Emmanuel Handlung (c.1645-?)

One of the pleasures of ‘doing’ historical archaeology in a confined space like Dublin is making the occasional acquaintance with the peripheral figures and personalities who’ve haunted sites investigated over some indistinct period of the city’s past. I’ve written before of John Odacio Formica, the Altarean alchemist who set up shop in Haymarket, around the corner from my office in the 1670s, and who exported his fine glasswares to the New World, taking his recipe for flint crystal to his grave. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the theorist of the theatre of cruelty, is another ghost who haunts the streets around Smithfield. He reminds us in Le Théâtre et son Double (1938) that  ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle… the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.’ Wiki of course reminds us that by ‘cruelty’, Artaud referred not to sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, austere, physical determination to shatter the false reality that, he wrote, ‘lies like a shroud over our perceptions’. This of course is particularly apt as we consider our place in space and time as twenty first-century archaeologists.

Emmanuel Handlung (Czech sp. Handlinč), a Moravian wanderer and inexact kabbalahist, at this point in time united in close design with nobody, was quite possibly born in the ghetto of Třebíč towards the middle of the seventeenth century. He (she?) has haunted my wheelbarrows and winches ever since I first struck a mattock into the early modern overburden of the Liberties in 1989. I’ve unknowingly followed his peregrinations around the city ever since, his appearances indicated by the glimpse of an occasional shadow over my shoulder, a faint whiff of nitrate in the morning frost, a fleeting encounter at an auld fellas’ bar for a thirsty pint after work, where the protagonist has vanished after a trip to the jacks, as if indeed he were never there. A heavy presence.

One appreciates his disembarkation on the quayside at Wringsand on a fine July morning at high tide: the early modernist predating Ormond by mere weeks, the reluctant emissary of a recusant enlightenment. His negotiation of a fare with the driver of a Ringsend Car, his parcel of books being hoisted to the rear by a snivelling scoliosistic kerl, mumbling an impenetrable cant from his lips across the flat sands and salt creeks; his eventual arrival at Lazar’s Hill, the filthy rear entrance of the city. A stranger in a town of blinking priests stumbling from a twilight en caché, regarding his appearance both with fear and relief. Dominus vobiscum, urbi et orbi. Feet here firmly on the ground, our protagonist progresses through the old town, locating lodgings across the river at The Sign of the Bent Knee, over the stinking laystall on Hangman’s Lane. Children picking through the shit. Back-breaking toil. Necessary though for economy and polity.

I now realise that Handlung was out with me too in the Portíns on Inishbofin, although not in an official, documented sense. For I’ve come to know him as a slippery customer, a heavy burden on my psyche and lumbar vertebrae, and I’ve just felt his presence again now as I grapple with the hoover in an attempt to remove the mess occasioned by the fucking pigeon who flew into my office last night through the open window and completely wrecked the gaff.

I’d appreciate any further biographical information that may be out there…

Roxy Munich: the archaeology of Disco


The spiritual hauptstadt of modern totalitarianism is perhaps an unusual place to look for the roots of an ostensibly black musical genre, one imbued with notions of hedonism, abandon and the gay counter-culture. Yet it can be argued that the post-war settlement of Germany, and specifically the occupation of the southern part of the country by American forces, brought about the requisite conditions for the conception of a new music, one indeed which was to spawn much of what is considered dance or electronic music today.

Received narratives of the origins of disco music invariably reference emergent underground gay culture in the New York of the mid-1970s. While disco certainly emerged from this milieu and quickly gained cultural hegemony on both sides of the Atlantic, its early origins have left an archaeological trace in the suburbs of Munich, where the defining artefact, the mixing desk of a home-made recording studio, survives unused in a barn in rural Upper Bavaria.

This brief paper examines embryonic disco in the context of cross-Atlantic cultural and technological exchange with reference to the concept of the ‘familiar past?’ (Tarlow and West 1999) — a central concern in the archaeological investigation of the contemporary past. As archaeologists operating in post medieval contexts, we deal with an abundance of artefactual evidence, a function of working through periods when mass-production and consumerism were transforming the lives of those populations we try to make sense of. In the realm of the contemporary past, archaeologists are confronted with a superabundance of such data. As Buchli and Lucas have noted such archaeologists ‘tend to direct themselves to that which is forgotten, to attempt literally and metaphorically to find what has been ‘buried’ and obscured, sorting through the hyperactive creation and dissipation of resources, information and material goods’ (2001, 79). The recovery of the origins of disco as an archaeological construct, ‘buried’ in a Munich basement, is part of an on-going project being undertaken by the writer and Thomas Meinecke, a Munich-based writer and musician.

The Munich Machine

The producer not generally accredited with the ‘invention’ of disco was a German-speaking South Tyrolean musician and disc jockey, Hansjörg Moroder; however, if disco was ‘invented’ anywhere, Munich was the city of conception. Moroder started djing to black American troops in the early ‘60s in bases throughout Bavaria, spinning imported r’n’b and soul before releasing music of his own as ‘Giorgio’ in 1966, singing in a variety of styles and indeed in several languages. Moroder came to international prominence in 1969 when he was awarded a gold disc for ‘Looky Looky’ released on Ariola Records. From this point onwards he concentrated more on production and moved from Berlin to Munich where Ariola had established a base.

In the unassuming northeastern suburb of Bogenhausen, Moroder developed Musicland, a studio in the basement of the Arabella-Hochhaus, a 23-storey, 170m-long apartment block designed by architect Toby Schmidbauer and constructed from 1966 to 1969. Moroder took an apartment in the then-fashionable apartment block just after it opened and seems to have quickly fashioned a small studio in the basement beside the massive boiler room with the assistance of his cohort, recording engineer Reinhold Mack. Although it was recognised later that the upper floors of the hotel provided petulant recording artistes an opportunity to throw TV sets at the most expensive cars parked below, this does not appear to have been part of the duo’s initial business strategy. However, the studio’s completion was only ensured by the unannounced appearance of Marc Bolan one afternoon in the basement as Moroder and Mack were still in the process of fitting it out.

From here his initial experimentation with proto-electronica was funded on the back of studio fees from T Rex, whose imperator brought in bookings from, among others, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Rory Gallagher. The Electric Light Orchestra and Queen were however to be the mainstays over the next few years, ably engineered by Mack. Mack, a self-effacing, reluctant raconteur of rock’n’roll lore began his career, as most studio engineers do, a humble studio tea boy. Over the initial period of fieldwork at Musicland, we explored the small local park where Gerhard Vates, another tea boy, was instructed by Jeff Lynne to source vegetation to place on the floor for ELO’s ‘Jungle’ in 1976.

Moroder’s combined interest in r’n’b and studio technology brought him in a different direction and where Musicland later boasted a Harrison console (mixing desk) to accommodate more orthodox sensibilities, his early experimentation was undertaken on an adapted 16 track Helios desk boasting circuitry which could accommodate a simple drum machine and a basic early synthesiser. Working with producer/songwriter Pete Bellotte, Moroder’s recording of ‘Son of my Father’ was his first hit featuring a synthesiser; the song was a UK hit for Chicory Tip in 1972, who, by using the Musicland arrangement, thus introduced the machine to a mass audience.

Moroder was probably introduced to synthesised music production by the German classical composer Eberhard Schöner, then resident in Munich. Schöner was a proponent of musique concrète and had been experimenting with Bob Moog’s early synthesiser, a huge machine housed in a private studio elsewhere in the city. Elsewhere in Germany groups such as Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk were also using technology to move away from traditional band set-ups. However they were not to capitalise on synthesised sound to the same extent as the team based in Musicland and their contribution to the development of electronic music has only been recognised by the mainstream over the past number of years.

Moroder was quick to appreciate the potential of the Minimoog, a more manageable version of the synthesiser released commercially in 1970, and he enjoyed a few minor hits from his desk, influenced as much by Marc Bolan’s boogie as the sound of Tamla Motown. However, what became the defining disco beat emerged more organically from a jam session in the studio in 1973 when the house band, the Munich Machine, came up with the then-unique four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern, played together with the dense hi-hat rhythm that drummer Keith Forsey had heard on the Hues Corporation hit, ‘Rock The Boat’ (Buskin 2009). Enter Donna Summer, one of the cast of the European production of Hair, who was double-jobbing as a session singer in Munich at the time.

The first hit with Summer on board was a Munich re-recording of ‘Love to Love You Baby’, where the singer’s moans — which according to Time Magazine amounted to 22 simulated orgasms — had the record banned by certain radio stations including the BBC. Moroder has since admitted that his primary motivation lay beyond the production of art and his main influence on ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was the earlier commercial success of the Birkin/Gainsbourg hit ‘Je t’aime… (moi non plus)’. What differentiated this track however was the use of a simple drum machine channelled through Moroder’s desk, with tape editing (effectively early sequencing) enabling the band to record an extended 16-minute version, keeping everything in perfect time. Extending the length of the track to such a degree — taking up an entire side of a 12’ vinyl disc without there being any skipping at the deeper frequencies — ensured the success of the song on dancefloors across the Atlantic, where the more traditional r’n’b infused soul was starting to give way to other genres of dance music such as funk and Go-go. The music recorded in Munich was thus a unique combination of European technological innovation and American soul; clever marketing and distribution brought it back across the Atlantic where it became equally successful in the charts, bestowing the title ‘Queen of Disco’ on its clean-living vocalist.

On the success of ‘Love to Love You Baby’ the team was further encouraged to investigate employing the MiniMoog in the same way the drum machine had been utilised before. By this stage the studio had expanded and now featured a state of the art Eastlake sound-room designed by Californian acoustic engineer Tom Hidley, which included a 32-track Harrison console. Robbie Wedel, who had brought in the Moog to the studio, simulated a hi-hat, snare and bass drum, recorded on a 16-track Studer A80 tape machine, simply direct-injecting the monophonic signal into Moroder’s mixing desk. Summer’s vocals were recorded on Neumann U87 condenser microphones (which are still used in professional studios today) with much less sound compression and reverb than usual for the time provided by an early Lexicon effects unit.

The result was ‘I Feel Love’ a massive hit which catapulted disco into the mainstream. The track was universally considered ‘future proof’ and again, extending the mix to fit on a side of vinyl without loss of sound quality, the powerful lower ranges combined with higher frequencies resulted in a music which could perhaps only be fully appreciated in a club atmosphere. This was however revolutionary music in another sense: if brought to its ultimate conclusion, this technology now rendered musicians redundant and the studio itself was now brought to the forefront of the creative process.

Moroder and Summer subsequently decamped to the US and under the stewardship of Mack Musicland continued as the studio of choice for the UK’s rockistocracy, with Moroder’s original desk placed in storage in a back room. The studio closed when vibrations from the construction of the U4 in 1987 rendered further recording there impossible.

Disco heritage?

