname..  Anyhoo.  Back for the school year…)

It’s taken me several months to read David Griffiths’ Vikings of the Irish Sea (2010) but that’s my fault, not the book’s.  Mostly.  It is a detailed, academic treatment, possibly not a good fit for a general audience and certainly not a place to begin reading about the Vikings’ forays into the British islands.  And absolutely not a book to be trying to get through with short people chanting “HeyMomCanI…” in the background.  Your brain starts blinking Insufficient attention available at this time.  

That said, the book is very good at what it’s meant to be–a corrective to how we usually think about Vikings and their interaction with the British islands.  Griffith makes the point that crossing the Irish sea is much easier and faster than, say, crossing Ireland by land. Trading and raiding–and not just by Vikings–crisscrossed the Irish sea, and we would do well to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The added bonus for anyone interested in Linn Duachaill is that this book came out as the first-round excavations were planned or perhaps underway, and so is a snapshot of the state of our knowledge just before that significant discovery.  It’s worth noting that Griffiths had enough information at his disposal even before the discovery of the longphort  to caution against assuming that Lisnarann was where the Vikings made camp:  “the longphort…could equally well be associated with the monastery, as also seems the case at St. Mullins” (32).

This, of course, has turned out to be precisely the case.

Now, of course, I want to do some reading about St. Mullins as an analogue for Linn Duachaill.

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Another nifty item in Waterford

This knife is recent discovery.  I expect the interpretation of the inscription is accurate, but if I were using putting it in a story, I’d be tempted to have the ‘real’ meaning so more like, ‘when I kill you, I pray for your soul to go to heaven.’

 

Sun Dancing (Geoffrey Moorhouse)

I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend. It’s unusual. The first half is a set of imagined vignettes of the monks’ lives on Skellig Michael from its founding (circa 6th c) to eventual abandonment (circa 13th c). The second half is a set of non-fiction chapters about various aspects of early Irish history.

The whole book is well worth a look, although it’s good to remember that in the fifteen years since it was published, a fair amount of historical and archeological research has been done, some of which calls into question elements of the non-fiction chapters. For instance, the idea that anyone was wearing kilts (p. 205)this early in Irish (or Scottish) history has been reconsidered. Even so, it’s an accessible, intriguing entrypoint to the time period and culture.

Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 (Daibhi O Croinin)

If you’re looking for a good, relatively recent (1995), concise but not too concise, introduction to Ireland from the introduction to Christianity to the 12th century invasion, you could do far worse than this book.

Just under 300 pages plus another 50 or so of resources (glossary, suggestions for further reading, bibliography), it packs a lot into a relatively small package. For comparison, I have two others on the shelf, waiting to be read, at roughly 1000 pages each.

There were places I wanted more detail. For instance on page 39, he describes briefly that “the pre-Christian practice […] reckoned time in terms of three-, five-, ten-, or fifteen-day periods, based on the lunar calendar […] the seven-day week was entirely unknown.” This is fascinating, a huge entrypoint into how people thought about their world and their place within it, but the author gives us nothing further. Bummer.

But overall, it’s a quick, nice introduction to the subject, accessible, even droll in places: “Modern scholars do not quite know what to make of Virgil. Is he just a dotty professor, like many of themselves, and therefore to be humoured?” (212). Very few pages went by without me underlining and/or annotating something in the margin, which is usually a sign of book in which a good time was had by all.

Celtic Myths (Miranda Jane Green)

This little book packs a punch. Not even 100 pages and nicely illustrated, it still manages to be a nice, concise introduction to the belief system of the pre-Christian Celts. Of course, the brevity may owe something to how little we know with any certainty. Phrases like ‘there’s no direct archaeological evidence of…’ or ‘we can’t be certain that…’ appear with distressing regularity in any book about the Celts. It’s an inescapable problem. But if you’re looking for an entry point, there are worse places to start and not many better.

Irish Bog Book

I was fortunate to see the Fadden More Psalter when I was in Dublin last August. Uncovered in a peat bog in 2006, it’s an awesome discovery on so many levels.

Not because of its fabulous illumination, like the Book of Kells and other insular manuscripts. Not so much. When 1000 years in a peat bog you have, look as good you will not. But its the first major find of this sort in 200 years and the first in an archeological context.

The conservation was probably an interesting project, since the parchment of many leaves had been eaten away but not under the letters because of the ink’s acidity, leading to an odd alphabet soup.

The cover is as important, if not more, as the book itself, telling us for the first time what the outside of early Irish books would have looked and how they were kept. It looks like nothing so much as a 9th century Trapper-Keeper, the book sliding into the cover but not attached to it.

But the icing on the cake is the papyrus inside the front cover, suggesting a potential link between the early Irish church and Coptic Egypt. It’s not known how Christianity came to Ireland. There were enough Christians in Ireland by 410 AD that the Pope sent them a Bishop, Palladius. Saint Patrick gets the credit for converting Ireland but he has, alas, more PR than history on his side. The papyrus find makes one wonder if Coptic missionaries were the real source.