Irish Folklore: Let Sleeping Giants Lie

One of the most interesting aspects of Irish folklore is how legendary Irish characters are often said to watch over the land from great heights – usually from dominant local topographical features.

This particular photo is taken at the hill called Seefin on the Sheep’s Head peninsula (Seefin being a particularly bad anglicization of Suí Finn or Suidhe Finn – Fionn’s Seat).  There are several Fenian placenames scattered around Ireland (one being another ‘Seefin’ – a summit in the Ballyhoura mountains in Limerick) but also through Scotland where the Fenian Cycle tales were also very widespread. Sometimes, in Scotland, the name Fingal is used instead of ‘Finn’ or ‘Fionn’, such as Suidh Fhinn (or Fingal’s Seat as it’s called in English) in the Isle of Skye, Fingal’s Pinnacles (also in Skye), Fingal’s Cauldron Seat on the Isle of Arran etc. etc.

The fact that these characters were situated up on such huge heights helped to support claims from some of the later mythological tales that Fionn and the Fianna were actually a bunch of giants. As a result, additional tales were often added on at these areas (or earlier creation tales were adapted to add the Fenian hero) to ‘explain’ how these ‘giants’ carried out some amazing feat to create a topographical feature nearby.

On the Sheep’s Head peninsula, the local legend is that Fionn fell asleep on the hill. He must have been having a particularly bad nightmare for, according to the story, his right foot slipped and dug out a piece of land to form the lake at the bottom of the hill. Gouging a portion out of the landscape clearly annoyed the ‘giant’ big time (apologies for the pun) for he then went on to lob the removed ‘sod’ offshore to Dunmanus Bay and created Carbery Island.

Hence, the expression ‘Let sleeping giants lie!’


Irish Folklore: Magic Realism and a Haunted House in Beara

Beara10 - Haunted house (2)Catching up with comments on the brilliant Goodreads Ireland community the other day, I came across a fascinating thread on ‘Magic Realism’ that I’d missed while away. Somehow, while writing a response I got carried away with an example of a haunted house story from my own childhood. See below:

Haunted House in West Cork

It seems that when I return home, certain slivers of reality – or perhaps perceptions of reality – tend to differ from what I see outside the country. Any time I’m down in Beara, for example, we invariably get to talking about the ‘hunted house’ down the road from where we were based.

This particular haunted house was haunted even back in my Da’s time. He had plenty of stories about how he ran pass it, terrified, as a kid. The building itself was a pretty interesting place in that it was set in an isolated spot, hidden away from the road by an extremely thick, overgrown hedge. As a kid, I was driven past or cycled past as well and, occasionally, we’d look in out of curiosity although we’d never dare to venture beyond the gate. The truth was, it’s was a bleak and foreboding looking ruin. Quite a big house for it’s day as well and odd in that it’s been deserted for the whole of my lifetime (and my Da’s).

When I brought my own kids home from NZ on holiday, I’d also bring them past the old haunted house and pas on the stories that Dad told me. To this day our family still refer to it as the “Haunted House’.

Several years ago, however, when the boom was in full blast, I returned to Beara and found, to my horror, that the
external hedges around the house had been completely removed to expose the building to the clear light of day. Not only that, but someone had obtained ownership of the property and was in the process of carrying out major structural work including a major extension to the back. I found my own reaction to this a bit strange. I had no real connection to the place, after all. At the same time, being able to see the site clearly for the very first time felt as though an important element of my childhood had been irretrievably desecrated.

Five years ago, I was back home again and, to my delight, (yes, weird reaction, I know) the house remained unchanged. All the scaffolding I’d seen two years earlier was still up but absolutely no progress had been made since then. When I asked my uncle about it, he informed me that the builders had left the place after hearing strange noises (or seeing something). He’d seen the building regularly but heard about the reasons behind it second-hand as well. I’ve no idea if this is true or whether it was simply one of those many consequences resulting from the financial impact of the recession.

Last month I was back home again and the house still sits deserted, in off the road, looking even more depleted and worn out than ever. I felt some sympathy for the person who must own the property now but when I saw how the hedges have started to grow back again I couldn’t repress a smile.

