Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Head Carrying in Medieval Wexford and Modern Galway

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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 some of the women buried at the Abbey may have routinely carried heavy loads perched on their heads. To be specific, O’Donnabhain (2010, 116) notes that among the sexed females from the site, there was a marked increase in the rate of osteophytosis in the neck than among the males. He notes that this observation correlates with an elevated rate of arthritis of the cervical vertebrae. Taken together, it is postulated that these conditions are evidence for the routine carrying of loads on the head. No published references are cited in support of this thesis. Similarly, no parallels are drawn with any comparable excavated skeletal collections from Ireland or elsewhere. From this I understand that this is O’Donnabhain’s own theory. On one side, it is an interesting speculation, consistent with the available evidence. On the other hand, it is an observation not confirmed, as far as I am aware, in other excavated collections. Of course, I realise that every change in our knowledge has to start somewhere, possibly with someone bravely putting their head above the parapet to announce a previously unnoticed fact. At one level my reservation about this theory was its apparent lack of confirming data. At another level, I feel than my aversion to this proposal was that it seemed too alien to my understanding of the Medieval past. I am familiar with the sight of African and Asian women carrying loads in this manner, but to transport it to Wexford seemed too much – it seemed ‘un-Irish’.

In short, I had plenty of reasons to like this intriguing and interesting speculation, but just as many if not more for suspecting that it may be a bit thin on evidence. That is probably where the matter would have rested for me. However, over Christmas 2011 my mother, Maureen Chapple, and my sister, Katie, came to stay with my family and I in Belfast. 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 of Hope charity. In the course of the conversation we discussed the traditional African method of women carrying objects on top of their heads. As an aside, I mentioned that I had recently read and reviewed the Tintern Abbey publication and how a number of Medieval skeletons there had shown evidence of just such a practice. I remarked on how I 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 area where I grew up for being able to balance a full bucket of water on her head and carry it home. Honor Mannion (nee O’Toole) was born around 1869 in Killeenaran, County Galway. She married my Great Grandfather, John Mannion, in 1900, and died in 1947 in Lissindrigan, near Craughwell, Co. Galway.

My reason for placing this anecdote on record is to, hopefully, increase the body of knowledge surrounding this method of portage in Ireland. Until I found out about the example 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 the evidence, but it would have been quite unlikely – or so I thought. Now I am starting to wonder what other information is out there? Are there more stories of Grannies carrying heavy loads around, perfectly balanced on their heads? Does anyone have a photograph of an aged auntie doing just that? On its own it may have seemed odd, but as part of a larger body of evidence it may just be a glimpse of a lost tradition. For the archaeologists of Britain and Ireland reading this – do you have osteo reports that show elevated rates of osteophytosis in the neck for female burials? Perhaps these may be interpreted or reinterpreted in terms of head carrying. Maybe it is time to gather up the evidence and reclaim head carrying as an Irish tradition.

I am indebted to my mother, Maureen, for providing me with this anecdote and to my sister, Kathryn, for providing me with the names and dates from her genealogical research. I also wish to acknowledge the assistance provided by archaeologists Áine Bradley and Philippa de Barra. Thank you all very much.

Building of Hope is a county Clare based charity. Their 2012 project is to construct a residential care centre for blind and partially sighted children in Likoni, Mombasa, in Kenya. They are a wonderful charity and worthy of your support.

A Google search on this topic brings together quite an interesting collection of references to research, videos etc. on head carrying.

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.

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  1. In brickyards in Britain, up until the 1940s, teenage girls commonly made the bricks and did all the heavy work, until the moulded bricks were dried on a "floor" subcontracted to an older woman. . They carried the wet clay and bricks on boards ballanced on a thick belt made of rags (they called a bustle). So there might be longterm lower back disease as a result of this also. My auntie blamed that for the disintegration of two of her verterbrae - but she also had osteoporosis! SO BEWARE, there is a higher rate of cervical OA in women generally, including populations with no known tradition of head carrying. Both you and my auntie might be right, but establishing the link scientifically is difficult. I guess we need a comparison group where we KNOW there was no head carrying

  2. So I guess like the women in Kenya this headload balancing act is not unusual in rural parts of Jamaica especially among higglers and rural folks who have to carry loads (produce from fields, water from standpipes into their homes, etc) I actually have such a drawing on my FB page that I copied from Adrian Boot and Michael Thomas "Babylon on a Thin Wire."

  3. I forgot to mention that head loads would be carried using a cotta for a cushion. A google search for cotta yields: Rasta/Patois Dictionary
    COTTA, : a roll of cloth or vegetation placed on top of the head to cushion the skull from the weight of a head load. (5). CRAB, : aside from it's usual meaning, it is ...
    The history of Jamaica. Or, general survey of the antient and ... - Google Books Result Long - 1774 - Jamaica
    The Negroes use their heads, instead of their shoulders, or backs, for carrying all ... a dried plantain leaf they plait a circular pad, which they call a cotta; upon this, ... and affirm, at the same time, with a laugh, that they feel no weight.
    I would have love to include my drawing here but the space is limited to text as I know it. For the visual of head carrying (with no cotta)see my home page [Leroy Latty] on Facebook.

    1. Hi there Leroy,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm sure that the Irish women would have used something similar to the 'cotta' ... I'll ask my mother the next time I have an opportunity.

  4. I'm very grateful to Séighean Ó Draoi for pointing me in the direction of this photo in the collections of the National Library of Ireland ( The photograph is from a postcard, printed in Berlin, and dates to around 1905 - this is just the period of my Great Grandmother. This image was taken just beside the Spanish Arch, in Galway City - only about 20 miles from where she lived.

  5. Very interesting post! It has made me think of my own childhood in Co. Kilkenny! Its also interesting because I live in Upper Egypt now, where even the kids carry things on their heads. I have been thinking a lot about the practicality of doing this as it is easier to carry heavier loads on your head than it is to carry them in a bag! They also carry large trays of food on their heads which, if you try to carry it in your hands, is a very awkward weight.
    The life in the West Of Ireland is so much like like here in rural Luxor so I imagine that head-carrying could be a common practice. Carrying buckets of water on their heads sounds very familiar!!!!!