Life on the Fringe - 18: A Harp's Air - Sounding Celtic Christianity in the Far West
Irish Harp, emblem of a land across the sea from England, Scotland and Wales
HARPS were mentioned often in Gaelic myths, and examples are depicted on Celtic stone carvings that date back to the 8th and 9th Centuries AD in Ireland, the west and south-west of Scotland.
There are only fourteen surviving instruments and parts of instruments from any part of the early period during which the historic form of the Irish harp flourished. A lack of physical information is compounded by the makers not having made their mark on their work, nor of adding any indication of when they were made. What is known is that Irish harps were bigger and bulkier than those made elsewhere. From the 12th Century they were strung with fine brass chords.
There were two recognisable types of European harp by the 14th Century, one being the sturdy Irish form and the other a lighter instrument spoken of as the Gothic or Romanesque harp.
In mythology a woman fell asleep by the sea and heard the wind blowing through the sinew of a nearby beached whale. Her husband built her a wooden frame and filled it with whale sinew to create the initial harp. Less romantic is the story that the harp was taken to Ireland from northern Greece.
An isle off the western coast of Ireland only seen above water level every seven years. By legend the isle would rise above water forever if fire were brought into it, and then it would become paradise on earth. The isle was ruled by Breasal in legend.
As with all legends several Gaelic/Celtic stories have become confused and one tale has it that the isle became sunken because of Manannan mac Lir. As legend can be confused with fact, and facts sometimes become indistinct, higgledy-piggledy over the years. That is certainly so with respect to explorers going to South America and coming across the land they would name Brasil (Portuguese spelling of Brazil). They thought they had stumbled on the magic isle of Hy-Breasai. Early cartographers put the isle off the south-west coast of Ireland, where legend located it
IONA in the Inner Hebrides was where Colomcille (or St Columba as he is more widely known) established a Celtic Christian community. He voyaged there from Ireland in AD 563 with a mission to convert the Scots - and eventually the Aengle kingdom of Northumbria.
Accommodation for the ascetic monks was in 'beehive' huts, so-called due to their shape, some still remaining although in a ruinous state. The island is rich in signs of its association with the Gaelic Christian Church - a separate tradition that flourished independently from Rome's influence - and with the Celts before the arrival of Saint Columba. The region is rich in tall Celtic-styled standing crosses, although there were originally many more, some wrecked by Norse raiders who came to the isle in the late 8th Century AD.
Three of the finest free-standing examples can be seen now, one being that of Saint Martin, which dates back to the 9th Century and stands about eighteen feet high (5 metres). The back of the cross is richly adorned with boss carvings intertwined with serpents and the material the cross is carved from is a hard volcanic material., The serpents possibly stem from Viking influence, to do with Jormungand - the World Serpent that coiled itself around Midgard.
Another example is a casting of an original, the cross of Saint John near the west door of the present abbey, created in the 8th Century AD and removed for repair and preservation. The Third is Maclean's Cross, a disc-headed cruxifiction cross with a carving of the Calvary theme. Tall and fairly slender, this cross bears carved panels of fine detail that extend down the length of its shaft.
Iona is not only noted for its high crosses. The isle is the site of the Well of Healing by the summit of Dun-I, a granite outcrop of about 300 feet (90m), a great cleft in the rock filled with icy-cold water and dedicated to Saint Columba, thought to have been used in his lifetime. Able-bodied pilgrims climbed the rock to find a cure for any ailment deemed incurable by physicians of the day. Those less able had water brought down to them.
There are connections with the druids before its Christian links. The early Gaelic name for the isle is Druineach, or Isle of the druids. There is a thriving religious community on Iona now, founded by Dr George MacLeod in the 1930s on the site of the earlier Benedictine abbey that was built in the Middle Ages on the foundations of St Columba's first monastic house.
Early Celtic Christian sites
Islay - see map above, bottom centre
Not far south-west of the Sound of Jura and across a narrow gap from Jura is Islay. The isle bears rich findings of Celtic culture from the megalithic and early Christian ages.
One good example found at Kildalton is a well-kept early Celtic wheel cross that dates from around 800 AD. This cross is around 18 feet high (2.7m) tall and carved with an example of the 'next of eggs' totem which can also be seen on the cross of Saint John on Iona. It has been mooted as relating to druidic worship of the sun or nature. An alternative suggestion has it that the three 'eggs' denote the Trinity, but its true meaning is lost to antiquity.
Another good example of Celtic stone carving can be found at Kilnaver, the site of a Celtic high cross just under 10 feet in height and dating from the mid-9th Century. The carvings - difficult to make out - look like those of the high cross at Kells in County Meath.
Also on Islay at Kilchonan is a good example of a free-standing 'sun-headed' cross that dates from around the late 14th Century. Around the same site are a few fine carved grave slabs. Islay is known to have connections with St Columba. According to popular lore his tutor Saint Ciaran (pron. Kieron) im Ireland settled in the Rhinns of Islay and died there in AD548.
Next: More Gaelic Myths and Missionaries on Man
Sites of deep Christian belief around Britain
© 2013 Alan R Lancaster