Chapters 39, 40 and 41 of book «European Cultures» (volume III of «Mathematics of History»), dedicated to Irish culture

Chapters 39, 40 and 41 of book «European Cultures» (volume III of «Mathematics of History»), dedicated to Irish culture. Pages 216 to 223. Alexandre Deulofeu.


Chapter 39. The creative wave in Ireland.

When we studied the socio-political process of the European peoples, we omitted Ireland because it was away from the path of the creative wave, as can be seen in the map at the end of volume II (The great errors of History). We think it is now proper, before getting into the study of the Irish creative process, to rapidly expound its socio-political process and to establish the boundaries within which is to be found the period of great demographic fractioning, which we have established between the years 150 and 800 A.D.

Just by looking at figures we can observe that there is an important evolutionary backwardness of Ireland with respect to England, in fact the creative wave reaches the country at the same time than the Scandinavian peoples. In this backwardness we discover why the news and knowledge of Irish culture be much more profuse than those of the English culture of this first wave, because they are much nearer to us in time.

As for the other peoples, the first centuries of the cycle and the three preceding centuries are the darkest ones. We find an explanation of this in the fact that the peoples live under a slavery situation, submitted to the domination of a degenerate, imperial nobility, and therefore in a period of cultural inactivity. This is the reason why there are no written documents, and only rarely remains of monuments. As with the other peoples, the first four centuries of the period of great demographic fractioning belong to the stage of feudal aristocracy, that is the imperial aristocracy which has come free from the hegemonic nucleus through the disintegration of the empire and the autochthonous population under the slavery regime.

During these first four centuries the slave population improves its situation until it attains its liberation and becomes a middle class. Simultaneously with this fact takes place the great trade, industrial and art process which distinguishes this period. In fact Ireland, at the beginning of the cycle is divided in a great number of small feudal kingdoms called tuath, governed by a chief called ri. The coming together of several tuaths made up a higher body, called a clan, under the leadership of a higher head. In due time, several clans made up a cenel, or tribe… that means that we have the same clan, phratry, tribe… of the Mediterranean peoples of the equivalent period.

At the beginning of this evolution there are only the lords or masters, the serfs, and the slaves, but little by little there appear the degrees which we have found in Greece and among other peoples, this means that some of the serfs obtain their freedom and make up the class of free men, which carry out different jobs, shepherds, labourers, etc. Some of them become rich and evolve into owners. There is still some of the old imperial nobility, which little by little loose their properties and social class. Besides them there still remain the druids’ priestly class. Poetry appears with its declaimers, the bards. They cultivated poetry and music, and they had a system of writing, called ogham. The socio-political process drives them to a cultural process with a high degree of civilization, and to create their own style which is to be found in architecture and in painting, in sculpture and in literature. We shall limit ourselves to literature and sculpture, which allow us to define not only their evolutionary process, but also the time of their highest splendour, which happens at the end of the period of great demographic fractioning, the flowery phase, with the extinction of the creative power at the beginning of the absolutist period.

The beginning moment is to be found at the end of 8th century. From the 6th and 7th centuries, that is, when all the other cultures find themselves in a regime of the aristocracy of wealth and of democracy, culture reaches a high level. Commercial expansion goes at the same rate with a cultural expansion which, the same as the wave which has arrived through the Mediterranean, moves forward from West to East. We observe then the Irish monks spreading culture, especially to Scotland and the Scandinavian countries. Monk Columcille in 563 settles in the Isle of Iona, belonging to the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada, and founds there a monastery which will soon become a great centre of missionary activity. We see then that Scandinavian culture is based on Irish culture, in the same way that Greek culture is based on the Egyptian, or Iberian culture is based in the Greek one. That shows that each culture leans on the one which came before. This northern creative wave is a branch of the wave which goes from West to East through central Europe and has an influence especially in the northern areas of Germany. And so, in the 8th century important missionaries found Luxenil and Bobbio, and even in Switzerland St Gall founds the famous monastery with the same name, whose church has a flat roof which guards no relationship with our Romanesque art.

From about the year 800 starts the decline of the creative ability and the flowery phase starts, which occurs simultaneously with the fact that the free towns of Ireland fall under the domination of the Danish imperial nucleus and therefore the stepping into the new imperial phase with the first federal phase, from 800 to 1000, followed by the absolutist phase, and with this the total loss of the Irish personality followed by the trade and industrial decadence (see graph at the end of the book). In fact, from year 795 the new Danish empire starts its forays in Ireland, devastating the country, and in the 9th century it invades it, the Viking ships enter inland through the rivers mouths, and settle at Waterford and Limerick. In 852, Anlaf founds another Danish kingdom at Dublin, and a little after that he founds the Northumberland kingdom. In this way Ireland comes under the Danish domination with a federal organization which starts being reduced until near the year 1148 the country enters in the phase of anarchy and civil war, which will last 150 years and will bring about the submission of the Irish people under an absolutist regime, with the total loss of its personality. After this, the Irish creative power is extinguished, and the neighbouring cultures get into the country, especially the Romanesque and Gothic cultures, as we shall see shortly. Let us start with literature.

Chapter 40. Irish literature.

