In the archaeological department of NUIG, it was believed that you had not truly earned your stripes as a field archaeologist until you had had at least one near-death experience whilst on a dig. Some senior staff members had lived long enough to have had several. Brendan Herlihy, a tenured lecturer in environmental archaeology, sported a hoof-shaped scar on his shoulder from an encounter with a pony in a Connemara field, and, according to student legends, had gone on to fall off the second floor of a tower house, catch pneumonia after spending weeks in a leaky tent near a hut site in Dunleary and knock out several men with a human jawbone in a drunken bar brawl somewhere up North before being arrested. It was a huge anti-climax, as well as a general tragedy, for both students and staff when he was carried off by a tumour. A real rollicking monster of a tumour, true, which had camped out in the man’s brain for the better half of a decade, but nevertheless an unfitting end for a man who had taken more than his fair share of knocks whilst in the line of duty. However, before the man was taken to his final rest, he was good enough to tell me the story of his first professional dig.
It was sometime in the seventies, a wedge tomb somewhere in Donegal. Not a good time or a good place to go poking in fields if you were a civilian, but of course young Brendan Herlihy, who grew up in Mahon, didn’t know much about that. What he did know was that he had been told to wait for a separate team of Limerick osteoarchaeologists, who would be helping him do some preliminary fieldwork that day, as well as with the actual dig the day after. Thing was, when Brendan pulled into the field in his brother’s Ford, he could see that the Limerick lads had apparently beaten him to the punch. In the distance he could see three men clustered around the tomb.
Brendan, at first, thought nothing of it. He continued to think nothing of it as he got out of the car and walked towards the men. Even when he got close enough to notice that all three of the men were wearing black balaclavas, this fact barely registered with him. He was looking forward to his first real dig, and was eager to put his best foot forward.
“How are ye?” he bellowed cheerfully as he reached the three men, who had been watching him carefully ever since he had gotten out of the car. The man nearest to him was so taken aback by this address that he grasped Brendan’s offered hand and shook it dazedly. Brendan realized that the three men were about the same age he was. Nervous young bloods, just like him! Well, no matter; he would put them at their ease.
“Terrible weather for it, eh?”
There was a bewildered silence. Then, one of the men – he was wearing army fatigues, and seemed to be in charge – spoke.
“You haven’t been at the tomb, have ye? Taken anything out?”
“Me? No, not yet. Won’t be having a proper look until the rest of the NUIG team come down tomorrow. Have you done some preliminary fieldwork?”
More baffled silence. One of the men, who seemed barely out of his teens, blurted out “Fieldwork? We’re not – ow!” before being silenced by means of an elbow to the ribs. His colleague turned back to Brendan.
“Yeah, change of plans, mate. Preliminary fieldwork is rescheduled for tomorrow. Higher-ups not sure this place is safe,” said the presumed leader, tersely. “We were just checking it out there. Probably not a good idea to go anywhere near it.”
Brendan tossed his head to the side in the classic “ah-sure-well-what-can-ye-do” pose. He was a little disappointed, but at the same time the rain had started to come down in earnest now, and the three men in balaclavas, young as they were, certainly looked like they knew what they were doing. So he thanked the three of them, and trotted back towards his car, none the wiser. Behind him, one of the young paramilitaries slowly shook his head his disbelief, before ducking down to take one last look into the tomb. “Eejit” he muttered to the stacks of illegal weaponry piled against the mossy stone. “Complete gom.”
After he had finished telling me this story, old Brendan Herlihy turned to face me, and said, in the tones of a man imparting some great wisdom, “The moral of this story, young man, is that sometimes you can go very far while being a complete eejit who knows nothing whatsoever.”