Brian Lacey has been one of the most important figures in history and archaeology in Donegal in the last 30 years.
From Dublin, his interest in the history of the county began seriously with his PhD thesis he completed on St Colum Cille. It was the beginning of an academic and publishing career which has seen him return to the county again and again.
He has just published his latest book on the county ‘Lug’s Forgotten Donegal Kingdom’ which focuses on an area from Cloughaneely to Kilmacrennan which constituted a tiny kingdom that had an ongoing association with the pagan god Lug – Lugh Lámhfhada. Many of the myths around Lug would later be associated with the saint.
The latest publication brings Brian full circle in his career, back to the area that Colum Cille came from. He has also recently completed filming an Irish language television programme on the saint for the BBC which will be broadcast next year.
His close association with the county was helped by being based in Derry from 1974 until 1998. He took a teaching post in the Magee campus of the University of Ulster and he later became head of museum services in the city where he oversaw the creation of the award-winning Tower Museum.
His biggest contribution to history and archaeological sites in the county came when he lead the archaeological survey of the county from 1979 to 1983 - the first of its kind to be carried out in the country - which brought him to virtually every field in the county.
Carried out in conjunction with Donegal County Council, it was a massive task and a pioneering one. There had been an amateur survey in the 1970s organised by Mountcharles woman Mairead Dunleavy, who worked in the National Museum, after there was no sign of the State archaeological survey coming to the county. After that, funding was secured to carry out a professional survey.
The project was a huge undertaking, Brian recalls, and funding conditions meant the field work had to be carried out in just a year. It involved visiting over 4,000 sites all over the county.
“Technology has moved on considerably but in those days we literally did not have typewriters never mind computers so it was a matter of searching all the old maps and then going out to visit anything that was either known to be an archaeological site or was potentially an archaeological site.
“It wouldn’t be true to say we went to every single field in Donegal but we nearly went to every single field in Donegal to check them.”
He describes himself as a bit of a mixture between an archaeologist and a historian of pre-Norman Irish history. “Most of my work has been about the Donegal-Derry area.
He has published around a dozen books with most of them dealing with Derry or Donegal between 500AD and 1200AD. “That is the main period that I have been interested in. St. Colum Cille is of major interest to me. Not just the saint but the traditions, the folklore and the archaeology that are associated with him. They are not exclusively to Derry and Donegal but they are certainly concentrated in Derry and Donegal.”
He worked in Derry during some of the worst years of the Troubles in the City but the IRA bombing campaign of the city centre did have some benefits for an archeologist. “Whenever the bombs went off and the buildings were cleared and the fires were put out we would go in and excavate them. What we were looking for was evidence of early and medieval Derry but we found evidence of plantation Derry.”
He would go on to set up the Tower Museum in the O’Doherty Tower within the city’s walls. “It is the only museum ever in history to have been both British museum of the year and Irish museum of the year.”
Creating a museum in a city where history is so devisive was a challenge. “The divisions in the city are very much derived from history but there is a particular challenge to be as even-handed as we could be and I think we pulled it off.”
He stayed in the north west until 1998 and left on the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed. “I joked to people that I was part of the agreement - they gave me back as part of the deal”. He was appointed director of the Discovery Programme which he left recently. One of the projects the organisation is working on is the connections between the Romans and Ireland. This has brought him back to Donegal. He recently contributed to the documentary film on the mining of sand from Muckish mountain and that ties in with research on the Romans in Ireland and the theory that they might have come to Donegal looking for sand to make glass. The Romans searched the whole known world for sand to make glass as they needed a particular type of sand. “The Discovery Programme is investigating all the evidence of Romans in Ireland and just as part of that process I have been honing in on the fact that there is a collection of Roman Artefacts from north west Donegal.”
His latest book focuses on the Pagan god Lugh and worship of him in Donegal by the Síl Lugdach people. “It looks as if there was a particular devotion to the God in that area and it is possible that Mt Errigal was named after him. These people eventually became some of the most important families in Donegal, in particular the O’Donnells and the O’Dohertys. When Christianity comes the cult of the Celtic God Lug becomes Christianised and the characteristics of the god reappear as stories about St Colum Cille and the local saint Beaglaoch.”
Lug’s forgotten Donegal kingdom: The archaeology, history and folklore of the Síl Lugdach of Cloghaneely by Brian Lacey will be launched at 8pm on Friday at An tSean Bheairic in Falcarragh.