Satire and ‘Practical’ Magic

According to legend, the Irish poet Cairbre was the original ‘inventor’ of satire.  This ancient narrative ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ describes how, during a visit to Bres – the Formorian king of the Túatha Dé Danann – Cairbre was hosted in a miserly hut without any furniture or a fire in the hearth. As a meal, he was provided with three small, dry oatcakes.

Outraged by what he saw as an insult to the respect he was due, Cairbre proceeded to compose a virulent satire against Bres, a composition of words so powerful that they caused his cheeks to break out in boils and blemishes. Given that no king could rule if he was, in any way, physically or mentally ‘blemished’, Bres was quickly removed from power.

Although the Second Battle of Moytura narrative can hardly be considered the most credible of sources (with respect to ‘facts’, at least), we can still be pretty sure the Irish filid (druid-poets) spread it about as widely as they could at the time. Not only did it obfuscate the relationship between a ‘satire’ and a ‘spell’ (both are compositions of words that cause an end effect), it also included a veiled threat to anyone who was considering the possibility of not recognising the power and status the filid felt was their due.

In ancient Ireland, a person’s status (or “honour price ­­– lóg enech­ – as it was more usually known) was particularly important. People in power retained that power through physical force, through a social authority or status based on the accepted consensus of key players in the community, or a combination of both. Hence their love of ritual, pomp and ceremony, anything that elevated their status into a position of status above the rest. If, however, the status of a person (or indeed a representative group) was damaged, then his authority was undermined and his power in the community subsequently diminished.

Obviously, we have to take the ancient descriptions of the filid’s power with a grain of salt (particularly given that many of these stories originated from self-serving poets with one eye on reinforcing their own social status at the expense of others). Although, back in the day, people would have been much more credible, with the advent of technology and easy availability of information, most people nowadays discount the ability of satire to cause physical blemishes.

Despite this inability to cause a physical end effect, the power of the satire remained a powerful instrument, particularly when used against an unjust ruler, a corrupt hierarchy or authority.  Like the ancient tradition of fasting in protest against someone, it had the effect of ruining a person’s reputation, making them a source of mockery in the community or shaming them. In this respect, the satire is just as effective today as it was back in ancient times.

A contemporary Irish example of the power of satire is the television series Father Ted which absolutely lambasted the Catholic Church in Ireland for three seasons between 1995-1998. Initially, this series had to be produced using non-Irish funding as no investor in Ireland was willing to put up the money for fear of the political and social lashback from the Church (evidence of the power it still retained in certain circles). Once the programme was up on screen of course, the thick vein of anger at resentment at the clergy that many Irish people felt (but rarely spoke about in public) quickly became apparent. Within a short time, the priesthood had openly become a subject of ridicule.

Although it cannot be doubted that the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland had already been on the wane, the arrival of Father Ted marked the death knell of its social authority. Nowadays, politicians speak openly against the church (having initially assessed the public mood, of course) and the organisation is finally being held accountable for the great social harm it was carrying (in terms of child abuse etc.) under the cloak of its better deeds

Image courtesy of [creativedoxfoto] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Folklore: A Great Leap of Faith

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Down on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, if you look hard you’ll find this beautiful spot called ‘The Priest’s Leap’ (although you’ll have to try hard as it’s poorly signposted). According to local tradition, a priest on horseback was being chased across these mountain by English soldiers and, from this particular rock, his horse made a gigantic leap that carried him all the way to another rock outside the town of Bantry. Given that this second rock isn’t visible in the photo, you’ll have worked out this is quite a long way.

Some locals claim that the priest involved in this incident was a Fr Dominick Collins who was later killed by the English forces during a siege at the (relatively) local Castle Dún Baoi, stronghold of the O’Sullivan-Beara clan. Others claim it was a different priest called Fr James Archer who also has associations with Dún Baoi. The truth, in fact, is that the tale (or rather its associated tradition) predates both of these religious men and, indeed, the entire Christian religion.

Down in the Beara peninsula with its impressive mountains, valleys and formidable topographical features, it was not unusual for our early ancestors to tell stories about the landmarks that they saw every morning on rising and before they went to bed at night. This region – and, indeed, many other parts of Ireland – abounds with tales of individuals or creatures that carried out gigantic leaps across vast precipices, valleys and wide bays.

Linking such heroic-scale acts of endeavours to the land that surrounded them was a means for our ancestors to explain – but also to come to terms with – the great natural forces that surrounded them. These stories were a means of ‘taming’ the land, making it more familiar and comfortable to interact with. Back in the day, a person’s survival depended on his/her ability to interact with the natural world. Closeted as we are today with such a significantly larger human population, technology and increased knowledge, it is difficult for us to comprehend that relationship.

Initially, therefore, our ancestors’ stories concerned mythological creatures and heroes (such as the Hag of Beara and Fionn mac Cumhal). Later, as the land became more settle and ‘civilised’, those great feats were assigned to more local, more human figures (such as the two priests in the story above).

Today, however, we no longer need such close interaction with our local topography. Many of us now live in artificially constructed environment or change the area or country that we live in at least once in our lives, further diluting that connection. Despite this, the stories that go with the land still exist in our social and cultural subconscious which is why, in later years, those of us who’ve left home (and our own descendants) find ourselves longing for something we don’t quite understand. Fortunately, although we all know you can’t return to your past or reclaim your childhood, you can go back and access the stories that filled it.

And sometimes, that is enough.