The Münchner Stadtmuseum is an excellent example of a city museum without a temporal cut-off point. The twentieth century is well represented with exhibitions dealing with the Nazi period, along with a permanent display featuring the rise of BMW and indeed the 1972 Olympics and Black September. The museum however contextualises the city’s contemporary popular culture in terms of the beer hall: the Oktoberfest has a display of its own, replete with life-sized models of refreshed tourists, busty blond waitresses and ever watchful riot police keeping well to the background. Over the course of a brief interview, a museum curator — who admittedly was under the impression she was partaking in an informal discussion on the city’s response to development-led archaeology — articulated an official ignorance of the city’s locus as the birthplace of disco, although she was aware that Queen had made several recordings near the Arabella Platz. Unspoken in the exchange was an acceptance that possibly more people have a disco record in their collection than drive a BMW. So why had the museum not recognised this unique role played by the city in the creation of electronic dance music, or was it simply another aspect of the city’s hidden history? In an attempt to answer this question, we decided to investigate Musicland, on one level as curious cultural tourists, on another as an archaeological inquiry into the built landscape, as the foundation of a project to prospect for an ephemeral, though very real global material culture.

David Byrne (2012, 9) has recently written on the ephemerality of music:

You can’t touch music — it exists only at the moment it’s being apprehended — and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it. Music can get us through difficult patches in our lives by changing not only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about everything outside ourselves. It’s powerful stuff.

If this very ephemerality of music should place it beyond the concerns of traditional archaeological inquiry, its ubiquity as a cultural product certainly places it within the wider ambit of material culture studies, of which archaeology is a part. Moreover, this ‘powerful stuff’ is central to the materiality of everyone’s life today and the physical circumstances of its creation as ‘product’ have their own materiality, manifest in the equipment used and the physical fabric of the studio itself — irrespective of the music, the performance or indeed the musicians, producers and engineers. In this regard the concrete basement of the Arabella-Hochhaus does not immediately appear to have the same cachet as Motown or the early Muscle Shoals and the museum authorities can perhaps be excused for facilitating its absence on the city’s cultural itinerary. There is, we argue, nonetheless value to be had by evoking Musicland as an archaeological site, one which will repay archaeological study in all of its guises.

On leaving the Stadtmuseum we were assured that our inquiries were possibly more archaeological in the traditional sense, for the Arabella-Hochhaus had apparently been demolished prior to the development of a Sheraton Hotel. Fortunately, this was found not to be the case. In order to meet a demand for hotel beds during the 1972 Olympics the building was partly converted into the Arabella Bogenhausen Hotel offering 467 rooms, becoming perhaps the largest hotel in the city. In 1998 a joint venture was formed between Arabella Hotel Holdings and Starwood Hotels which saw it rebranded as the Arabella-Sheraton Bogenhausen and it has since been renamed the Sheraton Arabellapark Hotel. The company now operates the hotel jointly with the Westin Grand Munich which is located across the street and, apart from the hotel, the building is at present home to two clinics, 500 rental apartments and 100 offices and surgeries.

The building is not protected under architectural heritage legislation nor is there any official signage or indeed graffiti to indicate the former presence of Musicland in the basement. This is significant when the subsequent recording history of the studio is considered, where two ‘graffiti walls’ are officially tolerated in Dublin in homage to U2. Graves-Brown (2012, 74) has considered the ‘memorialisation’ of popular music with reference to Soho, where memorials to artists and events ‘represent a variety of attempts to resist the ephemerality of the relationship between music and place’. The relationship between music and its place of production should be easier to negotiate, yet as we have seen and experienced, traditional recording studios in urban contexts, when considered simply as spaces, have a surprising tendency towards a bland homogeneity. It is easier therefore to imagine the ‘creation’ of disco and the early recordings produced by Moroder and Summer in such a modern space, prior to Musicland’s later development, although it would be a mistake perhaps to think that these sonic experiments could not have occurred elsewhere, given Moroder’s musical background and evolving knowledge of recording techniques. It was felt however that this was an idea worthy of further exploration and that an inquiry through a critically-focused archaeological lens may result in the production of a more nuanced narrative.


Bogenhausen is today dominated by the triangular Hypo-Hochhaus, a massive steel and glass edifice constructed between 1975 and 1981 which serves as the headquarters of the HypoVereinsbank. The building features on the inner sleeve of ELO’s Time (1981), perhaps a nod to a new modernism being forged by the band in an adjacent concrete basement. The Arabella-Hochhaus has perhaps seen better days and it is not difficult to understand how it would have dominated the landscape prior to the construction of its taller neighbour. The neighbourhood was extensively redeveloped in the 1980s and 1990s and the anodyne architecture of corporate Bavaria is the dominant form in the surrounding streets. This rebuilding and change is a constant theme in urban archaeology, where the pace of transformation often renders it impossible to write a coherent past, leaving perhaps too much to the imagination. This is even more the case in areas outside of the historic core, where there is little of the past to preserve.

Recording studios appear custom-made for archaeological investigation and interpretation. As analogue technology changed over the ‘60s and ‘70s, so did the studios, although the physical layout tended to remain conventional, if not rigidly conservative. The digital revolution of the 1980s brought further changes to the technological hardware available, yet most studios contacted as part of this project would admit to holding on to more obsolete equipment, where the second-hand market in analogue equipment only took off with the advent of the internet in the early 2000s. With yet more recent technological advances brought on by software such as Pro Tools, many such facilities have closed down over the past several years. In some cases they have become heritage destinations in their own right and some, such as Sun Studios in Memphis TN combine both functions, although actual recording appears to be a small part of the business today.

When considering the heritage of Musicland as the birthplace of disco, we made a conscious decision to ignore other, later aspects of the studio’s history, information which can easily be attained by accessing websites associated with specific bands who recorded there until its closure. Indeed the subsequent success of Musicland was perhaps simply a function of the proximity of an international airport facilitating British tax exiles and the availability of good beer (or in Freddie Mercury’s case, where Munich was found to be ‘a cornucopia of forbidden pleasures’). As studios by definition tend to be relatively homogeneous in terms of layout and equipment, bands such as ELO and Queen could have conceivably recorded anywhere such conditions existed, although Mack’s input is possibly an important, though generally unacknowledged contributing factor.

The studio was stripped out in 1987 and the spaces appear to have been used for storage in recent years. In the absence of available early photographic footage, a documentary on the recording of Queen’s ‘One Vision’ in late 1985 gives a claustrophobic insight into the layout of the original studio. Here, the recreation areas were approached down a narrow flight of stairs; a solitary pinball machine took up a corner of a small corridor where a home-made table and bench in cheap painted timber occupied a corner of an adjacent small room. Off this space was another similar room with another less than comfortable table and bench arrangement placed in a corner. A dark corridor led off to the sound room where the performances were recorded, with the control room evident at a slightly higher level behind a large glass window, replete with the Harrison desk, monitors and comfortable chairs for the playback. Off the main room was a small space to isolate the drum kit (or the drummer), a feature common to all recording studios of this calibre.

To a non-musician these spaces appear utterly non-conducive to the production of art in any of its forms. Irrespective of the quality of the hardware, one is reminded of the overriding theory of sound recording, exemplified in the way each individual contribution is broken down and recorded separately, to be put back together as a whole behind the mixing desk in the control room.

Yet, where musicians refer to a studio’s ambience or even its history as a contributing factor to the music they record there, can the same assumptions be made for ‘vintage’ electronic music recorded in studios in the days before Pro Tools rendered such spaces redundant? Notwithstanding ELO’s ‘disco’ album Discovery and Queen’s various attempts at the genre, all recorded at Musicland, is there any tangible way in which archaeological inquiry can articulate something of the recording process, beyond an examination of the temporal range of the equipment used and a physical survey of the spaces themselves? Further fieldwork and research in 2013 will attempt to address some of these questions.

The missing artefact

When the studio was closed up, the most up to date equipment appears to have been transferred to another studio established by Mack in the outer Munich suburbs. The earlier analogue equipment stored in Musicland appears to have been sold off or given away, including the mixing desk used by Moroder to record ‘Love to Love You Baby’. Inquiries to date suggest that the desk was taken away by another producer associated with the studio, Jürgen Koppers, and that it survives today in a barn in Upper Bavaria. It is hoped to identify and secure the equipment as part of the greater project.


The Musicland project has thrown some light on a perception of disco as a uniquely American construct by recognising another, earlier European dimension, one undoubtedly nuanced by centuries of cultural exchange and movement. The project has further underlined the value of taking an explicitly archaeological approach to the more ephemeral material culture of late modernity, by the simple evocation of Musicland as an archaeological site in its own right. There is nonetheless little to see in Musicland today beyond the bare concrete walls and superfluous wiring and our initial visit did not extend beyond the corridor at the base of the stairs. Yet there is undoubtedly a feeling to be had here, something similar to that experienced when visiting an abandoned, unmediated archaeological site. For Musicland is a place where the past remains somewhat legible, though imperfectly, in the very built fabric, a past nonetheless as real as the music streaming through the headphones or pounding out of the bass bins in the clubs.


Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London.

Buskin, R. 2009. ‘Classic tracks: Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’’. Sound On Sound [http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct09/articles/classictracks_1009.htm, as accessed 24/05/2012].

Byrne, D. 2012. How Music Works. Edinburgh.

Graves-Brown, P. 2012. ‘Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End’. In S. May, H. Orange and S. Penrose (eds.) The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past, Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology 7, BAR International Series 2362, Oxford, 63-76.

Tarlow, S. and West, S. (eds.) 1999. The Familiar Past?: Archaeologies of Later Historical Britain. London.


In small things remembered; the sponge decorated ceramics from Inishark, Galway. With apologies to Jim Deetz.

[This is the text of a paper I gave at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference at Leicester in January 2013. I didn’t play this on the day as Ciaran Concannon screened his own material and as a doctrinaire post-punk, I’m relatively agnostic towards diddly-eye (especially when used by academics to jazz-up Powerpoint presentations of the deserving peasantry), but this is worth a listen as you read the following… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASKwb3lZKz4 The Bothies added an element of the attack of punk to the tradition and provide excellent driving music when you want to get from Dublin to Cleggan in under four hours…]

tattiehowkers1Tattie hokers in Merkland Farm, Sorn, Ayrshire (1890s?) (John Clark Maddison)


In April last year I was asked by Ian Kuijt of the University of Notre Dame to visit his excavations on Inishark with a view to looking at the ceramics assemblage. This had been recovered from several cuttings around some of the nineteenth-century houses comprising the village at the southeastern corner of the island. Now I am not by any stretch of the imagination a ceramicist, however, on an initial appraisal, the assemblage appeared to comprise the usual nineteenth-century mass-produced transfer-printed wares along with the usual Rockingham-type teapots (Hughes n.d.). This was all quite ubiquitous stuff and not, it must be said, terribly exciting. For this was an assemblage one would generally encounter from sites of this period in any context, urban or rural, with perhaps fewer examples of coarse earthenware present than one would otherwise expect. And in this respect there is an immediate analogy to be made with the Slievemore assemblage on Achill Island which I’ll return to in a moment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIntact Spongeware bowl from House 8, Inishark

So, from my own perspective, this particular assemblage did not appear to be significantly different from anything I’d seen before in urban contexts, excepting perhaps the percentage of Spongewares coming up in the finds trays. And here, out on Shark, Spongeware comprised perhaps 40% of the entire ceramic assemblage. Indeed, only one site I’d previously excavated — in Dublin’s southwestern inner city — had yielded even a few sherds of Spongeware (Myles 2005). These had come from post-demolition disturbed strata, however up to ten individual pieces were present from the same household in one of the ‘poorest’ parts of the city. On a much larger site at Smithfield across the Liffey, where late nineteenth-century contexts were fully excavated by hand, there was no Spongeware recovered at all, and this was from an assemblage of something over 11,000 refined white-ware sherds (Myles 2002, 2003 and in prep.).