Irish Folklore: Water Values


Two words that most Irish people know – no matter how limited their Gaelic vocabulary – are ‘uisce beatha’: the Irish for ‘whiskey’. Uisce beatha – as everyone loves to explain ad nauseum – literally means ‘water of life’. Most Irish people are pretty proud about that description. It’s a cool intellectual construct after all, based around a relatively cool product (unless, of course, you’ve overindulged). What’s not to like?

Respect for water as an important necessity of life is a common theme in most early cultures. If you delve a little deeper into the reasoning behind that, it’s quite easy to see why. On the most basic individual level, water is required to sustain life (i.e. if you don’t replenish your body fluids, you die. If you don’t wash, no one will want to have sex with you).

At the most basic early social level (tribe/community) water was also a fundamental essential for the cleaning and preparation of large volumes of food, transport, farming, etc. All early settlements of any size were invariably based near a supply of water for this reason.

Because water was so important in a physical sense, our ancestors also acknowledged this importance in their spiritual practices. Those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs, wells, lakes, etc.) were considered sacred spaces in that they were believed to serve as a conduit for bringing imbas (esoteric knowledge) into the physical world. During the early medieval period in Ireland, many rivers were believed have an association with a specific female river deity (Bóinn for the Boyne, Sionnann for the Shannon etc.) although these were probably all manifestations of the original Land Goddess (generically referred to as Mother Earth in modern parlance). These sites were venerated and votive offerings were often made there. This is why so many of our archaeological treasures have been recovered from ‘watery’ (or ‘previously watery’ places).

If you move across time to our more complex contemporary society, you can see that the value system for water had changed dramatically from what it was 1000 years or even 100 years ago. Most western societies, take it for granted that homes will have a reliable supply of water through home plumbing. If there’s a shortage of supply, it’s simply pumped in from elsewhere.

Over time, this easy availability has resulted in water being devalued from sacred resource to simple commodity (such as electricity, communications inputs etc.) delivered through a tap. Although we retain many aspects of our ancestors reverence for water through our spiritual rituals (baptisms, holy water at church fonts etc.), this is quite a significant change in mindset.

The biggest disjunction of all, however, occurs at the higher, more powerful levels of society (government /commercial institution) where water’s only perceived to have value when it has some kind of input to – or impact on – power (political or financial). To some degree, this is probably why such questionable decisions that impact on local water supply are being made. Over the last few decades we’ve seen increasing disregard for local water supply as a result of uncontrolled industrial/agricultural pollution and fracking driven by commercial interests and facilitated by governments.

Needless to say, this is a  simplistic description of how changing value systems and structures can have a detrimental effect on a society. Nevertheless, when considering aspects of modern society it’s often useful to take a step back and consider what our ancestors might have thought. With respect to water, although there’s no doubt they’d be impressed by the technological advances made over the last millennium, you can’t help but imagine their alarm at a society that treats what they would have considered a fundamental necessity of life, with such disdain.

Mise (me): The Accidental Beara Dark Legends Book Launch

It always takes me a few days to open up when I return to New Zealand. It’s a little strange I know but at those times I just want to hold my experiences in Ireland close. Interacting or talking with people in New Zealand always soak the memories and sensations away faster than I’m willing to give them up.

As ever, Ireland was fun, emotional, refreshing, filling, etc. I had some time with family and friends, did some interviews for the Beara: Dark Legends book and, surprisingly,  ended up doing a book launch for it back in Beara – something I hadn’t really anticipated.  Given that I only had two spare copies of the book with me that was a challenge.

The launch took place with little warning down at the Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat near Na hAoraí  (Eyeries) – a beautiful spot with a staggering view of the Kerry Coast across the bay. Had a very nice crowd of people (about 35-40) there but the highlight for me was seeing some of my family I haven’t seen since I was a kid. There was a nice surreal twist as well with one of the individuals attending Anam Cara turning out to be a juggler/hoola-hooper. She very kindly offered to perform while the various attendees were arriving so as they turned up they found her in full regalia hoola-hooping to some traditional music at the entrance way

In any case, I had a good night so much thanks to all the family (particularly Patrick-Gerard Murphy), Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Sue Booth-Forbes (Anam Cara), The Allihies Museum folk and of course Kirsten and Todd (for performing duties).

Some photos of the night are on my facebook page. An interview with Cork Now magazine is also available here .

Now, back to writing.