Tag: allocentric

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


There are various obvious limitations to this discussion, some of which I am aware of. Firstly, while I discuss some of the reasons why it is preferable to move the centre of consideration from humans to an ‘allocentric’ or non-anthropocentric perspective, I do not defend this from the point of view of an ethical position. This is because I have moved, recently, from considering the problem as one of environmental ethics – a position that I seek to show creates more problems than it resolves – to a position of pragmatism. I do, of course, give space to a discussion on the move from an ethical to a pragmatic position. In the same vein, there is extensive material relating to the relationship between inherent worth, inherent value, intrinsic worth, intrinsic value or any combination of the above, and moral considerability. when I began this work, I relied largely on the work undertaken in the 1970s by Richard Routely, amongst others. Their position was that the relationship between a locus of value and its moral considerability is, if not a logical, at least a rational one. This has been the focus of the thinking of several writers and I have little to add, except to say that the pragmatic position I take also posits a rational relationship between the act of responding to understanding and information, and the act of understanding from a non-dualistic position.

I don’t defend in any detail the idea that there is an environmental crisis being played out on the planet, nor that human impact is largely responsible for this impact. While these are contested issues for a considerable proportion of the population, I think that empirical evidence can either be accepted or rejected and I am not interested in continuing that particular discussion. The one area I do investigate in detail is the relationship between agents, on the one hand, and what Paul Taylor called “patients”, on the other.

The significance of my own argument is that it continues the attempt, made by several writers (notably Graham Parkes, but going as far back as Arne Naess, and including Callicott and Ames, among others) to consider philosophical foundations for proposing an alteration in the attitude of the human species to its relationship with the non-human world. The first attempt was to reverse some of the standard thinking on locus of value, and to address some of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the human response to the environmental crisis through approaching the problem as an ethical one. I argued that if the current programme of attempting to resolve the crisis of biodiversity and habitat loss, pollution, and so on, is centred on what is of value to humans alone, then there is no strong reason for considering organisms which are not directly of value to humans and their plans. This means that while an environmental ethic can be developed which will attempt to save the pandas, because they’re pretty, or allow for the reintroduction of sea eagles, because they’re noble, there will be no attempt to analyse the soil and learn about how systems work for their own sakes. More strongly there will be no reason to allow parts of the world to remain completely free of human intervention. There will be no reason to attempt to restore biotic systems because they are rare, or unique (unless scientific curiosity gives a reason). There will be no reason to respect or treat with care biological entities which one comes across. It will not matter, unless it is seen to matter to human interests (in other words there may still be arguments made for not treating some sentient creatures like machines, since the ill-treatment of fellow sentients may have an effect on the moral development and behaviour of human to human interactions, as Jeremy Bentham memorably argued). The approach that centres its justification for how humanity relates to the non-human world on the grounds of what is of interest to the human species will, in the end, backfire as an attitudinal stance, since not enough will be required of the species to mitigate the impact of activities that have been damaging to biosystems to date, and not enough is required, from this point of view, to solve the difficulties that this attitude will continue to create. The difficulty is how to create a strong enough impetus untangle the level at which we treat one another and other species as ends in themselves from the level at which we see ourselves as moral agents, with all the privileges and demands that such a perspective gives us.