17.2.04 005Spongeware sherds from Ardee Street, Dublin 8

There is little evidence that significant quantities of Spongeware have been deposited with the National Museum of Ireland from excavations elsewhere in the city and indeed throughout the country; there may however be some confusion with Spatterwares, pottery seen more frequently in the United States although not unknown in rural Irish contexts. In fact Charles Orser illustrated several Spatterware sherds from a nineteenth-century settlement in Ballykilcline in northeastern Roscommon (Brighton and Levon White in Orser (ed.) 2006a) and this would appear to be the only exposure the material has received in the Irish literature, whatever of its presence in unpublished excavation reports.

This paper however deals specifically with Spongeware and indeed, no sherds of Spatterware were recovered from Inishark. So, first of all what is Spongeware, and how can we as archaeologists posit a meaningful connection between this material and those who lived on Shark until the evacuation of 1960? What, if anything, can we extrapolate of its significance; what can be said of the meaning this pottery might have had for those who’d acquired it, by whatever means? Is there indeed any meaning to be taken from the Spongeware in Shark at all, beyond a normative acceptance of the fact that islanders were consumers of mass-produced ceramics, one at odds with a still-prevalent notion of a population existing in a crepuscular post-Celtic time warp and all that implies in terms of the acquisition and consumption of material culture from the urban, industrialised United Kingdom.

This morning I’ll be using the presence of Spongewares on Inishark to interrogate concepts of aesthetics from a post-Marxist perspective, questioning the very notion of ‘insularity’ and all of its negative associations in terms of the survival strategies employed by the people of the island in the context of the development of the cash economy.


Once the distinction with Spatterware is made, Spongeware is quite easily defined and identifiable. The ware came from a variety of potteries, mostly in Scotland but from Stoke on Trent and smaller production centres too, with the decoration applied (according to one authority) by unskilled young women on precarious piecework rates (Kelly et al. 2001); Spongeware was by no stretch of the imagination a luxury product (Miller 1980 and 1991 and Cruikshank 1982), but it is undeniably more attractive than the more common transfer-printed wares.

IMG_7331Spongewares from House 20, Inishark

Spongeware, as identified here, was produced over a generally accepted period of between 1835 and 1935. A variant was produced for a while in Belleek, but this was seemingly only undertaken when orders were slack for their fine-wares and few, if any, stamped examples appear to survive (Degenhardt 1978 and Gordon 1980).

With the expectation that the bulk of production would be exported or distributed locally by travelling peddlers, few if any potteries bothered advertising; one account suggests that some producers may have been embarrassed to be associated with the manufacture of such base wares. Production was, in any event, more than likely directed at the export market. Where Colin Breen recovered quantities of Spongeware from the wreck of The Taymouth Castle, which sank off Antrim in 1867 en route to the Far East (Callaghan, Breen and Ní Loingsigh 2007), the wares produced in Scotland were also being shipped across the Atlantic in some quantities.

The design, once selected, was simply impressed on the piece — usually a less refined white-ware, sometimes described as biscuit — using the root of a sponge cut into the desired shape. The overlap at the beginning and end of the rim design is often disjointed, where the motifs themselves applied to the body often present as charmingly amateurish cut-outs, representing petals, chevrons, flowers and occasionally bows. The colours are vivid with equal amounts of red, green and purple used on earlier pieces, with sometimes two or three colours used together. The covering glaze often appears to be stronger than that of the transfer-printed wares and their ilk, and this is something which may be worth further analytical investigation.

IMG_6845Spongeware saucer from House 8, Inishark

By about 1870, the designs become more complicated and often flowers, birds, animals and insects were represented with a greater variety of colours used again, up to four or occasionally five on the one piece. After the turn of the twentieth century the interior bases of the bowls and the rims of the plates were sometimes printed with mottos; designs became fussier and more of the body of the vessel became covered. There would appear to have been specific market for children’s’ wares but interestingly enough, there are no known later pieces manufactured expressly as location-specific souvenirs.

IMG_6850Spongeware soupbowl from House 8, Inishark

This is perhaps significant when the developing trajectory of mass-tourism is considered, facilitated by the same newly-developed railway infrastructure which threw Scotland to the forefront of potato production in the UK from the 1880s. Indeed, seasonal migration to Scotland became central to the cash economy of Inishark from this period onwards, along with the processing of kelp in the several kilns which await further investigation on the island.

On Inishark there are no examples of these later, more specific trends in Spongeware and it would appear likely that the assemblage here represents a production period somewhere prior to 1870 with perhaps a few individual pieces with thistles, spiral and flower motifs post-dating this cut off point, oft-mentioned in the published literature (see for example Kelly 2001).

IMG_6858Spongeware saucer from House 8, Inishark

It is difficult, if not impossible to identify individual potteries from excavated assemblages; it is hard enough to distinguish individual traits in extant pieces. Few appear to have been marked or stamped, an extra expense when workers were on piecework; it may even be likely that the pieces were decorated in workshops outside of the actual potteries where the basic wares were fired. In any event, designs and colours cross-pollinated and flourished from pottery to pottery and indeed across the Atlantic, where Spongeware happily coexists with Spatterware to this day.

IMG_6861Intact Spongeware bowl from House 8, Inishark

Spongeware is on the whole though mostly associated in the published literature with Scotland and it came in many forms. Where bowls and cups appear to predominate throughout the Inishark assemblage, there are larger plates and milk jugs represented in other collections. And I think that in this case, size is important when we consider how the material may have arrived on the island.

IMG_7989Yup, well the paper was about Spongeware…

Excavated sites

Spongeware sherds have of course been excavated in some quantities along the western seaboard of Ireland and Scotland, so-called congested districts, often treated as marginal places in the social historiography. Indeed they were recovered more locally in some quantities from another island context, from the ‘deserted village’ on Achill, some 40km to the north of Inishark. Here, it’s been demonstrated by Brannon and Horning that up to as much as 80% of all ceramics recovered from two of the houses excavated comprised refined white wares, most of which were Spongewares comprising perhaps some 13% to 16% of the total artefact assemblage (N.F. Brannon pers. comm.).

The recovery of tea wares on Achill threw a few shots across the bows at what had become and indeed remains a received post-colonial narrative permeating the social sciences in Ireland, one indeed which has yet to catch up with the present crisis in global capitalism. Where it’s certainly reasonable to critique the ‘marginal’ nature of such landscapes by interrogating consumer choices seemingly at odds with received subaltern narratives of poverty and class oppression, it’s perhaps worth considering Norman Emery’s excavations on St. Kilda in the 1970s, where the presence of Spongewares was considered indicative of a choice to buy Scottish, irrespective of the low cost to the consumer relative to other wares [my emphasis] (Emery 1996).

Closer to Inishark other theoretical approaches have been taken, where consumer choice when it comes to pottery acquisition has become almost a political tool in the on-going war against the oppressor (see Horning 2006 and Orser 2006b). Reluctant as I as am to engage here with the theoretical battles fought out in the literature, I’ve been struck recently by accounts from working-class Dublin households during the 1913 Lockout where crockery, or delph as it’s always referred to, figures prominently in nearly all of the texts and newspaper reports. What really comes out is how few individual ceramic pieces existed in the typical household, and indeed, the particular attention paid by the Dublin Metropolitan Police to their destruction (Yeates 2000). This paucity of household ceramics is well illustrated in the hundreds of photographs of the period in the collection of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Corlett 2008) and one can only wonder at what sort of overtime payments the police would have received had they had jurisdiction over the ceramic-rich households of Inishark and Achill.

Poverty is however a notoriously difficult concept in archaeological discourse and I don’t think it’s particularly useful here to make sweeping statements. However, all the archaeological evidence suggests that mass-produced ceramics were more common per capita in working class households on Inishark and Achill than they were in Dublin, at least in the years prior to the First World War. This itself is a remarkable statement to make and one which deserves further research and consideration.

Accepting the obvious absence of evidence from other sites around the country, it is next necessary to ask why the vast majority of Spongeware sherds recovered in the Republic have been found in island contexts. The island locations would possibly dictate against the material being purchased by peddlers or travelling salesmen, but this cannot completely be discounted. So, how did they get to the islands and perhaps more importantly, why were they so popular?

Spongeware on Shark and Bofin

Although present in virtually all of the trenches excavated on Inishark, the incidence of Spongewares was perhaps amplified by the recovery of two almost intact bowls from House 8, where it would appear they were left with other artefacts on a dresser after the house was abandoned. Based on an interpretation of the surviving data, it is possible that a Michael Lavelle lived in this house in 1855 and indeed the structure is depicted on the 1898 edition of the Ordnance Survey 25” mapping. Where the stratigraphical evidence would suggest that the building was simply abandoned and suffered subsequent structural failure, oral histories of the island make no reference to a house at this location. In fact, football was played on the site by island boys in the 1940s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn situ occupational debris, House 8, Inishark

Well over half the sherds recovered from House 8 were Spongewares representing at least 16 individual pieces including saucers, bowls, a tea cup and a sugar bowl, none of them part of a matching set. Irrespective of the semi-intact pieces recovered, the remaining sherds were generally larger than those sherds recovered from other trenches, suggesting they had fallen from a dresser on the collapse of the house, as opposed to their being discarded after breakage.

Other Spongeware sherds were recovered elsewhere in the topsoil and the layer immediately below, where they may have been re-deposited from nearby middens to build up and fertilise the fields. In any event, the team mostly recovered small sherds with polychrome, cut-sponge designs running around the rims of what were mostly bowls and saucers, with a few non-matching cup fragments present. There were no sets recorded and there are perhaps over 620 individual pieces represented. There was no evidence for the presence of what Dublin children would have called ‘chanies’, broken sherds ground down to a roughly circular shape and used in street games. In fact the only ceramic evidence for a child’s plaything recovered on Shark was the tiny heel of a porcelain doll.

