‘What is the preserving shrine?’ Thoughts on Clare Milledge’s exhibition bramble-hound, heron-wound: two stone wolves.
Manchán Magan

What should we do with a title like bramble-hound, heron-wound: two stone wolves? Maybe it’s more a notion than a title. Or a spell? What to do with such things? There’s a powerful whiff of Irish language and lore to it. Bramble-hound in Irish is Cú Drise, as opposed to a cú allta, ‘wolf’, cú dobhráin, ‘otter’ (literally ‘water hound’), or cú fola, ‘bloodhound’. Cú on its own can mean a champion.

Milledge informs us in the programme notes that a bramble-hound can refer to a lower-grade Old Irish poet, which pricks up my ears, as such poets were so much more than they seem - just like Milledge’s work. They were communicators, but also myth-makers and myth-busters. They were sorcerers and chroniclers.
The first thing we need to know about poets in Ireland is that they were never just poets. They were truthtellers and soothsayers; inheritors of a tradition of incantations and spell-casting, amongst many other things.

In some respects, their role was invented by St. Patrick...

The idea that Ireland’s patron saint banished snakes from Ireland is make-believe, but he did indeed banish the druids – or, at least, he tried to scare off an entire echelon of matted-bearded, cloak-bedecked and bejewelled wise men and wanderers, seers, and sorcerers, historians, land-listeners, and legal scholars. They were cast asunder; beaten off by a belt of Patrick’s blackthorn staff, or lured into the folds of Christianity by the allure of his words. We know this because Patrick records it in his own writings. He left long accounts of his obsessive attempts, one thousand six hundred years ago, to wipe out the entire class of pagan priests who acted as Ireland’s historians, poets, climate chroniclers, genealogists, and keepers of law and lore.

What galled him most was that they were also spell-casters and spirit mediums. He needed to ensure that any casting of spells and mediumship with spirits was solely the domain of Christian clerics. And so, the druids were banished; though they were allowed to keep their roles as poets, lampooners, and chroniclers of major events in the past and present, which is why one can say that St Patrick invented the role of the Irish poet.

The druidic schools of training were transformed into bardic schools to ensure that the knowledge and skills that had been passed down through generations for thousands of years survived the arrival of Christianity and continued onwards; as indeed it did, right up until Britain finally managed to stamp it out in the 18th century.

The eradication of all this lore and culture was a tragedy, yet it’s worth celebrating the fact that it had survived so long, and that at least some strains of druidic practise and insight managed to survive into the Modern Era. It might explain why Irish poets, such as Yeats and Heaney, have made such impact on the world. Poets in Ireland are more than poets, they are the descendants of druids. Even low-grade, bramble-hound bards can claim this lineage.

As it happens, my great-great-great-great-granduncle was one of the last senior poets of these bardic schools. Aodhagán Ó Rathaille was born into poverty in 1670, and rose through the patronage of the Viscounts Kenmare to become not just a cú drise (‘bramble-hound’), but an ollamh, a master poet, who was widely regarded as among the most learned of his generation. It was a great achievement, though he had the misfortune of living in a period when Britain finally managed to tighten their stranglehold on the bardic schools, and the profound perspectives and beliefs they represented. It was the demise of the ancient Gaelic world, which Ó Rathaille regarded as the end of civilisation.

It was a wounding that could justifiably be termed a ‘heron-wound’. In Irish tradition herons and cranes were considered magical birds who could traverse dimensions, just as poets could. And as great artists still can today. It was said that when a poet was in deep contemplation, during the creation of complex verse he or she would adopt the corrguinecht, ‘heron or crane stance’, which was described in the 16th-century as ‘being on one foot, one hand and one eye,’ and was associated with the composition of satire or the act of divination, and other supernatural acts.

Ó Rathaille was known for the power and sharpness of his satires (known as aoir, in Irish) which could be visceral in their impact. A well-composed aoir could raise a wound on the face of its target, which is interesting, as it reminds me of the Old Irish term for a bramble-hound, which wasn’t cú drise, but drisiuc, meaning a ‘poet of lower rank’, or a ‘briar that scratches’. And the scratch inflicted by a skilled satirical poet had its own word too: fearb ‘a weal or welt arising from satire or disgrace.’ This ability of the poet to inflict physical harm with his or her words was a last vestige of their former roles as seers and sorcerers. They were still capable then of not just recording the events of the past, or of the current world, but also impacting reality in a physical way. It was the last gasp of the druids’ ability to transform matter and events through invocation or incantations.

For me, this is what Milledge is getting at with bramble-hound, heron-wound: two stone wolves. The lore of our forebears is encoded within the works of our artists. It’s also in the land, at least according to an 8th century document known as the Senchus Mór which poses the question ‘What is the preserving shrine?’ In other words, how is information kept aliveIt offers the reply: ‘Not hard: it is memory and what is preserved in it.’ In a world before writing, or any other recording system, memory was the bulwark for maintaining a sense of identity, of tracing lineages of spiritual or military leadership, of tracking patterns of climate change and vegetation growth, of collating and conserving cures and remedies. To ‘know’ the world meant to memorise it.

To emphasise this point the Senchus Mór repeats the question ‘What is the preserving shrine?’ but this time answers: ‘Not hard: it is nature and what is preserved in it’. Our ancestors are trying to tell us that all that is important about the past is contained within story and art, and that this is then rooted in the land. The land holds memories: in place names, in songs and sagas, and within the very essence of the rocks and rivers, the trees and seas. It’s a profound inheritance and one that can be hard to know how best to engage with. I believe bramble-hound, heron-wound: two stone wolves is a key into certain aspects of it.