Teddy Roosevelt and the Celtic Twilight

Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most extraordinary people to have held the office of President of the United States. A graduate of Harvard he served in a variety of administrative and elected offices culminating in the Presidency on the death of William Macinley in 1901. Roosevelt also had an insatiable curiosity about the world. He travelled extensively, climbed mountains, hunted wild game, fought in Cuba and ranched cattle in North Dakota. He was a progressive and conservationist and helped establish national parks and forests as well as supporting the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Roosevelt also had a lifelong interest in world literature and poetry and was the author of books ranging from a History of the War of 1812 to The Winning of the West and was an editor of Outlook Magazine. What has been little appreciated was his interest in early Irish literature.

At the end of the nineteenth century an Irish Literary Revival lead by people such as Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats, amongst others, emerged. Like any revivalist movement the Irish Literary Revival or Celtic Twilight drew on an earlier literary tradition, in this case the Medieval Irish manuscripts that preserved versions of Iron Age mythology. Lady Gregory in her book Cuchulain of Muirthemne, published in 1902, had made the whole Ulster cycle of Irish Iron Age mythology accessible to a new audience. The poet William Butler Yeats wrote the Preface to the book and with Lady Gregory and others went on to found the Abbey Theatre, later to become the National Theatre of Ireland, in 1904.

Roosevelt’s newly discovered correspondence with T.P. Gill, the Secretary of the Irish Department of Agriculture (recently published in the Irish Times), indicates that he had obtained a copy of Lady Gregory’s book from Gill in 1903 and had also ordered a copy of Douglas Hyde’s A Literary History of Ireland. Hyde had helped found Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic league) in 1893 and later served as President of Ireland from 1938-45. His Literary History of Ireland dealt with literature in the Irish language from the time of the Celts to the eighteenth century.

Roosevelt clearly enjoyed the work of the Irish Literary Revival and especially the new interpretation of Irish mythology and in 1907, while still in the White House, published an essay in The Century Magazine entitled The Ancient Irish Sagas. The essay was an appreciation and discussion of what is known as the Ulster Cycle. Roosevelt dealt with the Ulster Cycle in the context of North-European literature and made comparisons with Norse Sagas and Arthurian Romances.

Illustration of Queen Meave from Theodore Roosevelt's 1907 article in the The Century Magazine.

In the essay Roosevelt noted that:

In our own day there has at last come about a popular revival of interest in the wealth of poems and tales to be found in the ancient Celtic, and especially ancient Erse, manuscripts, – the whole forming a body of prose and poetry of great and well-nigh unique interest from every standpoint…

He regretted that littlie research had been carried out in America on Celtic literature and recommend that chairs of Celtic should be established in the leading Universities. He also wanted to see popular versions of the poems made available for the layman. Roosevelt was interested in the world that the tales conjured. He commented:

They played chess by the fires in their great halls and they feasted and drank and quarrelled within them, and the women had sun-parlors of their own.

Roosevelt’s interest in culture, world literature and emerging literary trends marks him out as one of the most interesting people to have held the office of President. Where it not for Roosevelt’s many other accomplishments that fact alone would make him worthy of our interest.

Further reading

Douglas Hyde’s 1899. A Literary History of Ireland. Full  text here.

Augusta Gregory 1902. Cuchulain of Muirthemne.  Full text here.

Theodore Roosevelt 1907.  The Ancient Irish Sagas. The Century Magazine. Full text here.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Teddy Roosevelt and the Celtic Twilight. The Charles Mount Blog, July 28, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=294


Were there bridges in Medieval Ireland?

Artist's interpretation of the building of the Medieval bridge at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly. Drawing by Mark Offutt, of Discovering Archaeology

One of the areas often omitted from historical and archaeological accounts of Medieval Ireland are bridges. Standard reference works make no mention of bridges and few articles on individual bridge sites, apart from the find at Clonmacnoise, have appeared. It has been assumed that most travel required the fording of rivers at crossing points referred to as Áth in Irish. However, analysis of the Irish Annals, manuscripts written by monastic scribes who chronologically recorded notable events, indicate that there were bridges throughout Ireland in the Medieval period, built both by the native Irish and by the later Anglo-Norman settlers. The large number of bridges suggests that the prevailing view of Medieval transport and travel needs to be revised.

Nine sets of Annals were examined for references to bridges: The Annals of the Four Masters, The Annals of Connacht, The Annals of Ulster, The Annals of Clonmacnoise, The Annals of Tigernach, The Short Annals of Ireland, The Annals of Loch Ce, The Annals of Innisfallen, The short Annals of Leinster and the Annals Hiberniae. There are references to twenty-two bridges during the period 924-1500 AD. These bridges are mentioned primarily due to their significance to military campaigns, either as the sites of battles or because they were built or demolished during the course of campaigns. Two sets of temporary pontoon bridges built across boats have not been included. The locations of the bridges of Tine and Áth Caille were not identified and have been left out of the map below.

