(Photo from RSAI website)

Michael Herity died January 23, 2016, another of the victims of what seems to have been a particularly cruel year. Michael was born in Ballintra, Co Donegal, but spent his childhood in Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath; his father was a sergeant there. He was a prehistorian, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of his time. He became professor of archaeology at UCD. In 1974 Herity published Irish Passage Graves, and in 1977 he and George Eoghan brought out Ireland in Prehistory.

He chatted to me while I took notes (at Michael’s behest), on 18/5/2014. He was eager to share his knowledge of the politics of the Newgrange excavation and restoration.

MH: Glynn Daniel coined the phrase ‘passage tomb’, in the nineteen forties, I would say it was that far back. Piggott after Ware… Hawkes… all were formative influences in that period. Piggott was quite brilliant … a prodigy but had no maths thus no School Certificate, and no qualification for University entrance. Then he did Avebury, and that got him into the system. Terence Powell, his friend, they worked together on many sites. But Piggott, Avebury was the making of him – Alexander Keiller had an ongoing project at Avebury; Piggott excavated it, and thus established himself.

Brian O’Kelly started off by doing an engineering course. That was his bent really, he was a technician. He wrote a piece – worth trying to track down – called ‘Blooms that Failed’. It involved metallurgy, etc. Of course we need all these experts. You end up with expert reports. The archaeologist comes to rely on this. Technical skill and engineering is very important, but de Valera (and Piggott), would have asked; ‘who is doing the thinking’? This new post-war archaeology was a kind of technological, science-driven archaeology, whose centre was not as a humanities subject but as a science.

Now O’Riordan, as we know, succeeded Macalister in the chair at UCD. O’Riordan died in 1957; and there was a complicated process of selection to follow in appointing his replacement, the first stage of which involved voting by the different departments, Celtic studies, Arts, etc., Canvassing went on, and letters of recommendation were accepted. There were various stages in the process involving the Academic Council, the UCD governing body, and then at the end, the Senate of UCD. The Senate consists of twenty-two members, but only twelve Senators have the ability to vote.

Gordon Childe might have been in contention for that job, were it not for his premature death by suicide in the Blue Mountains in Australia. Anyhow the two main contenders were Ruadhri De Valera and Michael (Brian) O’Kelly. It seemed that up to the point of the vote of the Senate that O’Kelly was doing well. O’Kelly was O’Riordain’s man. But Dev won the senate. Dev was the better candidate for the UCD job. He simply had the best brain. He would talk about mental muscle, by which the problem under consideration might be ‘squeezed’. Dev would incubate it for a long time, stay with it, and turn it over and chew on it.

Anyway, O’Kelly lost in the contest for the Dublin Chair; even though he had won the governing body battle, Dev won the war. Now Claire O’Kelly was quite an academic in her own right, and had possibly a better mind that Brian.  O’Kelly was a great networker. He had made many European contacts. Jensen and Karen in Sweden, for example. And in Lund he found Burenhult, who would eventually dig Carrowmore. And just as O’Kelly had been himself protected, O’Kelly protected Burenhult. There were many questions about Burenhult’s methods and interpretations, but O’Kelly deflected any he could. Burenhult’s placement at Carrowmore was a political move, against UCD and all who sailed in her; O’Kelly wanted a different story.

That was the politics of it; someone loses out. O’Kelly’s agenda was essentially anything that went against the UCD viewpoint, having lost the battle with Dev. In the meantime, Dev, who had initiated the Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland in 1949, now went on to complete the excavation of Tara after the death of O’Riordain. With O’Nuallain he had done a lot of work on court tombs. (Herity himself) went to night school in Drumcondra and eventually went on to sit on the board.

It is a pity when politics influences scholarship, but unfortunately the Newgrange job had politics at the heart of it. The archaeologist must be an interpreter. And it is kind of a unique set up. He is reading the evidence, but he has destroyed the evidence. He is the only witness. Anyway, when it came up, both de Valera and O’Kelly were in line for the Newgrange excavation. De Valera had been looking at the Neolithic archaeology of the Burren, and also conducting research with the local farmers about winter grazing, etc… something which was very far-seeing at the time. But Dev was not without faults. For instance he developed a theory of northern and southern wedge tomb categories; Tony Lucas successfully cast doubt on the merits of that argument, and this was seen to harm De Valera’s reputation. I heard that De Valera once made an approach to O’Kelly in terms of a compromise over Newgrange. ‘Brian, you do the inside or the outside, and I’ll do the other!’