The suggestion of a dresser display in House 8 introduces a second element of this investigation, evident on the shelves of the public bar of Murray’s Hotel on neighbouring Inishbofin. Here, and indeed in several other households on the island, intact Spongeware pieces survive, predominantly tea cups and milk jugs. These are displayed with an array of other types, usually large transfer-printed platters in the usual patterns, which may have been purchased from shops in Westport or Clifden on the mainland. In this regard, Westport had four earthenware dealers listed in the 1846 edition of Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland where Clifden, the less well established ‘capital of Connemara’ had three. Some of the pieces on display in Murray’s have an Inishark provenance, others are Inishbofin hand-me-downs with no further details of their origin given apart from the oft-proffered observation that they’re ‘prettier’ than the more common transfer-printed wares.

Jane Webster’s work in the Hebrides, where again specifically Scottish Spongewares are well represented in dresser displays (1999) has brought another approach to the study of ceramics consumption, introducing notions of display and curation. This has picked up and amplified Henry Glassie’s wide-ranging work conducted in south Fermanagh over a slightly earlier period in the 1970s. Glassie encountered Belleek Spongeware in the dressers of Ballymenone and in a few beautifully written paragraphs, he expresses something of how this material transcends its primary function, effectively becoming objects of art to be displayed and indeed curated (Glassie 1982). According to Glassie ‘old delph is preserved for display to be beautiful, to become a memory’.

Tattie howking

So, getting back to how Spongeware got to places like Shark, Bofin and Achill, the most obvious direct connection with the place of production is by means of the seasonal migration of labourers from the islands (and indeed mainland areas of Mayo, Donegal and Tyrone) to the Scottish potato harvest. It is interesting in this regard that the secondary literature suggests Achill as being the southern limit of this activity, and there is little evidence that such seasonal migration occurred from the islands further to the south (O’Dowd 1991). Shark and Bofin did however contribute to the workforce which would travel to Scotland from June to October each year, returning with cash and other perhaps other, more intangible goods to the islands.

irelandLimit of seasonal tattie-howking

If I may be allowed digress for a moment and take you away from Inishark, tattie howkers were generally accommodated together in gangs, moving from harvest to harvest, hardly ever staying at one bothy for more than four weeks. The bothies themselves were invariably briars or barns, with few accounts of temporary structures being utilised. In most accounts these had recently been cleaned out and whitewashed, although there was little attempt make to control rodent infestation. Most accounts have the workers sleeping on upturned seed boxes, with straw stuffed into a grain sack occasionally comprising a mattress. They slept under the thin cover of hessian sacking, with very few references to heating or ventilation within the bothies. This accommodation was provided free by the farmer or the potato company which took the crop. The workers were also provided with as many potatoes as they could eat and one of the gang was usually delegated as the cook.

Something which does not emerge from the secondary literature is the specifically urban location of many of these bothies within the small towns of Ayrshire and right up through the central lowlands and the east coast. The best officially documented of these bothies was on East High Street in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, some 15km to the northeast of Glasgow. In this bothy ten young Achill boys were killed in 16 September 1937 by a fire which swept through the building as they slept. Other accounts of less well known conflagrations also suggest an urban context for these bothies, bringing their inhabitants into the towns and closer to the shops where commodities could be purchased.

bothyEastside, Kirkintilloch

Now, in the midst of this narrative of doom and gloom it is not inconceivable that individual pieces of inexpensive pottery were brought back to the islands as presents for display on dressers or even for use.

Whither insularity?

There are several ways by which the condition of insularity can be negotiated, in either its literal or metaphorical sense, leading us perhaps in a more theoretical direction. As Meagan Conway will doubtless demonstrate when I (eventually) finish, the ultimate survival strategy on Inishark involved emigration to the States, most notably to Clinton MA where an expatriate community was well established by the 1920s. Yet the very insularity of life on Shark was one supported by good grazing, bountiful fishing, a cash crop in the form of kelp processing and indeed the monies brought back from the Scottish harvests. With this came a healthy cultural existence and indeed little conflict with the (Catholic) landlord and indeed the state. The eventual desertion of the island came relatively late in the sequence of other island evacuations along the western seaboard and was prompted by a single traumatic occurrence, one which only pre-dated an emergency helicopter service by eight years.

When considering life on Shark after the Famine, one can appreciate a community adjusting and adapting readily to changing conditions, one indeed considerably better housed and equipped by the first decade of the twentieth century than the urban working classes. There still persists nonetheless the image of the peasant in the cabin as caricatured in the London press, one in possession of a limited material culture where the opportunity of taking decisions based on aesthetic choices alone might be considered an unattainable or even unnecessary luxury.

Ceramic objects of the past fulfilled a role of utilitarian survival and also man’s natural tendency to create and decorate. When the choice of ceramics in common usage on the island is considered, it’s crucial to remember that those who purchased, used and displayed this pottery should not be denied the same sense of aesthetic appreciation we have today.


In conclusion, one interesting direction in the work being undertaken by Ian and his various associates has been their following that story of the people of Inishark as they travelled across the Atlantic, settling into specifically urban settings in North America. For we have again become a nation of emigrants, and emigration of course, has a special poignancy of its own. One wonders then if any examples of Spongeware ever made it across to places like Clinton, MA as a family heirloom, a memento or keepsake of the old life on the island.

Looking further backwards in time, Ian and his crew have investigated something of House 25, a hidden structure located on a cliff edge to the southeast of the village, gone prior to the Ordnance Survey in the late 1830s. When I first came to Shark last June I thought, or rather hoped, I’d be looking at lots of Iberian imports, or at least some interesting tin-glazed with the possibility of some late Galway local wares. What I found instead, and I hope you’ll all agree, is a lot more interesting.


Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, 1846

Beaudry. M.C. 2007. ‘Preface: Historical Archaeology with Canon on the Side, Please’, in McAtackney, L., Palus, M. and Piccini, A. (eds) Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory. Papers from the 2003 and 2004 CHAT Conferences. BAR International Series 1677, 1-4, Oxford.

Brighton, S.A. and Levon White, J.M. 2006. ‘Teacups, saucers and dinner plates: English ceramic exports to Ballykilcline’, in C.E. Orser Jr. (ed.) Unearthing Hidden Ireland, 109-139, Bray.

Callaghan, C., Breen, C. and Ní Loingsigh, M. 2007. ‘Investigations of Taymouth Castle, a nineteenth-century composite ship lost off the coast of Northern Ireland’. Historical Archaeology, 41 (3), 25-38.

Corlett, C. 2008. Darkest Dublin. The story of the Church Street disaster and a pictorial account of the slums of Dublin in 1913. Bray.

Cruikshank, G. 1982. Scottish Spongeware. Edinburgh

Degenhardt, R.K. 1978. Belleek: The complete collector’s guide and illustrated reference, Huntington, N.Y.

Emery, N. 1996. Excavations on Hirta 1986-1990. Edinburgh.

Glassie. H. 1982. Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Dublin.

Horning, A. 2006a. ‘Archaeology, conflict, and contemporary identity in the north of Ireland: Implications for theory and practice in Irish historical archaeology’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 183-200.

———— 2006b. ‘Focus found. New directions for Irish historical archaeology’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 211-19.

Hughes, G.B. n.d. English and Scottish Earthenware 1660-1860. London.

Kelly, H.E., Kowalsky, A.A. and Kowalsky, D.E. 2001. Spongeware, 1835-1935: Makers, Marks, and Patterns, Atglen, PA.

Miller, G.L. 1980. ‘Classification and Economic Scaling of 19th Century Ceramics’, Historical Archaeology. 14, 2-39.

———— 1991. ‘A Revised Set of CC Index Values for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from 1787 to 1880’. Historical Archaeology, 25, 1-23.

Myles, F. 2002. ‘Smithfield, Dublin 7’, in I. Bennett (ed.) Excavations 2003, No. 578, 155-7, Bray.

———— 2003. ‘Smithfield, Dublin 7’, in I. Bennett (ed.) Excavations 2004, No. 581, 154-5, Bray.

———— 2005. ‘24-26 Ardee Street, Dublin 8’. Unpublished stratigraphical report submitted to National Monuments Service.

———— in prep. Archaeological excavations in Smithfield, Dublin 7.

O’Dowd, A. 1991. Spalpeens and tattie hokers history and folklore of the Irish migratory agricultural worker in Ireland and Britain. Dublin.

Orser, C.E. Jr. (ed.). 2006a. Unearthing Hidden Ireland, Bray.

———— 2006b. ‘On finding focus’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 202-5.

Webster, J. 1999. ‘Resisting Traditions: Ceramics, Identity, and Consumer Choice in the Outer Hebrides from 1800 to the Present’. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3, 1, 53-73.

Yeates, P. 2000. Lockout. Dublin 1913. Dublin.

Digging on Bofin

I’ve always been attracted to working on islands. Maybe it’s something deeply buried in my fractured psychological profile, an idea that you can actually come from some place easily circumnavigable over a few hours, with strict boundaries imposed by the sea and the tides. Maybe it’s an already doomed-to-failure attempt to supplant one familiar world with another, a world enriched with limited mobile phone coverage and a proper disregard for the Intoxicating Liquor Act. Maybe it’s to do with the very first excavation I took a wage from, on a tiny island in Lough Erne, a dig which more or less set me on the indigent rutted path I’ve followed ever since. But less please of the languid inland waterways and bogs, it’s the islands off the west coast I’m particularly attracted to and the ever-changing seas that surround them in a complex holding pattern, one both nurturing and oppressive. I’ve added another island to the list this summer, directing a 12-day stint on the eastern shoreline of Inishbofin in Galway and this time around I left the tent in the shed and was superbly accommodated in Murray’s hotel on the coast at Fawnmore, about an hour’s walk away from the site at the Portíns.


The dig was funded by the University of Notre Dame. I’d worked with them last year on neighbouring Inishark and compiled a ceramics report of an assemblage remarkable for the amount of Spongewares recovered, pottery brought back to the island by seasonal tattie-howkers from the Scottish harvests. Unlike the vast bulk of the work I undertake, designed to facilitate the rich becoming richer, the Bofin dig was conceived as a community archaeology event, where the entire population of the local national school joined us for several days of excavation in their lime green tee-shirts especially designed for the occasion. This was an entirely positive experience, doubtless helped along by the glorious weather, but I think the kids got as much out of their participation as we did. They certainly contributed to the several spoil heaps ringing the site, peat-brown tumuli against the blue-grey of the surrounding stone walls, the bases of which spilled beyond the plastic sheeting carefully placed to contain their volume. The cairns of smaller stones were assembled by the archaeologists, with larger boulders rolled away from the baulks on timber fencing posts, recalling what must have happened in the past. We were joined in our endeavours by other local people and a few tourists who’d heard about the dig and were willing to enjoy a few hours at the end of a Marshalstown trowel. They were set with the task of looking for the primary floor levels of the two structures chosen for excavation, and this they did, unencumbered with the digger’s jaded ennui of finding yet another sherd of refined whiteware.