The distribution of Medieval Bridges mentioned in the Irish Annals.

The earliest mention of a bridge is in 924 AD at Cluain-na-gCruimhther (Cloone) Co. Leitrim where Muircheartach O’ Niall defeated a force of Vikings. However the archaeological survey of the bed of the river Shannon at Clonmacnoise identified a bridge which was dated earlier to 804 AD. Examination of timbers in other river beds will probably push this date back even further. Bridges are recorded at the rivers Shannon, Bann, Suck, Lee, Garravogue, Liffey, Yellow, Corrib, Barrow, Nore, Ballysadare, Avonmore and possibly the Brosna or Silver rivers. The bridges were built at Cloone, Co. Leitrim, Athlone, Co. Westmeath, Shannon Harbour and Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Athleague, Co. Roscommon, Cork City, Sligo town and Ballysadare, Co. Sligo, Dublin City, Newbridge, Co. Kildare, on the River Corrib near Galway, on the Yellow River near Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, at Coleraine, Co. Derry, Newbridge and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, Leihglinbridge, Co. Carlow, Kilkenny city and Drogheda, Co. Louth. Many of the bridge locations such as Athlone, Sligo, Drogheda, Coleraine, Ballinasloe later grew into sizable towns.

All the bridges, apart from the example built at Sligo in 1360, were of timber. A number of the bridges were built of wickerwork hurdles. The three bridges built in 1120 by Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair, King of Connaught, at Athlone, Shannon Harbour and Ballinasloe were of wickerwork hurdles. Toirdhealbhach built two more wickerwork bridges at Athleague and Athlone in 1140, another at Athleague in 1153 and at Athlone in 1155. Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair built a wickerwork bridge at Athlone in 1159. The use of wicker hurdles would have allowed the bridge components to be fabricated from material available in the local area or they could have been prepared off site. The panels would have been relatively easy to transport on horse-drawn drag carts to the river site and then quickly assembled.

The lack of discussion of bridges in Medieval studies has lead to the impression that transport and travel was slow and difficult. The construction of bridges over the major rivers, and possibly over the minor rivers as well, would have greatly facilitated transport and travel as well as military campaigning. In future the use of bridges should be given grater consideration in Medieval studies.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Were there bridges in Medieval Ireland?. The Charles Mount Blog, July 21, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=252

Irish Peatland Archaeology in 2011: the Bord na Móna Archaeological Programme

Bronze Age trackway under excavation in Killaderry bog, Co. Galway July 2011

Part of my professional work involves providing archaeological advice to Bord na Móna, where I act as Project Archaeologist. Bord na Móna is the commercial Semi-state body with responsibility for the development of the Irish national peat resource. Bord na Móna owns and manages more than 80,000 ha of lands, the majority of which are peatlands, that contain a wealth of preserved archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material. The archaeological survey of the peatlands in the ownership of Bord na Móna has been a huge task, carried out under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It has been continuing for two decades and has indentified thousands of archaeological sites that are not only near the bog surface but also quite deeply buried.

The Bord na Móna method of working is to harvest a few centimetres of peat each year from the top of the bogs that are in operation. This slowly reduces the height of the bog and as the work goes on, like an archaeological excavation that stretches across the landscape, the archaeological features close to the top are either excavated or a decision is made to preserve them in situ. Bord na Móna workers attend annual training seminars provided by the National Museum of Ireland and the National Monuments Service and are well aware of the types of features and finds that might be uncovered. The excavation of the archaeological features and the post-excavation and palaeoenvironmental work is funded by Bord na Móna, under a set of principles agreed with Government and is the subject of an annual excavation programme. Today the Bord na Móna archaeological programme is the largest ongoing archaeological excavation project in Ireland.

The Bord na Móna excavation project is let as a single Peatland Archaeological Services contract covering three years of operations. Archaeological Development Services (ADS) have been carrying out the programme since 1998, under the Direction of Operations Manager Jane Whitaker, and to date have carried out more than 250 excavations and surveyed more than 45,000 ha of bog lands.

The current programme, covering the years 2010-13, is focusing on the bogs of Littleton, Derryvella, and Longford Pass, Co. Tipperary; Cloonshanagh, Mountdillon and Edera, Co. Roscommon; and Castlegar, Killaderry and Gowla, Co. Galway. In 2011, investigations of the wooden trackways in Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs are taking place and ADS are joined by a group of students from the University of Florida at Gainesville lead by Prof. Florin Curta.

