This appeared in the North Clare Local in October.
At the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street in Dublin, there’s an eerie yet fascinating exhibit of bodies found in Ireland’s bogs. Shrunken, with limbs missing, there’s something very unsettling about these figures, with their perfectly preserved fingernails and hair. Thousands of years dead, these corpses remind the viewer of the humanity of those gone long before and our own brief span on earth.
Around 17% of Ireland’s landscape is bogland, and while it has suffered greatly since the industrialisation of agriculture, there are still plenty of bogs to get lost in. Many of Ireland’s bog bodies were discovered after independence, with the establishment of Bord na Mona and the mechanisation of traditional turf-cutting.
Who were the bog men and women? Many of us will remember the warnings issued by our elders of the dangers of bog-holes. While it’s likely that some of our bog bodies met this fate, others met more disturbing ends.
Ordinary murder might have accounted for many of these deaths, or injuries in battle, but leading archaeologists believe something much more sinister might have been afoot.
Two of the most famous are Iron Age bodies Clonycavan Man and Old Croughan Man, discovered in Meath and Offaly respectively in 2003. These men suffered particularly nasty deaths.
Clonycavan man’s distinctive hairstyle, with its hint of an Elvis-like quiff, was achieved using a pine-resin gel. This would have been imported from continental Europe; Clonycavan Man had money. He didn’t engage in manual labour. His murder likely occurred in late summer or early autumn. For the last months of his life he had lived on plants and grains, but previously he had been a meat eater (a diet rich in meat would have signified high status 2,300 years ago). He also suffered terribly in his final moments. Attacked with an axe, disembowelled, he had also had his nipples sliced off.
To us, this coda seems bizarre, but Old Croughan Man also fell victim to this. Older than Clonycavan Man, his hands are perfectly preserved, with manicured nails. He also has an expensive amulet on his arm. While Clonycavan Man was only 5”2”, Old Croughan Man towered over his society at 6”6”. He too ate a diet rich in meat, but his last meal consisted of grains. His death was even more gruesome than Clonycavan Man’s. He’d been stabbed (one arm also bears a defensive wound), decapitated, and holes had been cut in his upper arms, through which hazel branches had been threaded (presumably to bind him). His nipples too had been removed, and he’d been cut in half.
The grisly manner of these deaths suggest something more than a robbery that went wrong, or the cut and thrust of battle. Why would these noblemen have been killed in such a horrific fashion?
We think of the current county system as integral to Irish identity, however, it is a British invention. Prior to the arrival of the Normans, Ireland was organised into hundreds of smaller kingdoms based on clan groups, named túaths. Most of our information on this comes from the Brehon laws, but it’s safe to say that there were many, many kings in Ireland during the Iron Age. Archaeologists such as Eamonn Kelly believe that Clonycavan Man and Old Croughan Man were two such kings.
Was there a revolutionary zeal in the ancient Irish, or a republican streak? This seems unlikely. Like many people up until the Enlightenment, the Iron Age Irish believed in the divine right of kings. In pre-Christian Ireland, gods and goddesses were everywhere, and the land itself was a goddess. On his appointment, a king was “married” to the land. Irish kings were linked to the sun, and their nipples were symbols of the sun.
Everything was just fine for the king provided the harvest was bountiful. It proved that he and the land were compatible, and their union was fruitful. Unfortunately, if the crop failed and people went hungry, angry and doubting minds turned to the king, who clearly wasn’t keeping his side of the bargain. He’d have to go; and unfortunately for him, this did not mean a handshake and a pension.
Eamonn Kelly believes that the slicing off of the nipples was a ceremonial dethroning. Were the kings aware of this potential fate of theirs, and if so, who would be king? Meath and Offaly may not have been in communication, and Clonycavan Man probably never heard of Old Croughan Man. The kings also likely believed profoundly in their religion, and that dethroned kings genuinely deserved it. Finally, like most northern European societies, human sacrifice in Ireland was fairly rare. It was a desperate measure.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote many centuries later, and two souls whose mortal remains lie in Kildare Street would doubtlessly agree.