The crew comprised Ian Kuijt and his wife Meredith Chesson, along with several of their students from ND, most of whom were veterans of Ian’s previous investigations in the area as part of the CLIC (Cultural Landscapes of the Irish Coast) project. Two ND undergraduates were part of the team, along with several post-graduates who’d gone on to pursue their studies in other schools across the States. Katie Shakour gamely undertook initiating the many visitors to the complexities of the site, where the recording and drawing were managed by Meagan Conway, assisted by Lauren Couey. Lauren uncomplainingly ranged around the walls of the houses bagging the finds as they came up out of the ground with an enthusiasm well beyond the call of duty.


Unlike other of their compatriots I’ve worked with in the past, the crew melded with the local community to the extent that Ian and Meredith’s daughter Kat has spent the past few weeks attending the local two-teacher school. The rest of them have spent the past few weeks attending evening extra-murals at Murray’s bar, a place where intelligent conversations can be had covering topics as wide-ranging as Judith Butler on Hagel, problems of historical cartography, the theatre that is the League of Ireland, contemporary electronic music and the life cycle of the corncrake.

On the latter, there appear to be at least 16 on the island this summer, the most recorded since 1972. They were heard to good effect last Sunday evening as people travelled around the island to the various bonfires lit for St. John’s Eve. This was a beautiful still night, lit by the full moon and the flames leaping from three of the high points along the island. High Island (another previous haunt of mine) and the Aughris peninsula stood out on the southern horizon, the latter crowned by another, less-impressive bonfire. From the heights at Fawnmore we could see the lighthouse on Slyne Head wink back at the beacon at the mouth of Bofin harbour, with the stunted gables of Cromwell’s Barracks leaving a serrated edge to the moonlight on the sea behind. When we lit the John’s Eve bonfire on High several years ago, we counted over 40 fires extending from Slyne to the south, northwards to Achill and Inishturk. There seemed to be fewer this year, but events on Bofin kicked off a bit later than on the mainland and we possibly missed the initial mainland conflagrations ensconced as we were in Murray’s enjoying the session. As I walked through Middlequarter early in the morning with one of the visiting volunteers, our quiet conversation was silenced by the smoke still lying low in the valley west of the lake, drifting over the sleeping sheep and soundtracked by the minimalist techno of two corncrakes in the long grass behind King’s house.

The night before saw the 80th birthday of Margaret Murray, chatelaine of the Doonmore Hotel, where the post-excavation ‘lab’ – the function room at the back of the hotel – accommodated most of the islanders invited to the party, along with the ND crew and some random visitors. This went on until 6.00 and was recorded in the lens of Marie Coyne who runs the local museum at the top of the old pier. You can see her photographs of the evening here https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.482585521834835.1073741860.137473309679393&type=1

Marie has assembled some striking images with her camera over the past number of years, documenting daily life on the island and paying meticulous attention to the material culture of the houses now abandoned, structures which still hold the possessions echoing the presence of their former occupants. But what of those structures left longer abandoned on the southeastern periphery of the island, houses whose occupants are nameless and unrecorded?

Tommy Burke, a Fawnmore man studying archaeology in Galway, had previously identified the footprints of the buildings at the Portíns, an area just south of and uphill from the isthmus connecting Bofin with Inishlyon. Jumping out of the minibus at the side of the road, we walked to site each morning along the machair behind the beach at Dumhach and along a clear path carved out of the rocky shoreline to the houses by the Congested Districts Board. These presented on the landscape as large rectangular spaces, their stone boundaries peeking out of the sod along several of the small valleys dropping to the sea from Knock hill. The settlement would have been the first port of call on the island when coming in from Cleggan, and three beach-pebble coves between the low cliffs would easily have accommodated the currachs used for fishing and generally getting around the coast. The houses were more of less gone by the publication of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey in 1838, however they were depicted c. 1816 to an acceptable spatial accuracy on Bald’s map of Mayo. They don’t appear on Murdoch Mackenzie’s sea chart of 1775, but it is likely the houses were only visible from the ocean when tacking close to the rocks west of Inishlyon and you can’t blame him for keeping his ship well out to sea, given the prevailing southwesterly winds.


Ian commissioned a survey of the area from an old colleague of mine, Liam Murphy of Coastway, whose team produced an amazing image from a combination of the usual survey and terrestrial LiDAR. On a good day a few weeks ago, they flew a small drone over the site and the combination of all three techniques supplied an image sufficiently accurate to blow up to 1/20, from which we could trace on the upstanding walls and use as a base drawing for the trenches we opened across the area. I’m swooping over the unexcavated site now at my desk in a cramped untidy office on the other side of the country, a giddy seagull’s view which picks up the contours of the lazy beds in the surrounding infields and the stone boundary walls built by the Congested Districts Board quite soon after the publication of the 25” map in 1912.

I was initially taken by the proximity of St. Coleman’s monastery in the valley back to the northwest and the apparent lack of associated structures around the medieval church. The settlement at the Portíns appeared an obvious candidate to house a medieval population and became even more so as we excavated the interiors and recorded the massive boulders hewn out of the landscape to shape their foundations. They seemed to my mind similar to the large rectangular medieval structures excavated by Alan Hayden on Bray Head in Valentia Island and I’m afraid I had the crew convinced that we were about to intrude into the fourteenth century, when events would show that we were exactly where we thought we were in time and space.


The first surprise was the appearance of a spearhead from prehistory, preserved in the collapsed masonry of the upper of the two houses we investigated. This was presumably dug up with the sods that formed the superstructure of the structures and had fallen in the rubble after abandonment, to be carefully recovered years later by a recent archaeology graduate who’d volunteered a few days before taking an unpaid internship in a local authority heritage office. As we continued down through the layers and structures, we recorded how the stream running off the hill was accommodated across the site in zig-zagging drains and through the interior layout of the spaces, their upper stone courses robbed out by those paid by the yard to construct the surrounding stone boundary walls in the early twentieth century.

The recovery of some Creamware under an interior paving slab, resting on a prepared surface over the subsoil, suggested that the houses were indeed from the late eighteenth century; however it was evident that this was inconsequential and completely irrelevant to those who came around to enjoy the banter, the muck and the ever changing vistas back across the sea to Ballinakill Harbour and to the Twelve Bens defining the eastern horizon. The crack on site was good. I’d realised that when standing in my own trench linking the two houses, I had a plausible mobile signal providing an unwelcome connection to events unfolding at the other side of the country. My ‘business dealings’ were being overheard by the crew who delighted in such advice proffered as ‘softly softly catchee monkey’ and ‘tell them I’m in the fucking hospital’, giving a skewed though enjoyable insight into the life of someone trying to make a living out of this type of work in another economy…

Doing this type of archaeology has other benefits in the wider scheme of things. We had several conversations about mortair, the preparation of bedrock chippings and clay with sand and lime, used as a binding agent similar to the way the dóib bhuí is used in east Clare. We could appreciate the fundamental beauty of the place in all weathers: it wasn’t always sub-tropical and the rain, when it came, rendered my Gortex jacket about as useful as old newsprint. We understood both the attraction of living on the island and the reality of extracting something of a hard living from the place, providing perhaps a more nuanced link with an undefinable past. For cultural landscapes are understood here not as remnants of a half-forgotten past, but as something as alive today as the battered vehicles that get you from a to b when the occasion warrants, events evoked at boisterous parties for 80 year olds, discussed around mid-summer bonfires on the island’s hilltops and in hushed conversations along the roadside at one o’clock in the morning. Here the past isn’t the past at all, but an on-going present where the future is but an occasional abstraction.

Yet this is not to romanticise the place. As I watched the island minibus being lifted onto the weekly cargo ferry for mechanical attention on the mainland, it was not difficult to see something of the limitations of living in a place such as Bofin, where most of the money is made in the summer months of the tourist season. As I came back on the ferry to Cleggan I was chatting to a friend I’d made on the island, a marine biologist working on another internship with a mainland institute whose Swiss boyfriend lives beside the lake which gives the island its name. As we watched Bofin recede in the wake of the ferry around Cleggan Head, we wondered if our cars had survived the few days left on the quayside behind Oliver’s. We’d been talking about our chances of making a living on the island but framed completely in an abstract language, as a notional contribution to an already vibrant society of free-thinkers, one perhaps more welcoming and open as any of the communities I’ve worked with beyond the mountains to the east. We both reckoned we wouldn’t hack it as we got into our cars for the long trip back to our real lives. I imagine though we’ll probably talk about it again in Murray’s before the summer’s out.


This is on tonight if anyone’s around Dublin…


Public lecture: The Parish of Tulla: an unexplored archaeological landscape

The Tulla Courthouse Committee presents a talk by Franc Myles on the hidden value of the archaeological landscapes of the parish. Franc has directed three excavations on the Hill of Tulla and has been involved in the conservation of the old church as a ruin for several years.

More recently, Franc has identified some new sites and monuments in the parish using Google Earth and nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps. This presents Tulla at the centre of a multi-period landscape, rich in archaeological monuments of all ages.

All of this archaeological work has implications for our historical understanding of the parish’s development from the Tuath Mhór of the MacNamaras through to the settlement of the parish after the Cromwellian settlements. There are still many clues out there in the landscape that give shape to those events.

But before that again is evidence for several different earlier landscapes, suggested by monuments, place names and the very shape of the fields, the lakes and the hills.

It’s free in and we might go for a few jars across the road afterwards.

Tesco foiled again by the Liberty Boys in another northside rumble.

I just heard this morning that Tesco have again been denied permission to open an off licence in Smithfield, at the sign, indeed, of the White Swan. As anyone who’s had a pint with me over the past two years well knows, this is the fourth time now we’ve beaten them at the planning game. I’m so happy I’ve given the workers the morning off. As I’m enjoying Lightning Hopkins up here on Benburb Street I gaze out the window towards the White Swan and the gallows beyond and promise to myself ‘there will be no more executions in Smithfield!’

Now you will mind the time I was well vexed at having to leave the Complex. I was annoyed, and then came the trip to the courts and all that palarver. But perhaps I’d really been more exercised, indeed fascinated, by Tesco’s blundersome arrogance and astonishing sense of entitlement. All the more so as these have nurtured a remarkable ineptitude on the part of the company when it comes to engaging with planning in this country. It was to become for me an urban nightmare of retail topography that only Joyce himself could possibly have foreseen: how the fuck to cross the city without passing a multinational supermarket or anodyne convenience store.

Worthy of consideration is the fact that these particular units are owned by us, yup, through NAMA. Not the loans, the actual concrete blocks and glass: the very spaces themselves. And all theatres, as you know, have ghosts. As you’ll read below, if you have the patience, NAMA was raised (and quite correctly so) in our submission, yet it was not considered an issue by the Board’s inspector, or even mentioned in passing.

