Sunday, 8 December 2013

Gearoid Hill

Searching for the etymological roots of the word Hill on Wikipedia and I discovered the word had it’s genesis in the name of an unsung local hero: Gearoid Hill. It seems he was born in middle of the first millennium, possibly around 660, and was mentioned in a number of early chronicles, most notably ‘Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum’
‘Gyrowd Hyll a mann from west Iyrland performs miracles of prodigious strength.’ And ‘Life is lyke the mound made by Hyll that the sparrow must fly over to reach the other side.’
We often laugh that folk in earlier times believed the world was flat. But in fact, it was flatter then, and might have remained so but for the visionary efforts of this one man. For years, Bede’s words were dismissed as yet another example of his eccentric belief in miracles. But gradually, with the advent of Creationist theory, geologists have come to reappraise the Venerable Bede’s words and conclude that much of our present landscape may have been inspired comparatively recently.  
There’s good reason to believe Hill was from Munster. A slip of Vellum in the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Durrow alludes to: ‘The man Hyll who bringeth us all closer to heaven when he maketh mounds in the rains of the southern west’.
Early converts to Christianity, as Hill would have been, often thought that the higher you stood, the closer you were to Heaven. And this may have been what first prompted his astounding feats. Evidence from a little known 7th century poem of Celtic origin: recently unearthed and transcribed from Latin by scholars in Frankfurt University, speaks of a man, dwelling west of Cork, single-handedly inventing the hill - discovering one had appeared behind him whilst digging a ditch in his back garden. If Gearoid was this man, and there will always be controversy and dispute about historical figures from so long ago, the prototype hummock he created may have been no Croagh Patrick, but it was certainly the beginning of a lifelong obsession. Gearoid was inspired to create ever more ambitious humps over the flattened plains of the Irish countryside. Many archeologists and geologists now think some of his early attempts at earth-raising were in the Dunmanway area. They certainly appear a little rough and unfinished in comparison to say McGillycuddy’s Reeks. But whilst local chieftains must have been impressed by his industrious ability to raise large earthworks as the end results were excellent sites for forts and lookout posts, Hill’s endeavours were fraught with difficulty. For at this point, as Bede mentions in his ‘Historia’, Hill had only invented up and had not properly formulated down.
“They that walk up Hylls not knowing down must pray mightily.”
 This led to people getting stranded at the top of his hummocks and becoming hermits – an ancient corruption of the word Herbert. Mercifully for us all, Hill eventually came up with down and his increasingly megalomaniac visions of how soil and rock should be arranged saw him start on McGillycuddy’s Reeks around 685 and a few years later, in a fit of enthusiasm whilst on holiday in Westmeath: the Mountains of Mullingar. These were tremendous achievements for one man – especially in the face of violent hostility from many unfit lazy people who preferred the world flat and hated having to struggle breathlessly over the difficult and demanding terrain that Hill was designing. One of the striking similarities between modern Ireland and that of 700AD is that then, as now, many suffered from poor diets. They were unfit and overweight and didn’t get enough exercise. This led in 704 to Hill being thrown out of the country by angry and exhausted Dubliners after he created the Wicklow mountains.

Undismayed by this expulsion, he went on to greater things. Travelling first across the Irish Sea he built Snowden, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Differences in geological formations to his early works suggest that by the time Hill started on Ben Nevis he had a number of assistants laying down the foundations for his artistry in the way that apprentices would be later employed by Renaissance artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci. Whatever, pursued by irate Scotsmen, he fled to the European mainland where he fashioned such masterpieces as the Alps and the Pyrenees before moving south to fashion his piece-de-resistance: Everest. Many think Hill died in Australia trying to carry a large point up Ayers rock. We’ll never know. One of Ireland’s unsung heroes, Hill’s legacy was a leaner, scrawnier, populace with fewer coronary problems and respiratory diseases. Yet this man who quite literally changed the face of the earth was soon forgotten. At the very least he should be seen as the father of modern landscape gardening – a Capability Brown of the Dark Ages. I’d like to think that the County Council could perhaps scrape together enough money to erect a fitting tribute and memorial to Gearoid in commemoration his incredible achievements. Surely with all our modern plant equipment we could fix it to honour the man with small mountain range, some Irish Alps or Celtic Himalayas, between Ballineen and Dunmanway. And place a large statue of him at the top, gazing out intrepidly over the earth. 


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    1. Love it, specially the clever referencing of ex CIA agent masquerading as a Welsh mountain!