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Bog King

On Thursday I went to the National Museum of Ireland (Archaeology) to see the bog bodies, in preparation for attending the Peatlands conference at UCC. I walked straight in without pausing or thinking it through, following my feet - stopping in my tracks at the side of Old Croghan Man.

Iron Age, once some 6ft6 in height he is now no more than a torso with manicured fingernails. Yet there was something indefinable about him; a familiarity, a sense of connection - a regality.

I felt summoned.

Found at the foot of an inaugeration hill in County Offaly in 2003, he would have been >25 years old, with a diet rich in meat - although his last meal, contained in perfect preservation, was one of gruel and buttermilk. He wears a plaited leather arm band, possibly a symbol of state. Beaten with many blows he was beheaded and dismembered, arms pierced through and threaded with withy rope, presumably to either restrain him for the torture or to tie him to a weight such that he would then sink into the sky dark depths of the liminal, shifting, bog.

His nipples had been sliced off. Suckling on the King's nipples was a symbol of submitting to rulership, thus to have them removed was to renounce his position. One theory thus, is that he was a king, sacrficed for his land.

Digesting all of this and haunted by something I couldn't quite reach, I went for a wander around the rest of the exhibition.

Old Croghan Man is one of a series of bogmen trapped in the museum's busy quiet. Their bodies are placed in a discreet series of spiral pods, the lighting low, information panels outside of the pods are bilingual and informative. There are small benches to sit and muse.

I sat and mused for hours. Going from one to another and back again. Observing the reactions of visitors. Trying to hear what was on the other side of a cold silence.

Some of the faces reminded me of people shrinking away from the paparazzi. I found myself pulled back again and again to the hands.

Then the silence broke inside my bubble...

I jumped as if struck by electricity, and promptly burst into tears: Old Croghan Man was un-kinged - why would you do that if your sacrifice had to be royal? There would be no point offering a goddess a disempowered man, the crux of the matter was the divinity of blood. That is something you would do to a foreign king, to minimise his might.

Additionally, he has a defensive wound, as if he attempted to fend off attack. Thus he clearly wasn't okay with the plan.

He also lost his head - and was unusually tall - and was found at the bottom of a hill.

Could he be...just maybe...perhaps...was he... Bendigeidfran?

And then the words came.

Bog King

You were waiting

Across the constellation's sea

Behind the spiralling dark

A floating keshe

(Following a crow)

A leather bag of a person

Drawn not into submission

Reaching for my hand

Sharing your final meal

With an open heart

Bearing witness

For always and a day

The bog velvet

A fairy cloak

Burnishing your skin with

A shadow's stain

I watch the people come

Unwitting and quick

Stopping on breath

Eyes filling with absence

And the creeping horror

Of familiar fingernails

They place their arms alongside

All colours being brave

Where your kin seem to turn away


Gazes slicing

Like a peat cutter's hungry spade

You are enthroned by the watching

A royal state

Gracious in your glass grave

Unsuckled by time

The withy

Threading you like a

Bead to the boundary's edge

- I wonder -

Are you my brother, giant?

Tall and headless

Your skull an elsewhere myth

In the cauldron depths of Wales

You were robbed

Of more than a shoe

And stripped

But for a plaited band

Which you wear like gold

A crown carved in the

Curling of a palm

Wedded to your land

2,000 years ago

I sit at your side

As if in vigil

Bandaging the blows

With torn and stolen words

Hacking at lines

And rolling down

The forgotten hills.

(A Macalla from 'Bog Queen' by Seamus Heaney:

I lay waiting between turf-face and demesne wall, between heathery levels and glass-toothed stone. My body was braille as a defensive wound, as if he attempted to fend off attack. He lost his head. He in the cavings of stomach and socket. I lay waiting on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn fermenting underground dreams of Baltic amber. Bruised berries under my nails, the vital hoard reducing in the crock of the pelvis. My diadem grew carious, gemstones dropped in the peat floe like the bearings of history. My sash was a black glacier wrinkling, dyed weaves and phoenician stitchwork retted on my breasts' soft moraines. I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs– the soaked fledge, the heavy swaddle of hides. my skull hibernated

in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.

I was barbered

And stripped

By a turf cutter's spade

Who veiled me again

And packed coomb softly

Between the stone jambs

At my head and feet.

Till a peer's wife bribed him.

The plait of my hair,

A slimy birth cord

Of bog had been cut

And I rose from the dark,

Hacked bone, skull-ware,

Frayed stitches, tufts,

Small gleams on the bank).


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