We considered this an issue of national importance in terms of planning jurisprudence and as such, had requested an Oral Hearing, i.e. a public hearing of the case where we’d have the opportunity to call expert witnesses and cross examine Tesco and their planning consultants. Alas, we were denied our day in court. This of course would have provided a chance to put NAMA in the dock regarding the cultural and social dividend it’s supposed to be dispensing. They didn’t have to give an explanation for the refusal.

Whatever. It’s a result. If anyone wants a punt we could go for a judicial review on the NAMA issue as much as the Board’s decision to come down against the previous cultural uses of the spaces. Here there was no consideration given to the DCC cultural heritage framework plan for the area, or indeed to the cultural provisions of the previous HARP scheme. It remains to be seen whether Tesco will move in regardless (as they have permission to amalgamate the units) and open an illegal off licence (as they effectively did on Thomas Street). Or will they get out now after spending several hundred thousand on planning application fees, spurious alcohol surveys and consultants’ fees? And strangely enough in the media, why is it they’ve received little negative coverage on this one?

Anyways, I’ll probably post later in some more detail the practicalities of taking on Tesco and indeed winning. Every time. Thanks to everyone in Smithfield, Stoneybatter, Prussia Street, Grangegorman and North King Street who helped with submissions to DCC and the Board. It was a real community effort. DCC had to listen to you; you actually did all the work for them. It didn’t take any input from your local representatives, although they will deny this! You demonstrated in planning terms why you didn’t want Tesco in Smithfield and the planners had to agree with you. When it came to the Board… well who knows!

Below is the final observation made to An Bord Pleanála from this office. Below that again is a link to the inspector’s report. I’ll see if I can post a link to Tesco’s alcohol survey of Smithfield if you really want a good laugh.

Planning and Development Acts 2000-2011

Third party observation to An Bord Pleanála

PL29N.240820 Re. application for amalgamation and change of use, alcohol sales and change of use of Ground Floor Units 18 and 19, Block C, Smithfield Market Development, Smithfield, Dublin 7

Planning register: 2461/1

26 August 2012

1       Introduction

1.1    This is regrettably the second involvement of this office in a planning appeal regarding Tesco’s plans to open an off licence and convenience store in Block C on Smithfield. We beg to Board’s forbearance in having to deal with the same substantive issues again and apologise in advance if some of our previous observations may seem familiar.

1.2    Dublin City Council has now refused Tesco permission to operate an off licence at this location on two occasions. On the initial application (4176/10), the refusal was brought to the Board (PL29N.239124) which confirmed the planning authority’s decision regarding the provision of an off licence from Block C. Despite the appellant’s claims to the contrary in the appeal documentation, there have been no substantive changes regarding the supply of alcohol in the Smithfield area. The situation regarding public order offences resulting from alcohol abuse in the area has actually deteriorated, if Gardaí on the beat and local residents are to be believed.

1.3    This ostensibly minor planning issue in an historic backwater of Dublin is possibly becoming something of an awkward distraction for the multinational Tesco plc and indeed its shareholders. As far as this office is aware, none of latter lives within a 1km radius of Block C; it is further unlikely that any of them reside in an area known to suffer the social effects of readily available cut-price alcohol. The company’s shareholders are undoubtedly feeling the effects of the collapse of global capital; in the UK at any rate, they are watching their former customers taking their business to their cheaper competitors in droves. Their UK price cuts at Christmas have not worked and the company is rapidly loosing its market share.

It is difficult to translate the UK experience to this jurisdiction, where Tesco is not obliged to divulge its profits. A price-cutting campaign launched by the company in 2010-11 was shown to be fallacious, based on inaccurate price bases and it continues to deny that it illegally levies ‘hello money’ on new suppliers, where anecdotal evidence would strongly suggest otherwise. The company claims to support Irish suppliers but no independently audited documentation has ever been supplied to verify this. In the meanwhile many products which ostensibly appear to be of Irish origin are, on closer inspection, actually produced in the UK. The company nonetheless persists here in attacking small, traditional business neighbourhoods, while its off licences and convenience stores continue to spring up in some of the more unlikely quarters of the city.

In the short term, this has led to the several closures of more established small supermarkets, shops providing local employment and selling local produce, families and businesses which could not compete against a multinational importing beer and spirits from the UK and retailing in this jurisdiction at below net cost. In the long term, considering the continuing success of their fundamentally anti-competitive trajectory, Tesco is likely to become the largest grocery retailer in the city.

The extent to which the company can prosper in this market is a function of how well they can compete with larger retailers such as Aldi and Superquinn and Tesco can now be demonstrated to target both the smaller and the larger retailers in terms of where its new stores are being located. This we believe is a significant issue when it comes to a sustainable planning strategy for the city; it is certainly an issue which, we contend, falls well within the remit of the Board as the present appeal is being considered.

In relation to the planning of its expansion throughout the city, Tesco are no strangers to the Board (or indeed the Courts Service). Temple Bar was something of a debacle for the company, forcing a rare public outing into the courts. Tesco nonetheless succeeded, if somewhat petulantly, in opening an off licence in the very centre of an area known internationally for its drinking culture. The situation regarding non-compliance on Thomas Street in relation to the sale of alcohol must have been a further embarrassment, if indeed Tesco does embarrassment. Nonetheless, references to favourable decisions and imaginary precedents from An Bord Pleanála litter this appeal like toys thrown from a pram.

1.4      The Smithfield community has expressed its strong disapproval of Tesco’s threatened arrival in their neighbourhood. Submissions have been made to the planning authority which, we trust, are contained in the planning file requested by the Board on 13 July.

We note the planning authority’s reasoned refusal of an off licence on both previous occasions and further note the authority’s continuing support for the area’s cultural designation in conditioning a cultural requirement. This requirement is set out in Condition 3, which is also subject to this appeal. A similar condition was dismissed by the Board as being unreasonable on the previous outing, however, this is an issue we will raise again as we contend it is directly relevant to the appeal. We hope we can persuade the Board that cultural institutions can bring more to a community than an off licence can, and that this must be considered an issue of planning.

1.5    In this regard, this office is coordinating this submission on behalf of the people of the area and those local businesses (including this one) which made initial submissions on the proposed development. We trust the Board will support the decision of the planning authority and denyTesco permission to operate an off licence in Smithfield. We further hope to persuade the Board that Condition 3 of the grant from DCC is a reasonable one, in the context of Smithfield’s long being a recognised cultural hub, with Block C being specifically located within a development which benefited from substantial tax breaks without delivering on the cultural obligations contained in the initial grant of permission.

We must further contend that the only means by which Tesco can be denied the opportunity, legal or otherwise, to flood Smithfield with cut price alcohol is to overturn the planning authority’s decision to permit the amalgamation of the two units in question.

2       Zoning and amenity

2.1    We note that the Z5 zoning for the area has been established ‘to consolidate and facilitate the development of the central area, and to reinforce and strengthen and protect its civic design character and dignity’. We will return to the concept of ‘dignity’ as employed in the Development Plan.

2.2    The observation submitted by An Taisce to the planning authority recognised the presence of Fresh and contended that the provision of another supermarket on Smithfield would reduce the use mix of the area and was thus in conflict with the Z5 zoning objective. This seeks to ‘sustain life within the centre of the city through intensive mixed-use development. This strategy is to provide a dynamic mix of uses, which interact with each other, creates a sense of community and which sustains the vitality of the inner city both by day and night.’

There is no ‘dynamic mix of uses’ proposed here. Smithfield already has a supermarket and there are several more in the immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, a 10-minute walk will bring the Smithfield consumer to four stores operated by the appellant (Thomas Street, Prussia Street, Parnell Street and Jervis Street). Indeed, not only is there a superabundance of Tesco stores in this area, it can be reasonably maintained that there is a sufficiency of this retailer’s stores throughout the city as a whole.

2.3    The principal objection recorded by most of those who submitted observations to the planning authority relates to the provision of an off licence on the premises. It is entirely apposite here to consider the use of the term ‘dignity’ when considering the appeal in relation to the zoning of the area. Utilising a normative definition of the word, we ask the Board how indeed dignity can be brought to this area by a successful grant of permission on appeal.

The operation of a supermarket which relies on the provision of cut-price and below-cost alcohol to remain in profit, will undoubtedly have the effect of attracting those wishing to purchase cheap alcohol. The Board is doubtless aware of the specific situation regarding street drinkers in the Smithfield area and the presence of the nearby Capuchin Centre which caters for a vulnerable population of up to 1000 individuals every day, many of whom suffer alcohol-related problems. What beneficial effect will a new Tesco have on the dignity of these people’s lives? What ‘need’ is being demonstrated for another off licence within an area the appellants have themselves in their ‘Alcohol Sales Study’ demonstrated to be adequately served by such facilities?

We recognise nonetheless that in planning parlance, ‘dignity’ can be defined beyond the materiality of individual human experience, that it can relate to the built environment, one that has been significantly redesigned by the planning authority, at some expense. We feel it is entirely inappropriate to attract even more street drinkers to the newly landscaped square: the opening of a cut-price off licence here can only detract from the residential amenity of those living on the square or indeed those tourists staying in the hotels and hostels in the area.

2.4   Where Tesco may well argue that they are servicing local needs and demands, there has been little evidence supplied by the company to support this fact. In fact, all available evidence suggests that the only needs and demands being serviced here are Tesco’s. We thus note that the residential amenity of the residents living above the proposed convenience store has not been considered by the appellant. Deliveries will have to come via the narrow Haymarket Way to the rear of the premises, yet there has been no mention made in either of the applications of the noise and nuisance this will cause during the early hours of the morning. Although daylight delivery hours are specified in the planning condition, is it not our experience that the planning authority has enforcement officers available at the end of a phone in the early hours of the morning. The company is, in any case, well able to pay any fines incurred.

A contemptuous attitude extends to the statutory planning authorities and permeates the appeal document. The adjudication of off licences is not, in the opinion of the multinational, an issue for the planning authorities or indeed An Bord Pleanála. It is up to the ‘police’ and the courts to adjudicate on such matters, where the subject communities and the emergency services are left to pick up the pieces. We strongly reject this self-serving presumption on the part of the appellant and defer to the planning acts and the Dublin City Development Plan.

3        Off licence sales

3.1     Despite the proximity of several other stores in the immediate area trading as Tesco, there still appears to be an overriding need for the company to open another store in Smithfield. The reason of course is one centered on profitability, subject to a high turnover in alcohol sales. As is unfortunately obvious, there exists a vulnerable population of street drinkers who converge on Smithfield on a daily basis. A cut-price off licence here is in nobody’s interests apart from Tesco’s. Tesco has of course been granted permission to open a convenience store here, however such permission is of little use to the company if there is no accompanying provision for alcohol sales.

