A day of shared learning at UCD

Mark Griffiths, 16/12/2016

The taxi ride to University College Dublin only took ten minutes, enough time for the driver to share a detailed history of the university and its future development plans, this was of course after getting me up to speed with the city’s latest political gossip. As we pulled into the main entrance I was glad of my driver’s extensive knowledge. UCD is a sprawling metropolis of learning. The rest of the team, traveling up early from Cork, had been beset by traffic delays. This, along with the fact that both Ben and Brian were only just recovering from a bad dose of winter flu meant the Dublin figurine carving workshop, we had all been so looking forward to, was off to a shaky start.

After a warm welcome, Aidan O’Sullivan led us out from the university building and up onto a large patch of rough ground surrounded by a high wire fence, this was the domain of UCD’s experimental archaeology department. At the top of the field, past various green timber structures, stood an impressive round house. Thin wisps of smoke seeped through a roof thatched in heather. In its dark interior we found archaeologist Brendan O’Neill tending to a log fire set in a rough stone circle. Standing with our backs to the woven roundhouse walls we listened as Aidan and Steven told fascinating, and fun, stories of the work they and their students were engaged in. I took a moment to look around at the faces of our team in the dancing glow of the firelight, I saw the stress of that mornings commute had been completely lost in this wonderfully primitive space.

We set up our working area on the thick damp grass next to a half completed Viking dwelling. Crammed into the boot of Ben’s car, along with our bronze tool kit, were eight lengths of freshly selected Alder. Brian had been very creative in his timber choices with each piece already displaying strong character traits, some resplendent with ready formed legs, while others had beautiful soft organic curves. Again, we asked our carvers to take the piece that spoke to them, a piece in which they could see their figurine waiting to be liberated.

All our UCD participants were experienced green woodworkers, so they needed little input or encouragement from me. Aidan, for example, had previously assisted on a major historical boat building project in the UK. Our collection of axes, beautifully crafted by Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn, received much admiration. The quality of his work in forging and hafting our bronze tools enabled the user to quickly, and accurately, form the shapes and details seen in their mind’s eye. Our Pallasboy collective decided to join forces and craft our own figure, with each member taking a turn to imbue our rather small, curved log with a distinct personality.

It was a great pity that Cathy was unable to join us for this workshop, having also succumbed to seasonal illness. However we were lucky to have Conor Mc Dermott and Michael Stanley on hand to add their expertise. At the beginning of Phase II, Michael had  met us at the National Museum storage facility at Swords to share his knowledge on the history of the Red Man of Kilbeg, a figurine that was obviously the muse for his distinctive workshop creation.

A damp chill and fading light told us that it was late in the afternoon. The group were adding finishing details to what were an impressive, and diverse, collection of anthropomorphic figures. Our own joint Frankenstein creation was also complete, with a sharp stake by Brian, a head and elegant neck by Ben, I fashioned a deep curved slash along the body to represent folded cloth and Orla gave our figure the face of a child on the verge of a tantrum, or an old man missing his bus, depending on how it was viewed. We were happy with the offspring of our combined effort.

The day had gone well. Aidan decided that the results of all our work needed to be set in the earth by the entrance gate. There they would either welcome, or warn, those crossing the threshold. One by one the totems were placed, their twisted forms silhouetted against the dusk of a December night. The eerie presence these crudely carved forms evoked could be in no doubt, if this was their role they performed it well. Before leaving the experimental archaeology group at UCD we were treated to the spectacle of Steven firing up his clay built furnace. The day ended as it had started, our faces lit by flames in this wonderful, unique place, surrounded by friends.

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