The legacy of Sligo-reared archaeologist William Gregory Wood-Martin is defined by its complexity – a complexity reflected in his own homeland’s nature. In several ways, the Anglo-Irishman was an exemplary Briton. Born into the Ascendancy in 1847, Wood-Martin would serve as an officer in the Crown’s military, a High Sheriff of Sligo and a grand master of the Orange Institution. However, despite his “definitively British” affiliations, he would also become one of Connacht’s foremost antiquarians – dedicatedly writing on his rural surroundings and their relation to Ireland’s anthropology and folklore, giving the island’s “nationalistic revivalists” material to discuss. As a result, one might say that Wood-Martin was a man torn between two sides, his duties “British” and his interests “Irish.”
Leaba structures, megalithic crypts built for Ireland’s Neolithic chieftains, served as the major focus of William Gregory Wood-Martin’s The Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland: County Sligo and the Island of Achill (1888). Spread across the rural landscape, these constructions were often called “giants’ graves,” a term coined by the early Gaels – who believed that no mortal could have earned such a tomb.
Wood-Martin would claim that the leaba-Dhiarmada-agus-Ghrainnè in Carrickglass was the “finest … of the series.” Named for the mythical Diarmuid O’Dyna and Grainnè, who slept on leaba structures whilst fleeing an irate Fionn Mac Cumhail, the construction was said to have a 15-foot-4-inch-long covering stone, an 8-foot depth and six supports. Its massiveness is evidenced by the illustration below, which appeared in Wood-Martin’s book.
Though presented as a “formal study,” this image seems to be affected by an exaggerated quality. The embellishment is understandable, given the subject’s relation to the island’s archaic past and age-old mythos. As Wood-Martin wrote, “Time, which antiquates antiquities, observes a quaint old writer, ‘and hath an art to make dust of all things,’ hath yet spared many of the Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland, which now ‘stand the solemn, silent witnesses of ancient days.’” In sum, much as these “giant” monuments rendered the Gael small, so too must they have loomed over the 19th-century Irishman – physically and abstractly.
W. G. Wood-Martin. The Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland (Co. Sligo and the Island of Achill.). Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & etc., 1888.
- Jim Hill BC 2016, Fall 2015 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Dana Sajdi’s Fall 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.