Google Earth image indicating the location of Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs. The River Suck, highlighted with a blue line, crosses the image from north to south.

Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs are situated just to the west of the River Suck, a tributary of the River Shannon, and in the past would have presented a barrier to anyone trying to cross the river over a substantial stretch between Ballyforan and Clooncoran. The trackways have a wide date range from the Bronze Age right through to the fifteenth century AD. The longer trackways tend to cross the bogs at their narrowest points linking areas of dryland. In a number of cases trackways follow the routes that were established at earlier periods. For example trackway 5 in Killaderry bog, which dates to the period 660-770 AD, probably allowed travel from the area of Ahascragh, Co. Galway to Ballyforan, Co. Roscommon by crossing Killaderry bog at its narrowest point between Killaderry and Cloonshee. The interesting thing is that Killaderry 5 runs parallel to Killaderry 3 which dates from 910-820 BC. An earlier trackway, Killaderry 13, dated to 1380-1210 BC, also runs in a parallel direction a little to the east. There are other alignments of trackway that are being investigated this season that will soon be dated and will provide more detail. At this stage the evidence indicates that this routeway through Killaderry bog was in use for at least two thousand years and is probably the preserved wetland part of an ancient road network that existed in this area. Investigation of the nearby River Suck has the potential to identify ancient fording points and possibly the remains of bridges associated with this ancient routeway.

In nearby Castlegar bog trackway 1 links the lands around the Late Medieval Carmelite Monastery at Eglish, Co. Galway, founded in 1376, to an island of land in Dalysgrove townland next to the River Suck. This trackway dates to the historic period 1410-40 AD and indicates that the construction of wooden trackways continued almost to the post-Medeival period.

The bogs not only contain archaeological features but preserve a wealth of stratified environmental data. This is an integrated archaeological and palaeoenvironmental project with the environmental sampling and analysis work carried out by QUEST and ArchaeoScape. QUEST Quaternary Scientific, is part of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences in the University of Reading under the Direction of Dr. Nicholas Branch. The palaeoenvironmental investigations involve taking samples for pollen, plant macrofossils, insects and peat humification. Dr. Branch’s work focuses on the relationships between human activities, vegetation history and climate change. ArchaeoScape is part of Royal Holloway Geography Department, University of London, and is an environmental archaeological (‘palaeoenvironmental’ and ‘palaeoeconomic’) interpretation facility.

The excavation programme wil be continuing in 2012 and will be followed by post-excavation and palaeoenvironmental analysis and eventual publication of results.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Irish Peatland Archaeology in 2011: the Bord na Móna Archaeological Programme. The Charles Mount Blog, July 14, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=238

Creating distribution maps in the Irish National Monuments Map Viewer

The National Monuments Map Viewer


If you’re anything like me the thoughts of producing a distribution map to illustrate a report or to test a new idea will fill you with dread at the thought of the hours of tedious work involved. I’ve often wished that someone would produce a software package that would make the whole task easier. Now the National Monuments Service has come to the rescue with the new National Monuments Database Map Viewer which is available at http://www.archaeology.ie/.

The Map Viewer can be used to create distribution maps of any monument site classification as long as there are less than 999 records and you don’t need a degree in a computer programming language to do it.

The monument class dropdown menu

The trick is in the use of the new database Query window that sites at the top right of the new Database screen. Maps can be created on a national level or a smaller area such as a county or townland can be selected by choosing a county, townland or town from one of the the drop-down menus in the query window.

Selection of Motte and Bailey Castles.

Once the area is chosen, go to the class drop-down menu and select the type of monument you want to map. In the example illustrated here I’ve selected Castle-motte and bailey because there are fewer than 999 of them. If you want to map a class like Ringfort with thousands of examples you’ll have to work at the county or townland level.

Click search and it generates the map.

Now simply click the search button and the Map Viewer automatically generates the distribution map for you on screen. Above is the distribution map of Motte and Bailey Castles!

Hover over a distribution point to get its details.

[/captionIf you hover over the distribution point with the cursor it will bring up a window with information on the site and highlight the site on the dropdown list in the query window, great. Currently there’s no way to output the distribution map to a printer or graphics package so you’ll have to resort to the trusty screen grab. All in all this is a huge leap forward in the ability to use the data held in the National Monuments Database. Thanks are due to everyone involved in making this available, especially Paul Walsh.

Geographica Blog

Geographica have an excellent follow-up to this post on

Opening Data with Google Fusion Tables


Cite this blog as:

Mount, C. Creating distribution maps in the Irish National Monuments Map Viewer. The Charles Mount Blog, July 5, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=163