The key man in the decision-making process (over Newgrange) was Paddy Hartnett from the Irish Tourist board. Hartnett was a Corkman and an ex-student of O’Kelly’s, in Cork. It had been decided that Newgrange needed work to make it more tourist-friendly. Here we come to a phenomenon which can be described as Cork loyalty. Do you know of it? Dev said ‘you will not do down Cork loyalty’. Paddy Hartnett was a complete gentleman. (Herity) met him on a visit to England to monuments there, looking at conservation and so on. (Herity) had said ‘don’t speak about personalities’. Hartnett seemed to have an open mind at that time.

But when he came back, Paddy sided with Brian in a very deliberate way. Now it must be remembered that at that time ‘Big Excavation’ was the way of making your name. You could go back to Egypt, Howard Carter and all that. John Charles McQuaid once said to Ruadhri De Valera, ‘Excavate near Dublin. It will be in the public eye. The papers will come down and publicise the subject’.

You see we have several pieces of the jigsaw (of passage tombs). But some pieces are missing. Indeed even if all the pieces of a particular site are present, and we have excavated them, and we know the site, we may still misinterpret. For example, O’Kelly misread the ring outside Newgrange, only to be corrected later by David Sweetman, whose analysis was more thorough. Part of the problem at Newgrange was the OPW personnel and structure and the supervision and interaction with O’Kelly; they were unable to challenge him. Percy de Clare was gone and the three commissioners were ‘admin men’, civil servants of the administrative kind. Though there were engineers in the OPW, they didn’t have the wherewithal. So the work went ahead and the reconstruction, with no rationale, or proper examination of its merits. I know it happened. I am well aware of people going into the board of works saying ‘no one is stopping O’Kelly’.

The monitoring of the work and presentation of the findings was done in the (Royal Irish) Academy. The meetings would happen at 2.30 or 3.00 in the afternoon. The crowned heads of the OPW would assemble there. (Herity) attended some of these discussions. At these meetings Brian O’Kelly made statements. ‘This is how it was’. He presented his interpretation as a fact. He had proof. He had conducted experiments in private, and a soils expert from Cork had worked on it and his results backed up the conclusions of O’Kelly. They had built a facade with the elements of the stuff under the cairn slip in it and pulled a string and it had (all) fallen in the right way. But the reconstruction was going on at that time.

There was the problem of the preliminary report. It kind of locked you into a set of conclusions. Unless, of course, you were a very big man and able to admit you were wrong. There are many examples of preliminary reports that turned out to be flawed. Cush – O’Riordain PRIA 1930’s. A white layer. Cinerary urns were the problem. They lay below the layer. All dating was relative. It was later shown that the urn was an outlier. Cairn H, Loughcrew was interesting too (as regards the preliminary report problem). Joe Raftery went in, looking at stratigraphy and when he saw what he took to be a bottom stratum with Iron Age battens and carved bones, declared it to be an Iron Age site.

There are other examples: Rathgal. That was Raftery Junior. Multivallate stone fort – it overlaid, he thought, a late Bronze Age enclosure, and the central element was Medieval. Once you publish with a particular reading it’s hard to retract. You become tied to that. That’s what happened re the ‘Newgrange Wall’. The OPW had spent £50,000 on the reconstruction. The experiment was described by O’Kelly. It was not just anecdotal, it was given as a full description before archaeologists, but it was not documented. Well, I never saw photos of the experiment.

Read, you need to read… Gordon Childe’s famous vitrification experiment, about vitrified forts in Scotland. It was conducted in 1937 by Wallace Thorneycroft and Childe. They built a fire against an experimental stone wall, built to the observed specifications. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The implication is, I suppose, that experimental archaeology could be a useful tool, and was really nothing new in the sixties. But also that there was a precedent for the documentation and evaluation of this kind of procedure.

So why did O’Kelly go ahead with the reconstruction so fast? So rashly, before, for example, he published on the experiments? The reason is obvious. There is only one reason. To establish politically his interpretation. To set it in stone. It was not pressure. It was not money. The money had already been allocated. You can’t unspend money.

O’Kelly found the roof box collapsed. The base stones were in position. His could be seen as a credible reconstruction. On the left hand side was a quartz block. Under this the surface of the stone was striated. O’Kelly argued that this might have been used as a focussing device. But no experiment was carried out to that effect then or since. A second set of striations suggested the existence of a second quartz block which wasn’t found. If that block is lost, it’s a terrible shame. That is a failing on behalf of O’Kelly.

(Many more subjects are discussed. There is a pause). MH. TV is misleading. Time Team? Do you watch that? What a trivial medium it is. They are freaks. Will Internet blogging one day reach the level of an academic paper?