For those lucky enough to have tuned in to last night week’s Nationwide programme, RTÉ did full justice to the Céide Fields, that unrivalled (and under appreciated) gem of north Mayo.
Professor Seamus Caulfield has probably told the story a hundred times over, but his recounting of the prehistoric discovery, as told to Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, had all the hallmarks of an amiable chat and none of the scientific jargon in which boffins delight. Maybe it was because Seamus Caulfield grew up with the story of Céide; maybe because his erudite, schoolteacher father had planted the early seeds of inquiry; maybe, as he himself said, the experience of walking the terrain as a bare-footed child, from April to October each year, gave him a connectedness with the landscape that his more academic professional colleagues had never been exposed to.
In any case, the story of that 5,000 years old farming settlement, preserved beneath a blanket of bog, remains an archaeological miracle. It was Patrick Caulfield, the máistir scoile of Belderrig, who first drew attention to the belief that, deep beneath the bog which stretched inland from the sheer Atlantic cliff face, were the remains of an ordered, cultivated, advanced farming system that existed long before the start of recorded history. It took time and tenacity for his suppositions to be put to the test.
And it was to his son, Seamus, eschewing the family tradition of following the call to teaching to become Professor of Archaeology at UCD, that the distinction fell of finally establishing the veracity of what his father had believed was the hidden civilisation under Belderrig.
A receptive taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, was convinced enough of the potential importance of Céide to give it his support, and in 1995 the first version of the Interpretative Centre was opened. In the meantime, Seamus Caulfield had enthused his UCD students sufficiently to spend their summers on the work of exploring and probing and finally locating the constructed walls of stone that Europe’s first farmers had laid down. Later, centuries later, because of some calamitous climatic event, those walls and fields had disappeared beneath a blanket of bog. In the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘the soft piled centuries’ of Céide.
The Caulfield tradition continues today in the work of Seamus’s son, Declan, whose Belderrig Tours draws the visitor back in time to the fields and dwellings and rituals and the quern stones. Back to the way of life of our ancestors who brought pastoral farming to Ireland, who cleared the forested acres, and who for thousands of years lived and worked and inhabited the Céide fields.
Nationwide, too, reminded us of the contribution that Céide has made to one of Ireland’s most outstanding stage successes. It was in 1993, as the county celebrated the Mayo 5000 landmark, that ‘The Spirit of Mayo’ was staged at the National Concert Hall, attended by President Mary Robinson as patron of the year-long event.
Central to that memorable concert was an orchestral piece composed by Bill Whelan and inspired by the discovery of the prehistoric Céide Fields. The piece, with its use of ancient musical instruments and the ‘mouth music’ of a 100-strong choir, also featured the dancing of Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, both of Mayo connections, but both unknown to audiences until then.
So powerful was the impact of that piece, so passionate was the public response, that one year later, it became the well spring of Riverdance, when the Eurovision Song Contest was staged in Dublin. And the rest, as they say, is history.