3.2    On two occasions the company has been asked by the planning authority to provide a compelling case for another off licence in the locality defined within a 1km radius. We note this information has been brought again before the Board in the form of an ‘Alcohol Sales Study’ and we concur with the local authority planner’s opinion of the questionable accuracy of the 1000m circle defining the area and the rather partial identification of each of the off licences and part off licences trading within. This attempt at statistical cartography, however misleading, is in our opinion but a minor detail and there are undeniably more serious difficulties relating to the research as presented by the company.

The bulk of the appeal document reiterates the findings of the survey adding more and more statistics to, by this stage, a rather tired narrative of ‘need’ and ‘demand’. As has been pointed out before, such data is worthless without the provision of verifiable comperanda and it is regretful that the company did not take the opportunity between the appeals to bring more focus to their compelling case.

The study has been submitted on behalf of the appellant by GVA Planning; unfortunately the author of the document has not been credited and it is thus difficult to assess his/her academic competency in undertaking and presenting such research, most of which lacks adequate bibliographical citation. This office admits to a certain bemusement on reading Section 2.3 Existing Demand, where several recent statistical surveys are latched onto in order to demonstrate a dearth of off licences throughout the subject area. We were particularly taken with the ‘robust assessment’ of the average spend of c. €3.5m on alcohol products by the residents, the working population(!) and tourists within the Smithfield local catchment. Why indeed should Tesco be denied its cut?

In any case irrespective of inaccuracies and omissions and, as such, lacking any comperanda, the information presented on the map and in the survey is actually open to any of several interpretations. One interpretation could suggest that the map actually depicts an adequate sufficiency, that there are already enough off licences in the area to service the thirstiest of populations. Conversely, there are those who would well argue that there are too few off licences in the area. Like Goldilocks, Tesco claims to have it ‘just right’ and we are now asked to believe that the provision of just one more off licence in Block C will strongly contribute to the ‘vitality and vibrancy of the Square’. Perhaps indeed it might, but not in any way that residents or visitors to Smithfield may appreciate.

3.3    The 1km circle is in any event a random notation, one which does not directly address concentrations of populations beyond its bounds. In fairness, one could reasonably expect other alcohol retailers located just outside the circle to be represented on the map. In this instance we note the absence of Tesco on Prussia Street and indeed Tesco on Parnell Street, both barely several metres from the given circumference. Needless to say, there are more off licences in the Stoneybatter/NCR area which are within reasonable footfall of the proposed development on Smithfield, where the Smithfield catchment area can itself be reasonably extended through Grangegorman and onto the NCR.

3.4     Perhaps however the greatest flaw on the map is the absence of any graphical representation of the distribution of licensed premises within the circle. Here alcoholic beverages are available even early in the morning, a function of the area’s market designation under the licensing legislation. Indeed, some of the better pubs in the city are located in the Smithfield/Markets area and they bring an ordered vibrancy to the locality at nights.

We are conducting our own research in this regard and hope to be able to provide the Board with our own map once fieldwork has been completed.

3.5   The arrival at a ‘compelling case’ to the satisfaction of the planning authority is admittedly difficult, as there is little enough guidance given in the Development Plan as to the statistical function of the data collected. On another level, and in the light of recent events in the Phoenix Park, the very fact that the provision of cheap alcohol by Tesco is reduced to some ill-defined metric of ‘need’ is a depressing indictment of ill-considered attitudes towards alcohol consumption in our society.

3.6    What is however abundantly evident from the ‘Alcohol Sales Study’ is that there has been no attempt to consider other aspects of alcohol sales in the subject area. The proposed off licence is to be located directly across from the already over-burdened Juvenile Courts, which deal on a day to day basis with the more real consequences of alcohol abuse. We find it inappropriate in the extreme that David Potter of Savills Commercial (Ireland) Limited, in his capacity as Fixed Charge Receiver, can countenance a property, ostensibly in the ownership of the citizens of this State, being put to such retail use at this location.

We further note Mr Potter’s letter of 12 April last which states that ‘the temporary occupation of these units by a non-retail use had no beneficial impact on the lettability of the units’. The former occupant, the Complex theatre was of enormous benefit to the local community and brought constant footfall and life to Smithfield. We are dismayed that the Complex has had to seek alternative accommodation on foot of this application.

3.7   Perhaps the most ‘compelling case’ being put before the Board is the submission of Dr Niamh Collins, a consultant in emergency medicine who has lived for several years above the proposed off licence. Dr Collins has eloquently presented the medical evidence relating to the irresponsible and anti-social retail practices of companies such as Tesco in this regard.

3.8    In purely planning terms, and irrespective of the appellant’s claims to the contrary, the provision of yet another off licence in the area is clearly in contravention of Policy RD10, where it is the policy of Dublin City Council ‘to prohibit the expansion of off licences or part off licences except in areas where a compelling case can be made’. There is simply no compelling case.

4      Cultural considerations

4.1    It was with initial alarm that we noted the planning authority’s insistence on imposing Condition 3. This had been an issue during the previous appeal, where the Board’s Inspector had deferred to the recommendations contained within the Development Management Guidelines for Planning Authorities. Here, ‘the basic criteria for assessing whether a condition should be imposed is if it is necessary, relevant to planning, relevant to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable’.

We note the Inspector was of the opinion that the condition referred to was ‘difficult to enforce’ as opposed it its being unreasonable (the argument put forward by the third party). There was no substantive reason given as to why the condition was ‘difficult to enforce’, and this office would contend that the condition regarding the permitted hours of delivery is in fact considerably more difficult to enforce.

4.2    The planning authority has thus consistently considered its obligation to that previous cultural use for the units in question and Condition 4 of the 4176/10 permission was entirely appropriate in this instance. Similar conditions have been imposed under applications 4830/06 and 4867/06, establishing an intention to preserve the cultural usage of the spaces under discussion.

4.3     The City Council has now again imposed a cultural condition on the proposed development, the planner’s report noting that Smithfield is not an Architectural Conservation Area (as stated in the An Bord Pleanála report), but that rather it is within a Conservation Area and a designated ‘Cultural Cluster’. This fact is upheld in the Development Plan and a little research will demonstrate the Council’s original intention for the area to become a new cultural hub, as supported by the Historic Area Rejuvenation Project IAP as far back as 1996. The cultural component of the HARP scheme was put together on the basis of the area’s becoming a genuine artistic quarter, an alternative to the boozy excesses of Temple Bar.

There has thus always been an under-riding understanding in the local authority’s approach to the planning and development of the area that the mistakes of Temple Bar would not be repeated and that Smithfield would support and sustain a network of several cultural spaces, anchored on the National Museum site at Collins Barracks. This issue was raised on a submission regarding the previous application for the site given by the Complex to the Arts, Culture, Leisure & Youth Affairs Strategic Policy Committee on 6 July 2011.

We understand Dublin City Council was mandated by the elected representatives as an action of this presentation to prepare a framework plan for the arts in the area. We hope the findings of this plan will, on this occasion, be taken on board in the adjudication of this application and contend that at the very least, any application for retail use within a space designated for cultural use is premature until such time as the plan has been ratified by the Council.

4.5     This office cannot comment on the suitability of Tesco as a patron of the arts. We can only support the City Council’s perseverance in attempting to deliver the cultural quarter promised in the HARP Scheme by means of the planning process and request the Board to take cognisance of the fact that the subject units form part of the cultural designation of the area as supported by the City Development Plan.

5         Conclusion

5.1     Tesco has undeniably been extremely successful in flooding Dublin with its retail outlets and off licences. The choice it offers the city’s consumers is real enough in terms of the provision of cheap alcohol, yet in areas such as Ringsend, Pearse Street and Camden Street consumer choice has actually been diluted where the appearance of a Tesco outlet has resulted in the closure of the opposition. There is little doubt that this will also be the case in Smithfield, where Tesco’s stated provision of 16 precarious jobs will not compensate for the job losses in the other stores which will face closure.

5.2    This is however of secondary concern. Our principal objection to this proposal has always been grounded on the company’s strategy regarding the sale of cut price alcohol and the quantifiable effects such a strategy has on the residential amenities of the areas the company targets. Tesco has failed on two occasions to provide a compelling case to the planning authority, an opinion which has been upheld by the Board on the previous appeal. A rather spurious contention that the closure of one local outlet (as a direct result of the imminent arrival of a retailer supplying cut price alcohol) is balanced by the company’s inaccurate appraisal of the number of outlets already in existence. In any event, this cannot be considered a substantive issue in its own right.

5.3    We thus believe that the Board will support the contention of this office, Dublin City Council and more importantly the opinions of the citizens of Smithfield, Stoneybatter and the Markets, that Tesco’s proposals to open an off licence and convenience store here are against the provisions of the Dublin City Development Plan where the appellant has failed yet again to provide a compelling case. As such, the proposal is contrary to the sustainable development of the area.

5.4   Furthermore, as Tesco has already demonstrated its contempt for the planning laws in relation to the illegal sale of alcohol in its Thomas Street outlet, we contend that the only way to deny the company the opportunity to retail cut price alcohol in Smithfield is to overturn the planning authority’s decision to grant permission for the change of use of Units 18 (permitted shop) and 19 (permitted restaurant) to provide for a single retail unit.

5.5   We submit the statutory fee of €50 for making this observation and an acknowledgement from Dublin City Council of our initial submission.

Link to An Bord Pleanála inspector’s report: http://www.pleanala.ie/casenum/240820.htm

Thomas Meinecke in Dublin

If perchance you’re reading this in Dublin and are looking for some free exposure to contemporary German culture (as an antidote to the hegemonic sway of the Bundesbank), come along to the Dice Bar where there’ll be a little reading, but mostly some one-handed action on the decks (err… an unfortunate consequence of a recent accident on the piste) from the legendary Thomas Meinecke.

The playlist is mostly the soundtrack of Thomas’s recently translated first novel, Tomboy, which, with some humour (or even humor), elucidates on the fundamental cultural significance of figures such as Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Madonna Ciccone, Lisa ‘One Eye’ Lopez and, rather too fleetingly, Uschi Obermeier. That this critical interrogation is undertaken by a loose, self-indulgent collective of sexually multifunctional friends working and studying in Heidelberg, places the book to some extent within the (t)horny canon of the university novel. However Thomas goes further and pens a theoretical enquiry uniquely his own, one which, as was pointed out on Wednesday night in Trinity, writes a primary source of a secondary source. Or something more or less unashamedly post-postmodern.

Tomboy’s a funny book. The long cadences of the German are retained in the translation, rendering something of a difficult, but as they say, a rewarding experience. I think Thomas has about 10 copies left which he’ll sign and give away for the price of a pint.

Thomas is of course of the great Munich band FSK, a favourite band of John Peel’s; the band recorded their last Peel session a few days after the great man himself died and they’ve negotiated with some skill their way across many of the contours of rock’n’roll since 1980. Like The Fall: always changing, always better. They’ve a new lp (as in a vinyl album and download) out in May.

