My name is Kerry and I’m a Tolkien-junky. Over the holidays I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey six times. The cinematography, special effects, and characters were so real I couldn’t help myself. Only snowstorms and icy roads kept me away from going to the theatre more. What does my addiction for everything Middle-earth have to do with ancient Ireland? More than you might think. J.R.R. Tolkien, beloved author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had an addiction for ancient Ireland…or at least a fond affinity for it.
From 1949 to 1959, Oxford professor Tolkien graded exams in Old and Middle English at the National University of Ireland in Galway. While he was there, he loved to explore the countryside and took a particular interest in the Burren, located in nearby County Clare. The Burren consists of about 150 square miles of barren fissured limestone – an eerie plateau that has seen continuous human habitation for the past 6,000 years despite its limited resources. The plateau gets its name from the Irish boireann, meaning “rocky land/stony place.” Between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, light forests of pine, hazel, elm, and a few oaks grew there along with open scrub and grasslands. Today only a few wind-stunted hawthorns grow between the cracks. Neolithic farmers cleared the land for grazing and the land became overgrazed and eroded. This agrarian society erected over 70 wedge and portal tombs, including the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, Parknabinna Wedge Tomb, and the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb. This last place marks the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Throughout the Iron Age and into early medieval times, about 450 ringforts – including Caherconnell (Cathair Chonaill), Cahercommaun (Cathair Chomáin), and Cahermore (Cathair Mhór) – were constructed and occupied.
So, what was Tolkien’s interest? The ruins of the stone forts may have inspired such forlorn places in Middle-earth as Amon Sûl (Weathertop), the ruined tower where Frodo is stabbed by a Morgul blade in The Fellowship of the Ring. The wedge and portal tombs recall the chilling Barrow-Downs where Frodo, Same, Merry, and Pippin are entombed. Tolkien’s description of this place draws one’s mind to Ireland: “…[Frodo] saw that on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them; and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums” And later, “They…went down into the hollow….In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall….It was shapeless and yet significant: like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning….The sun, a pale and watery yellow, was gleaming though the mist just above the west wall of the hollow….Beyond the wall the fog was thick, cold and white” (Tolkien, 1982, p. 190).
Also in this Burren landscape lies a cave called Poll na gColm (pronounced POLE na GOLL-um), meaning “hole of the dove.” Some speculate that Tolkien got the name for one of his most famous characters, Gollum, from this cave. Rock doves roost in the area and make a guttural sound – not unlike the famous Gollum. For the full story, see this BBC news link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-21859633
Interestingly enough, if you look at a map of the west coast of Ireland, the inundations of the coastline of Galway and Clare – although deep and punctuated with more inlets and islands – bears a striking resemblance to the west coast of Tolkien’s Eriador and Gondor, with the city of Galway corresponding to the mouth of the Anduin in Middle-earth.
If the Burren-Tolkien connection piques your interest, you may want to head to the inaugural Tolkien Burren Festival scheduled to take place from 9 to 16 May 2013: http://www.burrentolkiensociety.ie/tolkien-festival/
Tolkien’s links with ancient Ireland aren’t confined to The Burren. I’ll explore others in future posts in an ongoing celebration of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1982). The fellowship of the ring. New York: Ballantine Books.