December 2003 Newsletter

December 2003 Newsletter

Christmas, Celts and North America in 800 BC

History is a peculiar sport. Just when you think you've got it all worked out, along comes another piece of the jigsaw to confound you. For instance, the ongoing saga as to who discovered America. Oscar Wilde, of course, pointed out that whilst America had been "discovered" frequently before Columbus came along, everyone always had the good sense to keep quiet about the matter.

Everyone has a theory. Bill Bryson successfully popularised the notion that horny-hatted Vikings, under the guidance of Leif the Red, reached Newfoundland in about 1000AD. In 1976, Tim Severin headed up a crew who sailed across the Atlantic from Dingle in South West Ireland to Newfoundland in a currach. This leather-hulled boat, still popular in the West of Ireland, was constructed to specifications supplied by Saint Brendan who is said to have managed this momentous journey in the early 6th century. The Spanish will assure you Basque fishermen were netting the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence long before Jesus figured how to turn water into wine. Hard-line Mormons might even insist that the real discoverers were a lost tribe of Israel who fled the Middle East during the Exodus to Egypt and so begat the innumerable indigenous tribes hanging out across the continent, North and South, when Columbus and the good soldiers of Christ rolled over the seas from Europe.

However, as it's Christmas, it is time to reveal another rung to America's ever-evolving historical ladder. This one is both festive and Irish.

And what's more it's true.

It goes like this. An Irishman was snoring neath the starry skies of North America nearly 3000 years ago. Now one might reasonably think this is nothing but nonsense upon stilts. But the facts are otherwise. At this very moment, archaeologists in Vermont and New Hampshire are stroking their chins and trying to work out what a highly complex Celtic burial site is doing in New England. The site consists of a passage grave and oracle chamber not dissimilar to Newgrange, surrounded by geometrically aligned standing stones and other carvings inscribed with Ogham, the script used by the Celts. Boffins reckon it was built in 800BC.

That's one to chew on. Here's another. In 1964 two amateur archaeologists unearthed a stone carving in Wyoming County, West Virginia, that boasted an inscription ten foot in length. They assumed it was the work of American Indians but its meaning eluded them. Many years later, word of this find reached the enormously respected ears of the late Dr. Robert Fell, President of Harvard's Epigraphic Society. It took him all of a minute to work out that the inscription was an advanced form of Ogham. He translated the message into Old Irish, then into modern Irish and then into English.

It read as follows:

"At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the saviour Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman."

The Christmas Day carving has been dated to between 500 and 700AD. Dr. Fell and his colleagues then looked at their watches, made some calculations and reunited beside the carving just before sunrise on December 22nd 1982. And here they watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight came powering through the sky like a torch beam and struck the centre of a Celtic sun symbol on the left side of the panel. Gradually the entire carving lit up and the inscription exploded to life. Subsequent studies show this phenomenon only occurs on the winter solstice. On other days, the carving is only partially lit up.

In recent years, more Celtic carvings have been discovered in West Virginia (Bear's Fork, Horse Creek), Kentucky (Red River Gorge), Colorado (Shell Rock Canyon) and Newfoundland.

So there you have it. Maybe they didn't discover America but there can be no doubting that people from Ireland were zipping across the Atlantic Ocean back when Homer was a lad. (I mean Homer, the Greek writer, not the other Homer). And moreover they had the good grace to leave a cheerful and extremely clever Christmas greeting to anyone else who should stumble upon their route.

So, Nollaig faoi shean agus faoi shonas duit agus bliain nua faoi mhaise dhuit! And have yourself a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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