You can read more about FSK over at the Cedar Lounge: http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/this-weekend-i%E2%80%99ll-mostly-be-listening-to%E2%80%A6-fsk/

Afterwards, we might do a wee interview thing on FSK and their few years on the York label Red Rhino and talk more about the other musical contortions they’ve achieved and so beguiled us with over the past 32 years.

Anyway, the Dice Bar in Smithfield this afternoon, Thursday.

The news from Tulla

In the last post I mentioned an edge which possibly marked the end of the area of redeposited subsoil, which we suspected was invisibly present there, somewhere… introduced to form a level platform over the sloped area. I also talked about a possible souterrain, which, as it happened, turned out to be another drain cut down the hill, which someone had backfilled with redeposited (or redeposited redeposited, if you get my drift?).

Trying to find the sides of the drain cut was a chore but last week we noticed a slight variation in the ‘subsoil’ at either side of the drain cut. After more messing trying to get sides that made sense, we exposed the upper fill of an enclosing ditch extending through the site at the very edge of Westropp’s annotation on the map (see previous post).

Where the upper levels are undisturbed, it’s likely the ditch was something like 1.8-2m in depth and about 2-2.4m across, with the primary upcast possibly forming a bank on the inside. We have it for about 35m and are taking out sections to record profiles and extract acceptable samples for 14C processing.

One lovely find so far, recovered from the top of the primary silt fill, was sealed by the backfilled redeposited. It’s an off-cylindrical grinding stone with an off-centered squared hole (where one side of the stone is more worn than the other. It probably sat on a tressle, the timber shaft through the stone turned by a bow or perhaps a handle.

The object, we were told had a parallel in a yard a few miles outside Tulla and indeed, it is quite modern in its appearance. Its find spot however is somewhat ambiguous, where it was found resting on the upper layer of silt, but directly sealed by the, yup, redeposited backfill. So, was it deposited with the silt towards the time when the ditch was falling out of use or was it thrown in with the redeposited, suggesting this activity took place certainly into the post medieval period? No research has been attempted on the grinding stone as of yet. Has anyone encountered anything similar on early medieval sites or am I stuck with an object which merely points towards the time when the enclosure was backfilled?

Frank Coyne kindly came out from Limerick with a handheld device which pinged the feature as it curved gently across the area of excavation. Should the curve be extrapolated around the church at a similar contour, the enclosure would appear to tie in well with the break of slope visible at the southeastern side of the church. Placing the early church at the centre of the enclosure on the hilltop, it’s immediately evident that the early church must have been immediately north of the existing structure, where Westropp said it was.

As you can probably see, the ditch has a sharp slope on the inner side (left), with a shallower though more vertical slope to the outside. One can only assume the upcast was thrown up along the inside to form a bank, which probably made its way back into the ditch as it was being closed up.

One section we excavated appeared to have a much lower fill, lower in fact than the actual cut. Yup, a good thick layer of pure silt in the natural, about 400mm below the flat base of the enclosure ditch cut. What did we do? Dug a huge bloody hole through the natural we did, to see basically if we were dealing with an enclosure ditch the size of say, Downpatrick’s. It seems however we weren’t.

The hole we dug to a depth of about 2200mm into the natural; we were looking for some indication that there migh be a much bigger feature here and that the enclosure we were dealing with had been a mere recut all along. We stopped depth-wise at a point where the boulder clay peeled off a very hard surface of the same material. Had we found the bottom of some huge enclosure or some geological feature suggesting natural stratification in the subsoil? Hmmm… the latter unfortunately.

So where now? We’re into our final week here in Tulla. Today it reached 21 degrees on site under an unseasonally cloudless sky. No machinery around today, just birdsong and the occasional hammer strike from the conservation works being undertaken on the funary vaults on the hilltop above. The subsoil, in all of its manifestations, has turned to concrete of course, but hey, you can’t have it every way.

On an entirely different matter, the young fella has a grand plan for the Euros. Basically it involves baking shortbread representations of any opposing team’s manager. And then eating him. This, for example, is the manager of the Italian team, immediately prior to his being eaten by the writer. We wait to see what effect, if any, this will have on the Irish Euros campaign, but we all live in hope.

There are several more unusual… nay, go on, spit it out…  structural features coming up on the site, which I might post something on later on in the week. Meanwhile, if you’re reading this from one of the Clare links, please feel free to drop up to the site and have a look at what we’re doing. We drink cider.

A few thoughts on redeposited…

‘Redeposited’ is the shortened form of the technical term ‘redeposited subsoil’, meaning subsoil which has been taken up from elsewhere in antiquity, and spread or deposited over that area you’re excavating; a tricky obfuscation. Subsoil is also referred to as ‘the natural’ and indicates virgin soil, undisturbed by human agency. In East Clare, where I’m digging at the moment, the natural is referred to by everyone as the dhoib-bhuí (yellow daub) due to its use in the recent past as a binding mortar in the vernacular cottages and boundary walls of the district. Indeed, such is the level of knowledge of these things in the vicinity of Tulla, most visitors to the site were willing to comment intelligently on the great expanse of the stuff evident across the site before the rains of last week turned it into a viscous yellow soup. For here, a good proportion of the hillside had been trowelled clean, exposing several features clearly cut into the upper surface of what was confidently identified by all as the dhoib-bhuí .

Or was it? On urban sites where there is generally a good idea of where the bottom will be located, redeposited subsoil is rarely problematic and can be easily recognised by the fact that is is generally quite different in hue from the more organic occupation layers more usually encountered. It’s subsoil remember, brought onto the site from elsewhere, so it won’t yield any finds. It’s usually mattocked off after being planned and levelled (i.e. drawn on the site plan and its height relative to sea level measured with a level and staff). On rural sites however, redeposited tends to be a horse of a different colour, so to speak.

The trouble with the redeposited began when considering T.J. Westropp’s site plan of St. Mochulla’s Church, surveyed in 1909 and published in the JRSAI two years later. The field we’re excavating, in advance of an extension to the parish graveyard, is clearly indicated to the west of the church, its western edge incorporating the boundary of the early monastic enclosure (which itself is surely pre-historic, something I’ll return to later). Westropp employed a system of hachuring to depict the gradient of the slope on the hill, indicating a ‘platform’ to the south of the church and a ‘slight terrace’ to the north against the enclosure.

To misquote Pete Astor, my magpie eyes were hungry for the prize and I’d been looking at this field for years as the only area within the enclosure seemingly free of burials. Even at that, like a local TD I’ve been no stranger to funerals up on the hill and have been careful on several occasions to position myself close to the priest to have a better look at the section at the graveside. Prior to undertaking (typically inconclusive) geophysical survey and test trenching within the field in question, I’d failed to see Westropp’s scheme presenting itself on the ground. The field had been in use as a paddock for horses for years and prior to that it had been a garden associated with a line of labourers’ cottages defining the northern side of the Fair Green, an open area between the town and the church entrance. A slope was of course evident uphill to the boundary of the modern graveyard, however the break of slope indicated by Westropp, if indeed this is what he was trying to get across, was invisible to me. If I’d given it much thought, I’d have reckoned that the effect so evident to Westropp was created by sculpting the surface of whatever was there to begin with, adapting the hillside exactly indeed as described in the Vita Sancti Mochullei Episcopi, a text recovered from an Austrian archive at the close of the nineteenth century.

On excavation, a break of slope of anything between 200 and 350mm happily began to present itself, more or less where Westropp has drawn the western edge of his central assemblage of squiggles. So far so good. This potentially defined the activity we were beginning to encounter uphill, which for the time being appeared to consist of drainage channels cut from the modern surface to bring rain water (of which there is some sufficiency hereabouts) down the hill.

One such drain presented as a linear smear of dark silt about 1500mm wide, very evident against the yellow subsoil with a few large stones helpfully thrown in to the fill, to aid the more visually challenged digger along the true path of stratigraphical enlightenment. Unlike the other drains running down the hill, this one lacked a formal cut: when the dark silt and the stones were removed, the yellow subsoil was there underneath. Or was it? When trowelling off the silt, a slight variation was evident in the texture of the material below; however it made little sense in plan or section. By this stage, the drain was being excavated at two locations and within 10 minutes small voids began to appear in what we thought was the subsoil underneath. Fools.

In fairness though to both myself and Elaine, the possibility of there being a souterrain underneath us was quickly established: the slight remains of a foundation trench curving away at a tangent to the drain had already suggested an early medieval structure, often associated with souterrains. The water draining off the hill had simply found the path of least resistance and was channelled along something that had been there previously. There were no upright stones lining the sides of this particular souterrain and it took a while to find the ‘cut’, the formal sides of whatever underground imperative was directing the water. And herein the problem with the redeposited…

You see, it’s like this (probably): at some stage in the seventh century, the hill at Tulla is selected for monastic purposes. Soil is introduced at the upper levels to create a platform within an enclosure that’s much older. How much older? I’ll keep you posted but it’s not exactly impacting on my sleep patterns at the moment. There’s an internal ditch there, ok? You’ll know what I mean. Anyway, a church is built on the summit and a bit further down an inner enclosure is constructed and revetted with stone. Where we are, a round structure is built in association with an earth-cut souterrain. This has collapsed in on itself, leaving tiny voids and a semblance of parallel sides, some distance down it must be said from what we’d taken to be the surface of the subsoil.

Now here’s the crunch: the thing has been cut through the redeposited subsoil, which has been deposited on the natural subsoil which has also been penetrated by the souterrain cut and of course, it’s backfilled with re-redeposited subsoil to boot. They’re all bloody hard to tell apart. Usually, this type of distinction is established by a combination of visual and tactile perception, the sort of shit they don’t teach you in college. The ‘natural’ natural shouldn’t have flecks of charcoal within; it should be ‘stiffer’ and at the (in this instance vertical) interface with the redeposited, it should be harder. Of course, things aren’t always quite that simple…

Further up the hill, underneath a nineteenth-century field boundary, lies a linear feature comprising loose stones in a deep, well-defined trench. I had this as some sort of revetment holding back the dhoib-bhuí, visibly higher in section just further back, demarcating an inner enclosure evident closer to the eighteenth-century church at its northern and eastern sides. More experienced eyes saw a corn-drying kiln and I was happy to acquiesce until we started to dig it. Again, the subsoil below was nothing of the sort. However, as luck would have it, the redeposited has yielded a large chunk of charcoal which should provide a date for the activity.

Digging redeposited is disheartening at the best of times. Here, where there is hardly any discernible difference between the subsoil and the material above, it’s a murky nightmare, a hall of mirrors sketched out by Lewis Carroll or Kafka on a 3B pencil on the back of a packet of 20 Major. Westropp’s hachuring has however saved the day and we now know what we’re dealing with. Sort of. There remains nonetheless the possibility of more activity beneath, predating this particular phase of activity. I just hope the cavemen didn’t have the idea first, leaving us with more of this heavy, wet, sterile muck to shovel off and pointlessly ruminate over on- line.