Chapple, R. M. 2012 'Head Carrying in Medieval Wexford and Modern Galway' Blogspot post
Head Carrying in Medieval Wexford and Modern Galway Originally posted online on 21 March 2012 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/head-carrying-in-medieval-wexford-and.html)In my review of Anne Lynch’s recent publication Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford:Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007 I touched on the finding that someof the women buried at the Abbey may have routinely carried heavy loads perched ontheir heads. To be specific, O’Donnabhain (2010, 116) notes that among the sexedfemales from the site, there was a marked increase in the rate of osteophytosis in theneck than among the males. He notes that this observation correlates with an elevatedrate of arthritis of the cervical vertebrae. Taken together, it is postulated that theseconditions are evidence for the routine carrying of loads on the head. No publishedreferences are cited in support of this thesis. Similarly, no parallels are drawn with anycomparable excavated skeletal collections from Ireland or elsewhere. From this Iunderstand that this is O’Donnabhain’s own theory. On one side, it is an interestingspeculation, consistent with the available evidence. On the other hand, it is anobservation not confirmed, as far as I am aware, in other excavated collections. Ofcourse, I realise that every change in our knowledge has to start somewhere, possiblywith someone bravely putting their head above the parapet to announce a previouslyunnoticed fact. At one level my reservation about this theory was its apparent lack ofconfirming data. At another level, I feel than my aversion to this proposal was that itseemed too alien to my understanding of the Medieval past. I am familiar with the sightof African and Asian women carrying loads in this manner, but to transport it toWexford seemed too much – it seemed ‘un-Irish’.
In short, I had plenty of reasons to like this intriguing and interesting speculation, butjust as many if not more for suspecting that it may be a bit thin on evidence. That isprobably where the matter would have rested for me. However, over Christmas 2011 mymother, Maureen Chapple, and my sister, Katie, came to stay with my family and I inBelfast. One evening our conversation touched on the fact that in the new year(February 2012), my mother would be going to Kenya to assist the Building ofHope charity. In the course of the conversation we discussed the traditional Africanmethod of women carrying objects on top of their heads. As an aside, I mentioned that Ihad recently read and reviewed the Tintern Abbey publication and how a number ofMedieval skeletons there had shown evidence of just such a practice. I remarked on howI thought it was probably quite a local phenomenon, restricted to that part of Wexford,around that time.That was all well and good – properly scientific and logical - until my mother spoke up.She told me that her Grandmother (my Great Grandmother) was well known in the areawhere I grew up for being able to balance a full bucket of water on her head and carry ithome. Honor Mannion (nee O’Toole) was born around 1869 in Killeenaran, CountyGalway. She married my Great Grandfather, John Mannion, in 1900, and died in 1947 inLissindrigan, near Craughwell, Co. Galway.My reason for placing this anecdote on record is to, hopefully, increase the body ofknowledge surrounding this method of portage in Ireland. Until I found out about theexample from my own family, I was quite willing to downplay, if not wholly discount,O’Donnabhain’s speculation. It may have been an interesting interpretation of theevidence, but it would have been quite unlikely – or so I thought. Now I am starting towonder what other information is out there? Are there more stories of Grannies carryingheavy loads around, perfectly balanced on their heads? Does anyone have a photographof an aged auntie doing just that? On its own it may have seemed odd, but as part of alarger body of evidence it may just be a glimpse of a lost tradition. For the archaeologistsof Britain and Ireland reading this – do you have osteo reports that show elevated ratesof osteophytosis in the neck for female burials? Perhaps these may be interpreted orreinterpreted in terms of head carrying. Maybe it is time to gather up the evidence andreclaim head carrying as an Irish tradition.Acknowledgments:I am indebted to my mother, Maureen, for providing me with this anecdote and to mysister, Kathryn, for providing me with the names and dates from her genealogicalresearch. I also wish to acknowledge the assistance provided by archaeologists ÁineBradley and Philippa de Barra. Thank you all very much.Notes:Building of Hope is a county Clare based charity. Their 2012 project is to construct aresidential care centre for blind and partially sighted children in Likoni, Mombasa, inKenya. They are a wonderful charity and worthy of your support.
A Google search on this topic brings together quite an interesting collection ofreferences to research, videos etc. on head carrying.Reference:O’Donnabhain, B. 2010 ‘4.3 The human burials’ in Lynch, A. Tintern Abbey, Co.Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007. Dublin, 105-125.