Archaeology in Athenry

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Archaeology… I wish they would find a more acceptable name for it – then we’d have more students – big words like that frighten off straight out of school students”.  So said my own Professor, the late Sean ‘P O’Riordan, to a few of us about forty years ago.

We proceeded to discuss alternatives such as ‘ Prehistory’ and Antiquity, but without finding anything better than ‘Archaeology’ – not that our discussion was more than of academic interest ( it couldn’t have changed anything in the university syllabus) but it underlined the situation when I found myself the first ever full time student of archaeology in Ireland.

But times have changed.  The popular notion of an archaeologist used to be, and indeed often still is of a bearded , bespectacled, absent-minded, eccentric and doddering old gentleman peering through a large magnifying-glass.  Archaeology was not therefore considered a subject attractive to ambitious lively young students.  The media, aided by several outstanding discoveries, has helped to bring about a new understanding of what archaeology is all about.  Nor is it merely such enjoyable, facile, trashy but enjoyable films of Indiana Jones, archaeologist/adventurer, which have glamourised archaeology for the younger generation.  Though such films have helped, they also have tended to give the idea that archaeology in this part of the world could never be so exciting as a search in the Near East for the Ark of the Covenant – but in the late 1890s however, a group of British Israelites went digging in the Rath of the Synods, at Tara, in a mad (in every sense of the term) search for the same Ark of the Covenant, a search largely based on the fact that the Anglicised version of Teamhair na Rí, Tara, was the last four letters of ARARAT reversed!

The newspapers also helped.  Rarely nowadays does a week pass without at least one item on archaeology appearing in the press; and not just in the national press either – the local newspapers are no longer afraid of frightening off the readers by referring to matters archaeological.  Not only has the number of archaeology students increased hugely in the universities but popular, readable, well-illustrated books on archaeology are nowadays to be found displayed in all types of shops.  Local heritage and archaeological societies have sprung up everywhere, Societies which are no longer the entertainment centres of an elitist group of well-intentioned sernior-citizens but rather the enjoyable and instructive meeting-places for the more knowledged and well-read general public of all ages in the community.  The Athenry Archaeological and Historical Society is thriving, thank you, and is going from strength to strength thanks to the enthusiasm of all its members.

Archaeology has become the ‘in-thing’ to have studied . It is ranked along with sport, politics and the weather as one of the most popular of all conversational topics- everyone has discovered that it is possible to talk generally about the subject and those who are at all well-read can express a reasonably intelligent and erudite opinion on it – ‘Archaeology’ is no longer a potentially frightening word.

Although the comment with which I started this brief note has stuck in my mind for all these years, another comment made to me by a Dublin-based colleague a few months ago has made an equally great impact.  Out of the blue he said to me that “Athenry has far more qualified archaeologists per capita than any other place in Ireland”.  I had never realised that but it is quite true. What other town in the whole of Ireland ( or indeed anywhere in the World) can boast of so many?

Think on it.  Athenry has one fully fledged Master of Arts in Archaeology, Martin Fitzpatrick and is well on course to shortly have second, Dominic Monaghan.  Both graduated with Archaeology as part of their B.A. degree, as did at least ten others, namely Ann Gannon, Siobhan Archer, Anna McLoughlin, Meave Waldron, Karen Devally, Niamh Greaney, Frank Coyne, Rob Gallagher, Paul McNamara and John Conway, while Niamh Reidy will join them this Summer.  Furthermore two others, Bob Reilly and Pat Heraty are well on their way to being among the first to graduate with the new U.C.G. Diploma in Archaeology. Nor should one forget the numerous students such as Frances Rohan, Geraldine Rabbitte, Gerry McLoughlin and Kevin Kelly, to name but a few, who studied Archaeology for one year in university before moving on to other subjects for their B.A. or B.Comm. degree.

That is a most remarkable and impressive record for any town the size of Athenry.  The uniqueness of its heritage, with its facinating and outstanding medieval monuments, has clearly impinged on and inspired its young inhabitants – this old town of ours need no longer fear that it is more appreciated and understood by curious foreign visitors than by its natives .”An rud is annamh is íontach” adeirtear agus is iontach é an baile seo ‘gainne, Blá ‘n Rí, agus is iontach iad a mhuintear .

Editor’s note – Nor should one forget that the author Professor Etienne Rynne, Department of Archaeology, University College Galway and a resident of Athenry because of his own enthusiasm and generosity of knowledge, time and encouragement may have contributed in no small way to this “remarkable and impressive record”.

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About this record

Written by Etienne Rynne

Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published June 1995

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