Month: November 2014

An aside: Gamanrad and Fir Bolg at the boundaries between myth and history

Just as an aside, I wanted to write something about why I named this site Gamanrad. Firstly, of course, it’s a word that rolls around the mouth. I’ve always liked a hard G and the repetition of two same-sounding ‘a’s is satisfying, somehow. OK, whimsy apart, here is the slightly embellished account of the Gamanrad and their place in Irish, and, in particular, in Erris history (and, for reasons only a very few might understand, I include reference to the Fir Bolg, now the name of a beer obtainable in Cork):

The Fir Bolg were the Men (people, one hopes) of the Bags, Spears of Boats, a prehistoric, semi-mythical tribe who came to Ireland perhaps as long ago as 5000-4000BC (these dates are wild guesses). What did they carry in those bags? Perhaps the indication is that they were travelling people, and they carried what they had with them, from place to place. Perhaps their name is an indication of their bravery. I imagine the name being a reference to how lightly they lived on the land. They were overcome by those who came with more, whose energy use, though still miniscule by our bloated standards, was more demanding. From hunter-gatherers, then, to pastoralists, perhaps.

The Fir Bolg were overcome by the Tuatha de Danann (spelling varies, usually translated as ‘the people of Devon’), who landed in southwest England, among other places, but probably came from central Europe, perhaps the Iberian peninsula, or perhaps originated from much further East than that. The stories about them suggest they were tenacious, tough, and as unforgiving as the conditions they had endured to get to the islands of Ireland and Britain. The group divided into three, one of which stayed in Devon and founded a cultural hub there, possibly incorporating the culture that created Stonehenge. The second landed in south-west Scotland, in the region of Galloway. a distinctly beautiful and rugged area (my own ancestors come from here!) where they erected stone circles.

The third came here, to Erris, in north-west Mayo where they came to be known as the Gamanrad, and although they were as able to defend themselves as any crusaders, they came, primarily, as pastoralists, to herd, and they brought the calves (the name Gamanrad means the people of the calves), which, along with the native deer, they walked from pasture to pasture. They lived very well in Erris for at least a millennia, and they developed a rich cultural heritage here of tombs, songs, stories, but of these only the ragged threads remain, rewoven, subsequently, into myths and these simplified and in many cases prettified for children’s stories.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Fir Bolg took to their boats and sailed east. They got as far as Greece but there, they were enslaved. It may be that their name came from their time there: they were forced labourers, and carried bags of mortar or rocks for building work. The really interesting thing is that the same group of people returned to Ireland after a couple of generations in slavery (how many? I have no idea: enough to have only stories, but not enough to have lost the maps and directions to make the difficult journey). They returned to Ireland, where they found very few people (the Gamanrad had maintained themselves so sustainably that they had not thought to extend their range), and so the Fir Bolg are credited with having created the five provinces of Ireland.

Personally, however, I’m inclined to think that the Gamanrad were more influential than is given credit for: it is their myths that shaped the narratives of how people understood themselves in relation to one another and the land. Many of their myths cross the threshold between animism and polytheism. They understood the interconnectedness of all things (as early peoples had to do, perforce) and they developed a way of seeing from the perspectives of other animals, states of being (like waves, or rocks) and the courses of the stars. There is much to be learned from this light-stepping people whose mark on the land is limited to underground tombs, and the circles of stones that directed their ritual appreciation of the sun and seasons.

Notes, acknowledgements and references
I can’t recall now where I first heard the name Gamanrad/ Gamhanradh but my husband, Joseph, is very interested in local, particularly oral, history, and he first told me the story of the myth of Flidias, and of the great battle that took place on the coast near Belderra, where there was a ‘lake of blood’. I run along the headland very close to the mound which is said to be entirely composed of the skulls that are all that remain of the hacked off heads of those who were slaughtered in that battle.
Flidias, with beautiful hair, had a white cow. I had just returned from oral testimony collection among the Dinka among whom cattle are reverentially respected, in Turkana, and I had bought a gift of a painting of a Turkana woman milking a white cow that hangs over our bed. I liked the links. I contacted
Padraig Ó Macháin, Professor and Head of Modern Irish at UCC. He sent me a link to a paper by
Margaret Dobbs, ‘Who were the Gamanrad?’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 83 (1953)
I also read extracts from
A. H. Leary, ‘The Heroic Legends of Ireland’
James McKillop, ‘Dictionary of Celtic Mythology’
Prof Ruairí Ó hUiginn has just published a paper entitled, ‘The Gamhanradh’ which I have not yet managed to get a hold of, but hope to read soon

We need to update the epistemic sphere

We need to update the epistemic sphere to include the information that scientists have now provided that makes clear the human impact on the rest of the biosphere. Information that makes it clear that we have a shared global commons, shared not just with other humans, but with everything that exists on this planet. Denial, refusal to draw conclusions and accept whatever is going to happen as a direct result of our collective impact, is worth investigating, but it is nothing more sophisticated than denial, however well articulated. Of course, ideally we’d be doing something about it, but if we’re still in denial, let’s investigate the denial.


Humans are not exceptional on the planet. We are not in control of the biosphere and it does not, and never did, belong to us, as a species, and certainly not as nations. If we chose to continue to see ourselves in this relationship with what is around us, we are simply going to reap the harvest of such delusion. We do not own it. We do not control it. We can’t control it because we’re embedded in it (albeit at a very surface, late stage, and can easily, or fairly easily, be shrugged off). We depend on it. We are part of the very complex feedback systems and processes of the whole but it’s nought but arrogance to suggest that we will lead it to where we want it to go.


