+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Marcanna na Talamh

Location The offshore islands of Ireland
Categories Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Keywords Maritime, boats, navigation
Contact organisation Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO)

Seafarers on the Irish Islands use methods for orientation and navigation at sea, a traditional technique that has been passed from generation to generation and which continues to the present day. The use of landmarks, or marcanna na talamh in Gaelic, is practiced across the world on islands and ensure fishers and other sea going people can safely navigate their environment, find fishing gear and preferred fishing spots.

Background information

Before charts, before sounders, plotters, radar, VHF and the other technological tools of a modern vessel, communities were working and navigating the waters around our offshore islands. Marcanna na talamh/Landmarks, or “marks”, show the way around dangerous obstacles, the way to fishing grounds and safe transit to other areas. Sight and sound, and even the smell of the sea are melded with a different way of knowing that is passed through the generations to ensure that island boats can make their living and return safely home at the end of the day.

“One of the most functionally important aspects of fishermen’s traditional knowledge is what are called ‘comharran’ on Barra and ‘marcanna na talamh’ on Arranmore. These are also guides, landmarks that are used by, for example, lobster fishermen while at sea to guide them to the hard ground that they use as lobster fishing grounds. Some of the marks used to navigate to one particular fishing reef will be the same ones for different fishermen, but in some cases each fisherman will have his own set of marks.”

West of Arranmore. Photo by Stephen Hurrel, Dúchas na Mara 2012, ISBN 978-0-9529089-8-2

MacKinnon, I. and Brennan, R. 2012. Dùthchas na Mara/Dúchas na Mara / Belonging to the Sea. Photography: Stephen Hurrel. ISBN 978-0-9529089-8-2

The above passage is taken from a joint project between the Isle of Barra in Scotlandand Árainn Mhór in Donegal and demonstrates the international reach of intangible cultural heritage between island communities.

Houses, a pole or tree onshore, a particular rock aligned with another conspicuous mark shows the way by day, a particular house light with various leading lights, perches and lighthouses help by night. This way of understanding the marine environment is different from, but complementary to, more recent ways of learning seafaring from books, marine training courses and use of remote sensing and other technology. Even so, modern marine charts acknowledge that certain areas are only safely navigable by small craft, crewed by skilled operators with “local knowledge”.

The offshore island peoples of Ireland share a unique and important maritime heritage which stems from, and evolves directly from, their interactions with the coastal and maritime environment.

North Sea Queen at Rutland and Arranmore circa 19056. Photo by Jack Herdman, Herdman Collection, source Celia Ferguson (née Herdman) and National Library of Ireland

This shared maritime cultural heritage of the offshore islands provides a sense of place, unity, and belonging to the people. Their intangible cultural heritage is rooted in their specific land and seascapes, boats, buildings, stories, traditions, language, and cultural practices. It connects these people to each other, to their past and helps guide the future.

The islands are rich in both history and heritage, and have had a living population for thousands of years who have left their mark on the landscape. Indeed it is said, that not only have the islands been shaped by its people but we have also been shaped by our islands. Many of the landmarks across the islands have names that document a person, a story or some other significant event and preserving them passing them on to the next generation ensures the stories are not lost.

Fisher and Child, Arranmore. Photo by Seamus Bonner

Practice and practitioners

While islands’ fisher communities knowledge of the seas may not have the objective precision that is characteristic of natural science’s understanding of the marine environment, the fisher’s knowledge is, arguably, more complete in that it is closer to a total field of understanding, having both practical and emotional power. For many hundreds of years, this knowledge has played a key role in supporting the island people’s subsistence and distinct identity.

The use of marcanna na talamh is widespread across all of the Irish Islands due to their utility and practicality even in the era of electronic aids to navigation, internet and mobile telephone technology.

Dr. Ruth Brennan and fisher Seamus Kavanagh. Photo by Stephen Hurrel, Dúchas na Mara 2012, ISBN 978-0-9529089-8-2

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO) represents islanders in marine matters with members across all of the regions that have offshore islands. IIMRO has a co-operative legal structure and works to represent islanders at a national and European level. IIMRO members are at the forefront of the practice and preservation of marcanna na talamh and use them regularly in their everyday lives. More information on the organisation and its work can be found at www.iimro.org

Preservation and maintenance of island traditions is carried out on Ireland’s islands mainly by individuals, local communities and community groups. Examples include traditional music, arts and stone wall festivals, knitting and sewing groups. There is currently no overarching framework for the collection, collation, documentation and preservation of intangible cultural heritage across the Irish offshore Islands. As many of these traditions are passed from generation to generation by spoken word and practice of the skills they are in peril of being lost for good.

Currach, Inish Turk. Photo by Seamus Bonner

The existence on these islands of a strong body of traditional knowledge that has emerged from the island people’s long and close relationship with nature has the potential to connect different ways of knowing the marine environment. It is likely that the current lack of connection between these different ways of understanding the world contributes fundamentally to the ongoing conflicts on the islands. We believe that finding a place for each of these ‘worlds’ within the other could give rise to a richer way of knowing and understanding the seas to which we belong.

Contact organisation

Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO)

Related and supporting organisations

Irish Islands Federation