John Arnold: Zooming back in time... my brush with modern technology

John Arnold had a brush with modern technology this week - trè Gaeilge to learn about the Brehon Laws
John Arnold: Zooming back in time... my brush with modern technology

MAGIC CIRCLE: Experts reckon as many as 40,000 ring forts once stood in this country and they are now entwined in folklore.

I WAS asked by a friend last week what I knew about zoom? That’s a two-mark question, I thought to myself!

Shure, we live less than 20 miles from Cork city. In actual fact, our farm is directly under the flight path of planes departing and arriving at Cork Airport from certain foreign parts. Jumbos and the like from Madagascar, Borneo and Istanbul regularly zoom low — well, maybe at 20,000ft, over the place here.

Yerra we hardly take any notice of them at all. An odd cow might raise her head from grazing on hearing the swoosh and the zoom, but to be honest we take no notice of the noise. It’s like the sound of grass growing — when you get used to it, you take it for granted.

So that was my rustic understanding of zoom. “Ah no,” she said, “I mean with a capital Z, Zoom, the modernist way of multiple audio-visual communication.”

Whoa a minute, was my reaction. I have a landline and a mobile phone, one of them small black ones which can make and take calls and texts.

Anyhow, it was explained to me quickly, as I was in a hurry as was my friend, that Zoom was the new way in which multiple people in different places could kinda have a group conversation together remotely.

To make a long story short, I was invited to take part in a Zoom ‘conversation’ last Friday morning through the medium of Irish, trè Gaeilge are fad.

Now this friend of mine and myself would often talk bilingually on the phone and sometimes ar taobh na sraide in Fermoy or elsewhere. I love Irish and can converse reasonably, though my grammar is brutal.

Well, the idea behind this Zoom session was that people who have a grá for the language and cannot meet in these constrained times could listen to a guest speaker then ask ceisteanna if they want.

Right, says I, I’ll chance it for Friday morning. A test was remotely done on our computer and laptop and because of antiquity neither were Zoom-friendly, but that was not a major problem. A family member’s house at the top of our boreen was spot on for reception and connectivity. All I had to do was sit pretty in front of the laptop and listen.

I put on the Sunday clothes — even the good black shoes — got the side-locks trimmed a bit and took my seat in the socially-isolated ‘studio’ set up for me. It was grand and at 11.30 on the button the Zoooming started.

Amazing really, I could see myself in a stamp size head and shoulders frame and also about 20 more who were involved. Oh yes, I nearly forgot to say that the friend who ‘invited’ me to take part is a great Gaelic scholar and has a huge interest in An t-Athair Peadar O Laoighaire who died just a century ago — so I presumed the Zoom talk would be concerning the Gaelic Priest.

Boys oh boys agus cailinì freisin, I got a fair land when Brenda Ni Súilleabháin started to give her caint in Irish. An t-Athair Peadar, how are ya!

Between the jigs, reels and hornpipes I’d got my wires crossed, ‘Matchmaking in Ancient Ireland’ was the topic! It’s a subject dear to my heart but I never expected in a month of Sundays to be listening to a brilliant presentation on the theme, and all in the Irish language.

I was looking at myself on the screen and I knew from the way I looked that I was engrossed by Brenda, bhi sí marvellous ar fàd. She spoke for an hour, it seemed more like 15 minutes.

What was amazing was the amount of information she gave us about the Brehon Laws. I had often heard of these Laws but imagined they were part truth and part myth — how wrong I was. For centuries in ancient Ireland, a native system of law and order had grown up arising mainly from the practises and customs of the druids. Passed on orally for generations, they were finally committed to writing in parchment form around the year 600 AD.

What stunned me was that despite a wave of conquest, invasion and suppression by ‘foreigners’, it was only in the 1600s that the last vestiges of these ancient laws disappeared.

When ‘Old’ Gaelic Ireland finally succumbed to English rule, the Brehon Laws faded into oblivion. Dealing with match-making and match un-making, the Brehon laws had detailed and tabulated lists of reasons why couples could or could not marry. To the surprise of many, divorce was allowed under ‘Native’ Irish law which pre-dated Christian and later Catholic rules and regulations. One of the many grounds on which a woman could request a divorce was if her husband had become ró-ramhar or too fat! ‘Twas no wonder they were always running around with swords and spears — trying to stay fit and lean!

Every facet of male/female intimacy, or lack of it, was dealt with and various fines, penalties and other punishments were stipulated.

In early Irish society as governed by the Brehon laws, it certainly wasn’t a man’s world. Matriarchal equality, even supremacy, was allowed and even encouraged.

Brenda brought the story right up until the time of King Henry VIII. He and Pope Clement didn’t see eye to eye on marriage and remarriage and the result of that regal/papal squabble is, as they say, ‘history’ !

We had a Q&A session after Brenda finished. I suggested that Éamon de Valera needn’t have gone to the trouble of drawing up a new Constitution at all, he should have simply dusted down and re-enacted the original Brehon laws ! Well, my brush with modern technology in the form of Zoom was an education in itself.

On Friday evening, we were doing a bit of fencing around the farm. The Chapel Field was first on the list and then we moved into the ten-acre Parkaleasa. This fine field derives its name from Pairc an Liosa — the Field of the Lios or Fort. In one corner of the field a semi-circular rampart of the original structure can still be seen. Nowadays, it’s an earthen bank about 8ft tall and you can still see where the remainder of the round enclosure stood.

Various names lios, ràth and dún were used in different parts of Ireland — often determined by the availability of stone or not — and they are all variations to describe the dwelling places of people long ago.

Well over 2,000 local placenames in Ireland include ráth, lios or dún — experts reckon as many as 40,000 ring forts once stood in this country. Long before the Danes or Normans came, the Celts lived here in this island and the imprint they left still lives on. Some forts were simple single-walled enclosures where man and beast lived together. Others had double or triple ramparts, some with timber fences for protection — from both wild animals and wild neighbours.

The lioses like this one are still dotted all over our landscape. In many cases it’s over 1,000 years since our native Irish ancestors lived in clan groups in these circular settlements.

It’s only when stone-built houses became fashionable in the Middle Ages that these dwelling places were finally abandoned. Thy had been inhabited for centuries so ‘twas only natural when humans finally left that the spirits or ghosts of long forgotten persons lingered on in these sacred places — thus they became ‘fairy forts’ in legend and folklore.

Though many have disappeared, several hundred still remain. They serve as reminders of an era when the only zoom heard was the swoop of an eagle in pursuit of it’s quarry. It was the time of the Druids and the Brehon Laws. It was a quiet and silent Ireland — much like today.

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