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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Meeting the Ancestors

When I began visiting ancient mounds and ivy-covered graveyards in the countryside it was to enjoy their peace and scenery. They had great locations near hills, lakes, islands and forests.

Then I began to wonder about their background, who lived there, what happened to them?

I had few expectations in getting answers. We had learnt that anything before the year 1100 belonged to the ’Dark Ages’, when nothing worth recording had ever happened.

Then bits and pieces of information began to emerge, stories of personalities and events that pointed to a time that was anything but dark.

The saying, ‘an island of saints and scholar,’ came to mind and I began to suspect that long before the Normans came, Ireland had indeed enjoyed a standing it never again achieved.

In my explorations I came across samples of age-old art, literature, manuscript preservation, metal-work and stone sculpture. The stories that emerged involved foreign travel and contacts across Europe. Scholars had come from abroad to study literacy, scripture and philosophy.

Soon I became familiar with the names of women and men who had once been legendary over large areas, setting up centres of learning and calmness. In north Kildare (where I live) Mochua, Mococa, Mainham, Tua, Ailbe, Erc, Rhuadan, Germann, Briga and others began the communities that are today’s towns and villages. The prefix ‘Mo-‘ in many of their names was because of the affection in which they were held (‘Mo’ means, ‘My’).

Why are they now remembered only in place names, such as town or villages beginning with ‘Kil’ (meaning ‘monastic cell of’)?

It occurred to me that if there is something for Ireland to be proud of and from which to draw inspiration today it is in that golden period. Yet, for many it is as if it never happened.

Maybe we can blame the Normans who needed an excuse to hold on to the lands they had seized and who wanted to impose their own social structure on their newly conquered people.

Their historian at that time (their PR agent?), Geraldus Cambrensis, wrote of the Irish, ‘It is indeed a most filthy race, a race sunk in vice, a race more ignorant than all other nations of the first principles of the faith. Hitherto they neither pay tithes nor first fruits; they do not contract marriages, nor shun incestuous connections; they frequent not the church of God with proper reverence.’

This picture of the Irish spread slowly but its frequent repetition in the media and its reflection in social attitudes could not but influence the ordinary people who had suffered enough for holding on to the old ways. Maybe it would be better to embrace the new and forget that an alternative had existed?

Now whenever I meet Mochua, Mococa or one of their companions in a forgotten place in the countryside, it’s like meeting an old friend. We spend time together, recalling family stories and how the world is changing.

(For updates on forgotten places around Ireland see the posts of hugh macmahon on Facebook.)


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