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Lughnasa at Craggaunowen, full review

posted 10 Aug 2010, 15:06 by John Looney   [ updated 10 Aug 2010, 15:26 ]
Reposted from John Looney's Buzz.

Wow, Craggaunown was a long weekend. I brought my three year old, Sebastian, down for his first full-length living history weekend. I'm a big believer in "Just because it's hard, doesn't mean you won't appreciate it in years to come"., that really goes for bringing a youngster to stay in a castle for the weekend. 

For those who haven't been, The Crag (as we affectionately call it) is based around mid-16thC Irish Tower House, built by The MacNamara. It was left roofless and decaying for almost 300 years until restored by John Hunt (an archeologist who worked on some of the highest-profile Irish sites like Lough Gur, a valuer for Sotheby's, and also involved in the Heritage Commission; collecting oral stories back in the 1960s). It's was a great restoration, though the invasiveness of the changes - required to make it a true 'home' - likely wouldn't be allowed these days. 

Hunt left his considerable fortune to a trust that ran a museum (still operating in Limerick city), and turning The Crag - now a castle surrounded by newly-planted native woods was a center of excellence for experimental archeology in the 1970s and early 1980s. People from all over Europe came to learn how to dig Fulacht Fiadhs (hot-water pits), turn trees into lumber with minimal tools and dozens of other activities. A Crannóg and a Ring Fort were built nearby - examples of early Irish settlements. The trust required a full-time on-site archeologist to ensure that all the projects and experiments were carried out to the highest quality. 

With the mass-commercialisation of tourism in Ireland in the 1980s, and the drive to cater for bus-loads of Americans looking to 'get in touch with their roots' on budget holidays, The Crag was taken over by Shannon Heritage - the same guys who run the embarrassingly twee "Bunratty Castle" experience. It lost it's experimental archeology, on-site archeologist, and its dignity. 

The heritage park's trustees are now trying to get back to that heyday of active tourism. Mogh Roith, one of great Living History groups in Ireland, specialise in early history, and are working hard with the park owners to make it something that can really speak to Irish people about their heritage. Over the last 40 years, the woods have matured into ethereal beauty, and the park is perfectly placed to be the Next Big Thing in living history. 

It's a long drive, about 4 hours, including food stops, from Dublin. As we arrived on Saturday afternoon, there were already maybe 15 people on site. Sebastian was excited, and wanted to a walk around immediately. I insisted on hauling our bedding (two big sheepskins, 3 linen-lined woolen cloaks, and a modern sleeping bag for Seb), up to our bedroom - the tiny "guardroom" right above the entrance to the castle. While Seb looked down the "murderhole" that overlooked the inside of the front door, I laid everything out on the dusty oak floor. There was a "bed" installed by someone previously, but I decided we were not going lie on likely 10 year old straw & sackcloth that could have had a rat's nest in it a decade ago. 

We took a little walk around, and found Brendan and Aislinn taking a spin in the wee currach that Dave and Billy had made six years earlier. Literally, a spin. Currachs are made from a cow's hide, stretched over hazel frame. No keel, no oar-locks. You move by inscribing a figure-eight in front of the boat, with a single oar (check out this video, made by a Ukrainian with an interest in early irish boats). Sebastian kept expecting Aislinn to fall in, but her skill with an oar disappointed him. 

 I love walking around the Craggaunowen woods at twilight. They are loosely managed, just like most of the woods near settlements around Ireland were, a millennia ago. They weren't wild forests either - they were natural resources, harvested in the same way people harvested grain. 

 I managed to remember to bring a few bottles of Rabbit's Foot Mead, and sat down with everyone for gregarious conversation in the balmy - if damp - Irish summer evening. Sean Shiels seemed to have acquired a mobile kitchen for feeding the ravenous Roman legion (well, about 15 of them). It would have been rude to refuse grub, so myself and Sebastian were saved from trying to work out where I could make a fire to our own dinner!

 The next morning, my back popped and cracked as it remembered that sleeping on a hard floor is something you need to get used to slowly, and we packed up all our belongings before heading up to the Ringfort. I sat down outside under the eaves of one of the buildings, and opened my mail-making box, wondering would I actually get to finish my mail coif I had started four years previous. For the weekend, we would have Darren on the cooking fire (placed 15 meters from any buildings, for ridiculous health and safety reasons). His wife Lynn was on the kitchen table (again, 15 meters from the cooking fire), and Aislinn made .. concoctions with a mortar and pestle, while Sinéad was destroying her eyesight in a roundhouse, sewing a coif in dim light. We also had three children - my Seb, and Lynn & Darren's two running around the inside of the place like ... excited children do, I suppose. 