We are too many, a species in population explosion. We cannot be sustained by the systems upon which we depend at the population levels we currently exist in, and which projections indicate will rise further. We are rapacious, but we are not unlike other species in this regard. Numbers will fall. The population will crash. There’s no doubt about it.


We don’t have to just enjoy it while we can, though. We can also make the best of it that we can. If we can get a better perspective on our situation as a not particularly significant, though notably extravagant, and thus emergent, species then we can begin to approach the problem of continuing human survival and even ask whether or not this is something we want to pursue. When we actually get clear a perception of our relationship with the ecosphere, we will have a greater survival advantage. Whether or not this will be enough to ensure the survival of those aspects of our species that we have cultivated -linguistic artistry, art, culture, scientific, musical and even physical achievements about which we are so proud – is open to question. Whether or not the development of such extravagant emergence, considering its cost, was justified, is not something we can take responsibility for. Still, it might be a good question now that we have an awareness of it.


We’re odd creatures, really: abstract thinkers, wandering about extravagantly in our febrile imaginations, creating technologies that ultimately turned out to be the harbingers of our own destruction, fighting for different ideologies even as the globe groans under the weight of our overpopulous, overconsuming swarm. With all the tools – empathy, foresight, abstract thought, opposable thumbs – to get ourselves out of the crisis we’ve created, we nevertheless chose to focus on the trivia. Was it easier, somehow?


How does our human ability to cohere into groups and communities dictate what we believe, so we can make a mutual arrangement to understand a common meaning for ‘money’, or ‘justice’? Could we exploit this mutual mindplay so that a different set of common ‘wholes’ become commonly accepted, like understanding ourselves not as a species, but as a cluster of species (viral, bacterial, fungal, primate) within clusters of processes (ingestion, digestion, excretion, inhalation, exhalation) all of which affect us, and all of which we affect?


When whoever remains turns back to reexamine this period, if they still have the cultural skills (reading, the preservation of knowledge through the written word, the requisite leisure, education, and so on) will they wonder at the lack of effort made during our era to preserve those characteristics that count: generosity, patience, self-restraint? Will they forgive us? I don’t suppose they have much choice. But we do, don’t we? We can choose, now, simply through the practice of self-reflective awareness (as well as the continuing development of scientific knowledge, weighing its ecological impact and working towards cradle to cradle technologies) how to respond, even if the window of our options is growing smaller even as I write.

Updating: current stage of research

I hope to update this blog today and tomorrow with what is currently the status of my research. I’ve developed a few ideas since finishing my PhD and would like to set these out for discussion. On the one hand, I would like to conduct various research projects, and I will either do these independently, or as part of an institution (which would be better financially, and probably in terms of how valid the research is seen to be, although there is no direct correlation). Secondly, I would like to find other ways of exploring, comparing and connecting some of the ideas I have already described. I hope to do this for two different audiences: firstly, for an audience of philosophers, because I think there is much work to be done on bridging the gaps in discussion between those who affiliate themselves to the different, and sometimes conflicting, philosophical schools of thought, or approaches. Secondly, however, I would like to make the research accessible for those with no philosophical training or background. To that end, I am in the process of reviewing what I’ve written, and doing some research to extend and explore how the ideas might be developed and modified, and then preparing some papers to encompass how this process is evolving. If someone happens to stumble across this, and feels like engaging in discussion on the papers, as they appear here, then I would be grateful for the opportunity to clarify any issues that arise.

Let us just indulge ourselves in idealism for a moment.

Let us just indulge in idealism for a moment (in a purely hypothetical experiment). If people took full responsibility as a result of realising their agency, in the way that I have described, we would have no need for government, nor any need for a monetary system.
We would not see one another as separate individuals, and therefore we would not focus on defending ourselves (physically, psychologically) against one another. We would not concern ourselves with being unable to understand others’ views, or other ideologies, since we would realise that these emerge from context, and we could easily imagine that we, in a different set of conditions, might have arrived at these values. Nevertheless, given that we would be in the habit of discerning between narratives inherited as a result of particular context, and the ‘good’ of systems as seen from a rationally and scientifically enlightened approach, we would come to an overarching consensus on what kinds of activity to support and facilitate.
We would spend more of our time exploring freedom, ideas, and creativity, given the time and resources freed up from defence. We would concern ourselves with facilitating the lives of others and exploring how to develop deeper and more significant relationships, and less time contemplating how to pre-empt an attach from another. We would delve deeper into health indices (since the energy we would have available would allow us to spend more time on this kind of activity) and explore communication in far more creative ways.
Dealing with our impermanence would become a key feature of our world, and perhaps we could come to understand, and to live more fully, as we set out to embrace, the different stages of grief that a full realisation of death entails. We could come to relate to possessions and belongings in a completely different way, creating and sharing for the sake of well-being and self-expression, rather than for trade. We could, in summary, release ourselves from the repetitive cycles of suffering that characterise societies in so many ways. Being deeply aware and present to our own existence and its intimately relational nature would naturally lead to the end of wars, and of famines. It would end research for profitability, and create opportunities for research purely for the benefits of systems. Manipulation by advertising or propaganda would end: people would be far too secure in their own sense of themselves to feel the anxiety that advertising relies upon. A deep understanding that there is no ‘I’ in ‘this body’ separate from ‘you’ in ‘that body’ would change how we thought and experienced emotion. All talents would be expressed as gifts and available to benefit all. This would not imply that people could not, or would not want to, be alone: it would be perfectly normal and safe for individuals to spend as much time alone as with others. The pressure to conform to norms would be utterly eradicated. The full capacity of realisation would awaken everyone to the deeply enriching experience of being aware at each moment.
I am not an idealist, however.