|My father G.A. Hayes-McCoy and his parents, Galway, 1930s|
I remember him lifting me up to admire Iron Age ring-beads of translucent black glass with spiral yellow inlay, and twisted gold collars with gorgeous fluted ends. There were amber beads and inlaid boxes too, enamelled horse-bits, jet ornaments, and ceremonial trumpets. Unlike their later, medieval counterparts who laboured over complicated strap-work and heavy decoration, Iron Age craftsmen produced works that are almost modernist in their simple clarity.
That early experience in the museum sparked a lifetime's ambition to achieve the same simple clarity in my writing. It also produced a misunderstanding that, in hindsight, has clarified my understanding of my father as an historian.
|The Broighter Boat (photo courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland)|
Among the artefacts in the museum is a little boat which was probably a votive offering to Mannanán Mac Lír, the ancient Celtic sea god. It’s a perfect model of a sea-going version of a naomhóg, the slender, curved coracle still used round the west coast of Ireland, where I live today. About seven inches long and fashioned in beaten gold, it was ploughed out of a field in 1896, by a farmer whose name was Tom Nicholl.
I know too that no offering’s ever been found that links the Celtic sea and sun gods as neatly as I linked them then in my imagination.
But I also know that imagination itself, balanced by discipline and meticulous research, has a vital place in our understanding of the past.
It's a lesson I learned from a father whose own rigorous, uncompromising scholarship was informed by an imaginative awareness of the universality of human experience.