 Ring Forts are interesting constructions. They aren't 'forts' in the modern sense of the word. In a time where wolves, foxes and ill-behaved strangers were common, they were a way to keep your children, chickens calves and your worldly possessions from wandering off, and to discourage random strangers from dropping in for a visit without knocking on your front door first. Given our volume of visitors, keeping the kids from running off wouldn't be easy. So, I ended up getting press-ganged into shepherding them from trouble. The large round-house had a souterrain - a cool tunnel under the house that was good for keep food. Seb was warned off that, but I don't think he was that interested anyway. No, instead, he wanted to go hunting animals (once he heard about the wild pigs up the top of the hill). Or spear fighting. Or chasing Roman out of the palisade. 

Dave O'Reilly set himself up in the Ringfort, and would give a twenty minute presentation on why the Irish Chariot was the best of all chariots - it was used 900 years after the Romans gave up on racing them. His replica chariot, based off an Irish high-cross carving could go into reverse out of blocks of men - a situation that ended many a Persian or Egyptian charioteer's career. Very advanced. He convinced me that once he has his horses trained, I should volunteer to be one of the guys standing up on the back, with a spear, rather than one of the lads on the ground, getting attacked. This May Not End Well. 

If you survived that on Saturday, you could be treated by a 20 minute lecture on Early Irish Food from Darren. The virtues of an all-dairy diet were expounded. At a time when french labourers were on 2 loaves of bread a day wages, Irish peasants had laws protecting them from being overfed on fresh salmon. We had made a few kilos of cheese - amazingly simple really - pour milk into a bowl, warm it up on the fire, a few drops of rennet (we didn't have calf stomach) and an hour or two later, the curds form. Chop up the curds to release the whey, and bag the rest in muslin, so the whey drips out. Then up over the fire so the cheese gets smoked. Wonderful stuff. 

You could see the finished products at the kitchen - all sorts of preserved foods from salt beef to seven year old cheese that looked like it had leprosy. Apparently it was tasty, but I'll never find out. I settled for my usual fare - lentils stewed with celery, onions and some salt-dried beef. The kids went nuts for the sweet-porridge. Well, except for Seb, who wouldn't eat anything other than bread. Sigh. 

After a successful boar hunt (where myself and the three kids climbed over rough terrain to the top of the hill, armed with spears, swords, shields and excitement until we spotted the baby piglets), we dropped into the Crannóg - another semi-fortified settlement, based on an artificial island. These were usually centers of industry, so the protection was to stop people pilfering expensive tools, raw-materials, or finished goods. In our case, we were making simple pottery goods, fishing net-making with Panda, and Andrew & Kurt were busy failing at bronze casting. It turns out that even today, people will sell you "tin" without telling you that it's not tin, it's... some random alloy refuses to mix with copper. And then all the moulds exploded, likely due to the damp.

Our Romans put on a wonderful show in front of the castle, telling anyone who would listen of the various evidence for small Roman civilian settlements on the east coast of Ireland, likely trading outposts. Their kit was magnificent, and they really entertained. The highlight of the weekend was Brendan, Swifty & Nathan's Brehon Law Trial, which forced people to learn about early Irish law by putting on a great play with a little combat demonstration. Hopefully we got it on video, so we can share it with you all later.

We had some Gallowglass & Scottish Border Reavers showing off their kit & weapons at the back of the castle, a tudor lady (Melissa) and her scribe Brendan in the Solar of the castle), Fergus the skilled jeweller and some wool spinners downstairs too.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few people, so ... apologies.

 On the Sunday, the Romans visited our little settlement, looking to extract some trade concessions. Thankfully, our hot-head children chased them off with sticks and training spears (with leather blades). After that Sebastian and Aoibinn chased me out of the Ringfort, attacking me with spears. We fought all the way down to the Crannóg, where I - unwillingly - gave some lessons on "how to deal with attacks from multiple children at once". Needless to say, I wasn't successful, and eventually was taken down by a sneaky bite on the bum. 

All in all, a great weekend. Most hilarious moment; being shaken awake at 05:00 by an excited sebastian screaming "DADDY, WE ARE SLEEPING IN A CASTLE!"