The archaeologist who designed the monument to Ireland’s golden age

The O'Connell Memorial at Glasnevin

After reading Peter Carvill’s comments on the “Monuments and created and appropriated continuity” post about the O’Connoll memorial at Glasnevin, I decided to have another look around the site. Glasnevin is an excellent example of a created continuity. The site today appears to have a vestige of antiquity about, but is in fact an invention of the mid-nineteenth century.

As part of the project of Irish national development the early archaeologist George Petrie was invited in 1851 to design a monument for the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell. Petrie, regarded by some as the founding father of Irish archaeology, had been head of the Placenames and Antiquities section of the Irish Ordnance Survey and President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 1833 he was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Irish Academy for his essay Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland that proved beyond challenge that the most prominent monuments in the Irish landscape, the Round Towers, were not built by invading Danes but by the Irish of the Early Christian era. In the following years the Round Tower had become one of primary symbols of Irish national resurgence.

The site chosen for the monument to O’Connell was not a historical site like the Hill of Tara, with its existing history and mythology, but the site of the new catholic cemetery established in 1832 under O’Connell’s patronage in the Dublin suburb of Glasnevin. The Committee of Glasnevin Cemetery, whose members were largely drawn from O’Connell’s Catholic Association established in 1823, had appealed to the O’Connell family for the body and had then paid for it to be returned from Italy where he had died. With O’Connell’s remains at Glasnevin the Committee planned to build a tomb and monument on the site. Although this was a new site the monument still had to refer back to what was perceived as the Irish golden age and Petrie was chosen as the acknowledged expert. His vision was to recreate the core structures of an Early Christian monastic site, the Round Tower, Church and High Cross. O’Connell’s tomb was placed in the crypt, which took the form of a circular barrow or burial mound enclosed by a ditch that gave access to the crypt beneath. Atop the barrow a massive 51m Round Tower was constructed, the largest ever built in Ireland. However, Petrie’s original plan was not fully realised as the whole plan was not completed. The mortuary chapel was not built until 1870 and the High Cross was never completed.

The result was an extraordinary monument and statement of national resurgance. O’Connell’s monument is a good example of the creation of continuity. The national icon O’Connell was not memorialised on an old site or at an old monument with its own history and mythology but at a completely new site where a new history and mythology were being created. Yet the form of the monument still looked back to and improved on an idealised golden age. Here at Glasnevin a new mythology could be developed by a new rising elite freed from the shackles of history but looking back to and claiming continuity with an imagined golden age. Here also one of the founding fathers of Irish archaeology found a role as the architect of the link to Ireland’s golden age.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. The archaeologist who designed the monument to Ireland’s golden age. The Charles Mount Blog, June 29, 2011.

Monuments and created and appropriated continuity

Aerial view of the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, Ireland.

The creation of continuity

Throughout history people have built, copied and added to monuments according to the needs of the day. These alterations, emulations and additions draw on the histories and mythologies of the old monuments and the places and landscapes in which they are situated and recreate them to suit a new narrative. Richard Bradley (1987) drew on the ideas of Maurice Bloch (1977) concerning the use of the past in the present and Eric Hobsbawn’s (1983) concept of the invention of tradition (where practices of a ritual or symbolic nature seek to instil values and norms which imply continuity with a suitable past) to suggest that the use of the ritual past is one way in which groups establish their own political positions and put these positions beyond challenge. The past becomes a resource in the hands of the living who may legitimate their position through the promulgation of origin myths. Bradley suggested that the past was also re-used through the strategic use of old monuments that were incorporated into a new landscape. He called the appropriation of meaning held in the mythology of old monuments the creation of continuity.

The appropriation of continuity

These processes can be seen at work in the development of monument complexes where both the copying and the physical conjoining of monuments are evident. In a forthcoming paper on the monument complex at Rathdooney beg, Co. Sligo I propose the concept of appropriated continuity as a means of interpreting the development of monument complexes (Mount in press a). Appropriated continuity is a  strategy intended to forge a physical link to a dominant social group through the creation of conjoined monuments. In oral tradition appropriated continuity is paralleled by the development of false genealogies intended to justify the position of one group by claiming lineal descent from another (Byrne 2001, 3).

