Newgrange Ireland

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Martin Brennan 2007
Martin Brennan 2007
Stone Mad - A review of The Stars and the Stones
By Claire O'Kelly

As an archaeologist I find myself at a loss as to how to attempt a review of this book or to say anything favourable about it beyond the fact that it is well produced. This, however, is something we have come to expect from the publishing firm concerned. One usually opens a nice looking book with a feeling of pleasurable anticipation but the introduction alone (Part 1) quickly dispels this. It contains errors, misrepresentations, innuendos, and even sneers at the expense of what the author calls "modern archaeologists" ­ of the Irish breed, of course. The latter are sharply differentiated from the antiquarians of the past. They knew it all, we knew it not. Four legs good, two legs bad.

Yet this book could not have been put together without the contributions of these same modern archaeologists, unacknowledged by Brennan except in the rarest cases and in the vaguest terms. Not even copyrights are respected. It is standard practice among archaeologists and among those who write with authority on related subjects, to acknowledge, not only those whose work and ideas had helped them, but also the sources of their illustration material. Had Mr. Brennan been of their number, perhaps he too would have followed this convention.

The dust-jacket blurb tells us that Martin Brennan is an American who majored in Visual Communication and who, when he came to Ireland (in 1970), "Spent more than a decade engaged in active research on megalithic art."

I myself have spent more than twice that time in the same pursuit in the Boyne Valley and though our paths ought to have coincided during some part of the period of his "active research," I never so much as had a sighting of him, as the bird watchers say.

One of his principal aims in the introduction seems to be to show up the pitiful inadequacy of Irish archaeologists. We stood idly by while he himself and various Jacks and David's and Paula's, as he refers to them, flew in or blew in, from foreign parts. (He gives their names in full in the acknowledgements). It was left up to them to "illuminate part of our prehistoric heritage that has for so long been shrouded in darkness and mystery."

According to the dust-jacket. What are called "Practical field observations" began in 1980, two years before the book was written, and the catalogue of the movements of the Brennan relay-team made me, slow-top archaeologist that I am, feel quite dizzy. They chuntered between the Boyne Valley, Co. Tyrone, Tara, West Cork, the Loughcrew hills, and so on presumably bringing home, not the bacon, but slices of our neglected prehistoric heritage.

Mr. Brennan's path was not an easy one. He says "he failed to interest archaeologists in his ideas" (p9). In order to make a study of Knowth he had to resort to what he calls "painstaking archaeological espionage" which involved among other things, making "my own observations of the site at a distance with binoculars." No wonder that "David was amazed that I had succeeded in documenting most of the art of Knowth in spite of the veil of secrecy". (p56)

Our stupidity in the matter of the winter solstice at Newgrange is unforgivable because it appears that from the seventeenth century onwards, everyone but ourselves know about it. The caretaker, Robert Hickey, whom Brennan "had the honour of meeting" in 1970, knew about it, but would we listen to him? A few lines farther on he is referred to as "the embittered caretaker". In fact, Bob Hickey's information was gleaned from Professor O'Kelly who first observed the occurrence in 1967 because this was the first time it could be done accurately, for reasons made clear in various of his written accounts. Bob Hickey, who was a good friend to us at Newgrange, had never promulgated the winter solstice theory before this.

The favourite lore going the rounds was that a dark brown stain on one of the basin stones in the chamber had been caused by blood dripping from the victims who had been, as it was put, "cremated kneeling" therein. How thankful we should be that this tradition escaped Mr Brennan's eager ear because my husband subsequently, had the basin washed in the foolish belief that the stain was merely the "drop-down" from a crack in the roof just above.

Brennan labels the failure to investigate the solstice phenomenon until 1969 (sic) as "In many ways one of the greatest blunders of Irish archaeology". What would have been his reaction had he known of the removal of the significant stain?

Professor George Eogan at nearby Knowth has not escaped the lash either. It seems he must have denied access to Brennan and team, quite unreasonably, because Eogan was engaged only in excavation, not "active research," Eogan had completely "sealed (the site) off from the enquiring eyes of independent researchers by a high wire fence topped by barbed wire."

Was one of Eogan's greatest blunders the fact that the fence was not an electric one, a common enough protection for archaeological sites? It seems that "Jack and I had always felt that the responsibility for awakening an entirely new approach to Irish megalithic culture rested firmly on our shoulders. If we were forced to gain information by scaling over barriers and obstacles placed in our path by archaeologists, we were bound to do so. With this thought firmly planted in my mind, I indicated to David that we were ready to move in."" Jack was absent, doing the stone circles of west Cork, apparently. Move in they did, on two occasions, and Paula came along to help.

As already mentioned, the above refers only to the introduction. Part 11 is called "Megalithic Observatories" and Part 111 "Megalithic Art". To take the latter first. All the megalithic art of Ireland, with the exceptions of some of the Knowth stones, is already in print, published variously by the Royal Irish Academy, by the Oxford University Press and by Thames & Hudson, and it took the archaeologists concerned many years to accomplish, no doubt due to our own limitations. The blurb accompanying this book gives us to understand that Martin Brennan "In his text and own superb two-colour drawings fully documents these discoveries".

It seems to me that if his name does not go down in the records of Irish archaeology, it certainly deserves a place in the Guinness Book.

As representing my own opinion of Part 11, I quote Dr. Douglas Heggie, an acknowledged authority on megalithic astronomy, whose Megalithic Science was published in 1981, again by the versatile Thames Hudson, Heggie observes:; "Many authors have remarked that certain megaliths point in the directions at which various astronomical phenomena take place The observation that the astronomical theory fits the facts does not help us to choose between the possibility that the alignments are coincidental and the possibility that they are intentional."

"Brennan deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records" 4/12/83 Inside Tribune.

Claire O'Kelly is author of The Illustrated Guide to Newgrange and of 'Passage Grave Art in the Boyne Valley.'

Boyne Valley Private Day Tours

Boyne Valley Tours Pick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour: Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice, Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick let a Paschal fire in 433  More ...