Friday, April 2, 2010

Irish Wolfhounds- echoes of a proud past.

Journeying the other day back up onto the Curragh from Naas to the junction 12 roundabout I met the new imposing ironcast sculptures now filling the eye at the gateway to the Curragh plains. I took three spins around the roundabout to admire Fionn MacCumhaill flanked either side by his impressive hunting hounds Bran and Sceolain.

Kildare people often think themselves to be living in a bland modern and almost suburbanised landscape. We assume perhaps that words like tradition and heritage fit Connemara,Dingle, Lisdoonvarna or the Giants Causeway. A reminder of the pagan, celtic and rebellious history of our own townlands might incite a bit more civic pride in the people, place and history of Kildare perhaps.

I was saddened to hear one of Kildare's county councillors on the radio complaining that Fionn MacCumhaill's aculpture shouldnt have been paid for out of Newbridge town council's parking funds.I disagree and believe in fact that cultural pride, identity and a sense of dreaming the possible can lift people to think above the everyday and believe themselves capable of better.

Civic Leadership needs to excite again. People need to be asked to believe in themselves and their country, to strive for a noble cause again and to rise above the mundane. Leadership is effective when it incites to what Maslow, an early psychologist, called "self-actualisation".

The presence of Fionn MacCumhaill, Bran and Sceolain towering over that motorway junction is an echo of Ireland's mythology and awakens in me a sense of patriotism. And a sense of identity that allows us as an Irish people to define ourselves apart from the euro-mush and globalised Americana that dominate our lives now.

Legend has it that Fionn MacCumhaill was a Kildare man. His grandfather Tadhg the Druid had a fortress and lands on the Hill of Allen. Fionn was the lovechild of Tadhg's daughter Muireann and Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna. Fionn was reared in the Slieve Blooms but returned to Allen to claim his grandfathers lands.The title of leader of the Fianna was bestowed on him in Tara as his father's legacy.

His two favourite hunting hounds were bewitched warriors imprisoned in animal form.The theme of humans bewitched into animal form was a common part of Irish celtic mythology. My view is that these stories educated people to have respect for nature.The closeness of the link between man's fortunes and the cycle of nature was a core belief of celtic druidism.

Bran and Sceolain were Irish wolfhounds. However the early writers often termed this breed of huge dog a wardog or deerhound/wolfhound.They were fit for purpose and could kill a wolf by snapping its neck. A pair could bring down a bear of which there were many in the Irish iron age forests. The Fianna were footsoldiers who went into battle with their hounds at heel and as the dog would fight to the death with his master and guard the homestead at night they were a revered and treasured possession.

Roman historians of the second and third century AD write of these hounds being brought in cages to be exhibited in Rome and to fight in the Collosseum. The ship that brought a young St Patrick out of Ireland carried a cargo of hounds to Britannia. There is evidence that there was a thriving trade in the export of the Irish wardog to the continent.

We believe that the Romans never came to Ireland. However it is more accurate to say that they never established an occupational presence in Ireland. They certainly traded with the iron age Irish and pre christian celts. A Roman temple and baths in Gloucester today has a life size statue of an Irish Wolfhound which dates to 365AD. I would like to think that the fearsome indigenous footsoldiers of Celtic Ireland who went into battle with their loyal and savage wardogs at heel provided a strong deterrent against Roman invaders.

The Fianna disbanded within a few hundred years of St Patrick's christianisation of Ireland. The land lay open to Viking, Norman and then British invasion as the millenia passed and the landscape, culture and genepools of Ireland were altered and diluted over time. Fionn, Bran and Sceolain on the roundabout are an echo of what Irishness might once have looked like.

When you next drive by there picture Fionn, leader of the Fianna standing on the Hill of Allen, watching his favourite hounds Bran and Sceolain as they hunt the Curragh plains below.

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