Irish literature, as that of all other cultures, at the beginning is not written, but only transmitted orally. At first they are religious hymns, and the first known texts belong to the 5th century, that is to the fourth century of the cycle, when the country moves from the priestly aristocracy to the wealth aristocracy. The most important writings of the time are Saint Patrick’s famous hymn, of the 5th century, Ultan’s, or Saint Bridget’s Hymn, in the 7th century. In the 9th century, that is at the time of plenitude and end of the period of demographic fragmentation, we find Ninino’s Prayer, the Seu Hymn, by Coleman, the Sanction Hymn, the book of miracles of Saint Bridget. As always, all this is followed by epic poetry, extraordinarily exuberant and abundant. This in turn is followed by the lyric poetry of troubadours, or «fili». There are many known works, some of them of the story sort, such as the «scel», the others simply poetry, such as the «anomaris». Of the Irish romances several cycles have been described. In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, that is in the federal phase, the encyclopaedic type prevails, that is the didactic and scholarly literature. Flenegan wrote the chronicles of the Irish kings; Cormacau writes a geographical description of the country… translations of the classics…, philology (10th century), juridical, medical writings… That is, exactly the same process of the Greek, Sumerian, Indian or Romanesque literatures…

Irish literature does not die out under the invaders’ domination, but it loses its originality and is influenced over by the Romanesque-Gothic cultural wave, which progresses along the same way as the first one, that is our western culture.

Chapter 41. Irish sculpture.

François Henry, in his book La sculpture Irlandaise, writes: «The study of this sculpture takes us back to a period prior to the introduction of the Christian religion in Ireland. As a matter of fact, one of the most impressive features of the Irish Christian art is that it is the continuator of the preceding pagan art. From the first centuries of the Christian era up to the 12th century it evolves freely. But at this time the long, homogeneous evolution is suddenly interrupted. The quick development of the Cistercian monasteries not only spread the new architecture and the models of a foreign decoration, but also a special way of interpreting sculpture. The foundation of Mellifont in 1142 shows a total change of Irish art. However, already before this date a very exact imitation of the Anglo-Norman and continental art had started to alter the originality of Irish sculpture. The construction of Cormac in 1134 is proof thereof. When the Anglo-Normans disembark in Ireland in 1169, the independence of Irish art was already more than in jeopardy and the constructors brought by the Normans completed its ruin».

Let us compare this paragraph with what we have said about the creative Irish period. It says that from the first centuries of the Christian era up to the 12th century it evolves without difficulty. In fact this time period goes from year 150 A.D. to 1150. In the graph it can be observed that in fact these centuries correspond to the period of great demographic fractioning (150-800), the federal phase (800-1000), and the absolutist phase (1000-1200), and with this the Irish sculpture gets to its end. It says that this process finds no difficulty and, in fact, as we have seen in all cultures, the crossing from the fractioning period to the federal one takes place unobtrusively. Then art reaches the flowery phase and when this is finished it starts to imitate or to copy the production of the neighbouring cultures. In fact, in this period, says François Henry, «the quick development of the Cistercian monasteries not only spread the new architecture and the models of a foreign decoration, but also a special way of interpreting sculpture.» At this moment the Romanesque-Gothic trend gets into Ireland.

François Henry says that one of the most impressive aspects of the Irish Christian art is the fact that it is the continuator of the preceding pagan art. This however is not surprising, as this is the general trend of the creative periods, where spiritual changes do not alter or, on the contrary, favour the creative process. In Greece, the fact that the pagan religion was substituted by the new Orphic doctrines did not alter the process of Greek sculpture. Let us see if we can define the chronology of the sculpture process.

Of the first three centuries of the cycle we have no dated sculpture. This is not surprising, because, as we have seen, in these centuries there are no exact dates in any culture, including the classic Greek culture. The first sculpture whose date can be surmised is the Fahan stele, at Donegal. The Fahan sculptures are full of signs. The two small figures on the sides of the great volute cross have their clothes adorned with them and also around their heads, some letters of the Irish alphabet can be singled out, but M. Macalister, according to François Henry, has not been able to make up a consistent sentence. On the side of the stele, on the other hand, after cleaning the stone he has been surprised at finding Greek letters, and has been able to make up the formula «Glory and Honour to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit». This formula was introduced in 633 at the Council of Toledo. This, together with the fact that Greek was used, seems to indicate the second half of 8th century as the most probable date for the Fahan stele.

The Bealin cross shows a step forward in the style evolution which belongs already to the phase of plenitude. This cross bears an inscription engraved in the body of the cross in memory of Tuatgall. The Ulster annals mention the death of Tuatgall, bishop of Colnmancnoise in year 810. The drafting of the inscription suggests that it was made while Tuatgall was still alive, therefore its realization is to be put around the year 800.

At Monasterboies there are two crosses, one of which has an inscription deeply carved at the base of the shaft. All the archaeologists who have studied it attribute it to bishop Muiredach, who died in 924. He was apparently a very important person.

We have then three crosses which belong to years 650, 800 and 900 A.D. approximately, that is to the beginning of the phase of democracy, to the flourishing of Irish art, and to the phase of decline, or flowery phase. If we compare these three crosses we shall see that we are in two progressive phases of the style evolution, and the last one showing all the features of the flowery phase, that means that, after having reached perfection in the sculpture work, this shows an excess decoration and ornamental motifs. Among these items a great number has been found which complete this evolution and, therefore, allow us to follow the evolutionary process up to its decline. This is to be fixed through the Iniscealtra crosses in the 11th century (1094) and the two Tuam crosses, sculpted between 1126 and 1156, after which all manifestation of the Irish sculpture disappears.

Graph of Ireland.

Gràfic d'Irlanda.