Éasca Péasca: Student Stories: Archaeology as Gaeilge
By Maighread Southard-Wray
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin. There is no hearth like your own hearth. This phrase has never been far from my mind since I first learned it in Marie Young’s class. My class was discussing the use of a seanfhocal, an old word or saying passed down the generations. This particular seanfhocal stuck with me as a link between Gaeilge and archaeology.
As a student of archaeology, I am often in the position of being away from home for months at a time during the field season. I can make a temporary home in the location of my work, but the separation from my hearth makes the return home at the end of the season all the sweeter.
Where “there’s no place like home” has always conjured up images of ruby shoes and tornados, a phrase too shallow to convey the deep relief of returning to safety, Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin seemed to come from a place of understanding.
It is not difficult to cast your mind back in time and see someone in the late Iron Age returning home after an extended absence and finding their hearth well-tended, a seanfhocal rolling off their tongue as they settle in. Hearths are a common feature found in homes throughout the archaeological record, almost always found in dwelling structures. They serve a dwelling as a centre to the home, a source of heat, of light, and transformation.
Acknowledging the hearth, and signifying the importance of the one that makes your life possible, is logical as a ritual of returning home. Perhaps that is why this particular seanfhocal has been preserved in memory, passed down from parent to child as a reminder of the importance that fire has in life.
Gaeilge has been a part of my life in a very minor way for a long time. I grew up listening to Irish traditional music, and I learned to sing phonetically as Gaeilge long before I had any idea what the songs I sang meant.
I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car as a small child singing along to Beidh aonoch amárach. My sister and I called the song “Swa licky doo,” an attempt at the first line of lyric “’S a mháithrín, an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé.” As I grew up, I began researching the lyrics to songs and teaching myself what the phonetics I knew meant, and my desire to learn Gaeilge grew.
When I came to Pitt to study archaeology, I knew that I was interested in prehistoric archaeology of the UK and Ireland. I could say that this archaeological interest led me to the Less Commonly Taught Languages Department, and my seat in Marie Young’s level one class.
But this adventure has been more complicated than that. Growing up on Irish trad left me with a desire to conversationally speak the language that I had taught myself to sing, and that desire is what initially sparked my enrollment in level one. However, this was not without a connection to archaeology.
An archaeologist once told me that he believes no one should conduct research in a country whose language they cannot speak. With an intention to do work in Ireland, it was natural that I would study Gaeilge. It was in Marie’s class, on the second floor of the Cathedral of Learning, while learning to form the words of a language as old as the hills I wished to excavate, that my archaeological interest narrowed to Ireland.
The Rich History of Ireland
The history of Ireland is rich in its variety, and so too is the prehistoric period. Prehistory has long fascinated me. The mystery of ancient megalithic monuments and tombs visible for miles fascinated me. Ireland is certainly full of these kinds of sites.
Newgrange, the Hill of Tara, and Navan fort are examples of sites whose ancient mystery and majesty continue to draw visitors and archaeologists alike, seeking an understanding of Ireland’s cultural heritage. As individuals continue to bring their own interpretation to ancient sites and ancient ways it becomes clear that the origin era of a site cannot tell the complete story of its Dún Ailinne, a hilltop site located in Co Kildare, has been often described as the location of the crowning of the Leinster kings. But its history stretches far beyond this legend. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest use of Dún Ailinne occurred during the Neolithic era, meaning that by the Iron Age, when the site saw most significant use, those that gathered at the hill were standing themselves on an already ancient site. history.
We, standing in the present day, seem to be much further away from prehistory. We are separated by the immense evolutions and changes in our culture: we fight differently, we amuse ourselves in different ways, our transportation has changed.
Despite this separation, I do not think we are as divorced from ancient culture as we may think. We continue, for example, to speak and learn a language that has its roots in the very hills of Ireland, a tongue indigenous to Eireann. The strength of Gaeilge is a living connection to the heart of Ireland’s cultural history and prehistory.
This is not to say that a modern speaker of Gaeilge could converse with an early speaker of the language and find no difficulty of understanding. Languages, like the people who speak them, evolve. The early versions of Gaeilge may not be spoken, but we can see traces of ancient Gaeilge in the landscape, preserved as Ogham.
As I find myself fast approaching my last year of undergraduate studies, I continue to find comfort in learning Gaeilge and the connection to my archaeological studies that the language has presented me with. When I find myself in Ireland in an archaeological capacity, either this coming summer in field school or in the future conducting research, I will have the ability to greet the places where people lived and died in a version of their own tongue. Perhaps the house where someone first uttered the seanfhocal that I love so much will yield information under my trowel.
*Maighread Southard-Wray is a student of archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh where they are also pursuing an Irish minor. Their research interest lies in the Irish Iron Age. Outside of academics, Maighread enjoys creating medieval and fantasy inspired clothing, outdoor adventures, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.