Created and appropriated continuities in the landscape

There are a number of landscape locations in Ireland with prominent monument complexes that were re-used and recreated at various periods. The re-use of old sites and ancient monuments represents more than simply a continuity of practice, but a conscious decision to use sites that would have had an established significance, mythological identify and landscape prominence. The occurrence of this re-use at a number of sites indicates preoccupation with forging links with the past, to draw on or recreate the past in order to support emerging social or political developments by creating a new continuity.

The greatest concentration of conjoined barrows (prehistoric burial monuments) in Ireland is found on the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, where they occur in five of the six main barrow groups. The barrows groups at Tara represent the continuation and elaboration of Early Bronze Age lineage groups through the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (Mount in press). As the Tara barrow groups developed, lineages could be spatially and historically linked and be seen to descend from remembered ancestors and the grouping of barrows reflect both the links and tensions between ancestral lineages reflected within the groupings Cooney (2009, 379). The practice of physically conjoining a new barrow to an old one and encompassing old barrows into new monuments was probably intended to link lineages together or emphasise an existing, a new or a falsely created lineal descent.

The conjoining of barrows and other earthworks during prehistory indicates that at times it was important to physically link a new monument to an existing one. This expressed a physical relationship between the new and old monument so that the new and old became one. In the case of barrows this symbolically linked those commemorated by the later monument to the earlier one. The emergence of conjoined monuments and the preoccupation with old sites and monuments are all related to the creation of continuity. Emulating, re-using and recreating old monuments is characteristic of groups creating history to suit contemporary needs. Building a barrow to resemble and emulate an ancient monument with associated mythology signals that a group is similar to or even descended from the mythological figures of old. Building a new monument that physically joins or encompasses another goes beyond emulation and represents the attempt to annex, appropriate or even eclipse the symbolic, familial or social associations of the earlier monument.


The concept of created continuity provides us with insights into the development of prominent monuments complexes in the landscape. The concept of appropriated continuity allows us to explore the nature of the relationships being created. The former strategy looks to the formation of a new political or social order using the past as a frame of reference. The latter strategy is about establishing direct relationships within a political or social system and is involved with the creation of lineage and descent relationships. In lineal descent groups conjoining monuments is a way of promoting a more distant relationship or supporting an entirely fictitious one and is an attempt to appropriate continuity with the earlier monument.

Further reading

Bloch, M. 1977. The past and present in the present. Man 12, 278-92.

Bradley, R. 1987. Time regained: the creation of continuity. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 140, 1-17.

Byrne, F.J. 2001. Irish Kings and High Kings. 2nd ed. Dublin.

Cooney, G. 1994. Sacred and secular Neolithic landscapes in Ireland, in D.L. Carmichael, J. Hubert, B. Reeves and A. Schanche (eds) Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. One World Archaeology 23. London. 

Cooney, G. 2009. Tracing lines across landscapes: corporality and history in later prehistoric Ireland, in G. Cooney, K. Becker, J. Coles, M. Ryan and S. Sievers (Eds.) Relics of Old Decency: archaeological studies in later prehistory. Dublin, 375-88.

Hobsbawm, M. 1983. Introduction: inventing traditions, in M. Hobsbawm and Ranger, T.O. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, 1-14.

Mount, C. (In press a). Created and appropriated continuity at Rathdooney Beg, Co. Sligo. In C. Corlett and M. Potterton  (eds) Life and Death in the Iron Age in Ireland.

Mount, C. (In press b). The context of the Early Bronze Age cemetery in the Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath. In M. O’Sullivan at al. (eds) Tara from the Past to the Future.

Newman, C. 1997. Tara an Archaeological Survey. Discovery Programme Monographs 2. Dublin.

Cite this post as:

 Mount, C. Monuments and created and appropriated continuity. The Charles Mount Blog, June 7, 2011.