By Michael McCaughan
Material History Review, No.48 (Fall 1998)
Abstract: This paper explores the phenomenon of ships voyaging in the sky. Such fantastical sightings are considered primarily in an early medieval Irish context, but evidence from places as widely separated in time and place as thirteenth-century England and eighteenth-century Canada is also addressed. The earliest material representation of an Irish currach (skin boat) being rowed heavenwards is on an eighth-century carved stone pillar. By connecting this iconographic evidence to the appearance of ships in the sky above a Celtic monastery, a framework is established from which to investigate the “airship” mirabilia. Understanding the cultural gulf that exists between medieval and modern thinking is central to the concept of “ships in the air.” The paper addresses the significance of the ship as an enduring cultural metaphor and religious symbol and affirms these meanings.
Introduction: The glories of early Christian Irish art are manifest in preserved illuminated manuscripts, intricate metalwork and the monumental carved stone crosses, pillars and slabs that still survive today in the countryside, churchyards and monastic ruins of Ireland. While the richly carved high crosses of the ninth and tenth centuries, with their emphasis on figuration, are the fullest expression of representational art, earlier carved and incised stoneworks are no less significant in terms of their iconography, decoration and symbolism.
The eighth-century Kilnaruane pillar stone, overlooking Bantry Bay in County Cork, is of particular interest to maritime archeologists, historians and ethnologists, because its Christian-theme carvings include a unique preViking depiction of the Irish skin-covered boat known as a “currach.” Prior to the arrival of the Vikings in the ninth and ninth centuries with their advanced wooden boatbuilding technology, the skin-covered currach was the common seagoing craft of Ireland. It was of key importance to the sea-connected Celtic Church and figured prominently in the “immrama” or mystical voyage tales of early Christian Ireland, together with the story of St Brendan’s voyage to the Promised Land, which achieved great popularity in medieval Europe . Today the currach, in its canvas-covered derivative form, is still in use on the Atlantic seaboard of western Ireland, where material remnants of the European past often have found their last resting place.