Irish Folklore: Magic rocks, Bullán stones and curses (Part 1)

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Given the amount of rock we have down in West Cork it probably comes as no surprise to find the occasional ‘magic’ or folklore-related rock. This is often the case where the stone has some essential feature (the shape, location etc.) that sets it apart from the other (many, many, many) rocks lying around.

This particular stone is a bullán stone found over Bantry way. Bullán stones are particularly fascinating as they’re usually associated with some particular local story. These usually relate how the stone was created or else the stone forms an essential prop (usually magical) to some other event. Of course, it’s not only in West Cork (or even only in Ireland) that you find bullán stones. There are plenty in countries such as France and Scootland as well.

Generally speaking, bullán stones are rocks that contain a cup shaped depression in it. Mostly, these tend to lie horizontal and collect rainwater but there are also examples where they appear on vertical rocks. The size and shapes of the stones vary immesely from place to place.

Of course, the truth is nobody really knows what the hell bullán stones were originally used for. Mostly, these stones date back to the Neolithic period so the reasons behind their function have been lost over the subsequent centuries /millennia.

As is often the case with impressive monuments though, subsequent populations incorporated them into their own rituals. Hence, the later Celts associated them with their traditions (particularly where water was collected in them). Subsequently, these ‘pagan’ rituals were also incorporated by the Christianity and it’s quite likely that the holy water basins found on entering and leaving a church was derived from this.

Irish Folklore: Magic Fairy Rocks

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After a recent post on Adrigole I was reminded about a local feature that we used to pass on the road as kids (and still do as adults). This is just one of those many features that adds that ‘resonance of connectedness’ or ‘familiarity’ to the land that I mentioned last time.

This particular feature is a carraig draíochta (a magic rock) and we’ve certainly got plenty of rock down Beara way so some of it must be magic!!!

Basically, it’s a white rock situated about two thirds of the way up on the hill overlooking Adrigole harbour and clearly visible from the road if you’re travelling from Glengarrif towards Castletownbere or Kenmare. The ‘magic’ part is that the closer you get to the base of the hill, the higher the rock travels up the hill until by the time you reach the hill it’s sitting happily on top.

Magic!

In essence, of course, it’s the most basic of optical illusions but real facts shouldn’t really interfere with the story. According to the story version I’ve heard, na Sidhe (the fairies) carry the rock uphill just to baffle travellers. I’ve never actually stopped to examine the rock in more detail as I always seem to be honing through but, if I remember correctly, there’s also a larger rock up there that’s said to be one of the Sidhe paths – a kind of door to the Otherworld. If anyone’s heard another version, it’d be lovely to hear about it.

Irish Folklore: Connecting with our Landscapes

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For a landscape to be dear to you, it has to have an emotional connection, some kind of resonance that works its way into your heart, tightens about it like a jealous fist and just doesn’t let go. Sometime this emotional resonance can be a simple familiarity with the local history (e.g. a sad tale of lovers killed in a fall from a cliff, a murder in a cave, a cow lost in a particular piece of bog, etc.). 

Sometimes that resonance is a familial one (e.g. my Da was king from that rock to that bog, over to that twisted tree then around and back – and his wife was called Queenie!).

The most powerful of all are those emotional resonances resulting from a combination of familial and historical connections (e.g. I was conceived on that particular rock in a moment of passion by my parents back in  … yadda, yadda, yadda).

Another landscape connection however, is the mythological or folklore connection; those stories or tales linked to an area of land that you are intimately familiar with. One of the strongest example of such a connection, for me, is down in the townland of Adrigole. That piece of land holds a special place in my life. Passing through there (when I take the road from Cork) always heralds the joy of an imminent return to Beara or a subsequent, heartbreaking, departure when I leave again. I’ve passed through this rugged landscape countless times since I was an infant. It never fails to wring some kind of emotion out of me.

 

 

My Writing: Secrets, Sighs and Sex

My walk at Galway

It’s always fascinating to learn how other people have interpreted something you’ve created, particularly when it’s something as complex as a novel. I’m still a bit surprised at times when a reviewer comments on my books and adds an interpretation that I really didn’t have in mind when I was writing the story.

This week, a review (here) on Beara: Dark Legends  came out from Tintean Magazine (an excellent Irish magazine from Australia). Again, as I was reading through it, the reviewer’s experience of the book was quite different (at times) to the one I’d imagined a reader would have. Still. That’s no real biggie. The reality is that different people experience different things from the same art form. Thousands, if not millions of people can study a painting and see something completely different based on their own life experiences. The same is certainly true with respect to a book.

Years ago I wrote a short story entitled Sex with Sarah which was basically about the moral corruption endemic in some large public departments. Yes, there was some sexual content in there of course – but essentially as a mechanism of reflecting that corruption (God, yes, I can be up myself sometimes!)  –  and for years afterwards people would come up asking me who Sarah (of the title) was.

I thought it was a bit funny that so few people seemed to get the key message I was trying to get across. Most seemed more interested in getting her contact details.

 

Irish Folklore: Murder and Secrets in the Land of the Mastiff

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The valley of Cummeengadhra (which probably derives from the word ‘Coimín’ – a commonage or common land and ‘gadhra’ a mastiff) is a pretty isolated spot. It’s very typical of Beara; grey slabs of mountain granite, bogland, shredded tatters of green, incessant rain. All the rock you could eat!

These days it’s a pretty tranquil area apart from some isolated farmhouses, the Shronebirrane stone circle and, of course, The Rabach’s Way. Prior to the Great Famine, though, there was actually a relatively large community living here with at least 29 people registered in the 1824 Tithe Applotment Books. The area is probably most famous, however, because of the deeds of one particular inhabitant; Cornelius O’Sullivan (An Rabach – The Rabach).

One evening in the early 1800s, a mariner is said to have arrived at the house of the O’Sullivans Raib (ráib meaning ‘active’ or ‘bold’ was a family nickname), seeking shelter. During the course of the evening, that mariner was killed because he was believed to be carrying a sum of money. Although all of the family would probably have had some complicity in the murder, it was Cornelius O’Sullivan – the eldest of three sons – who’s said to have completed the fatal deed by cutting the mariner’s throat. Unfortunately for him, one of his neighbours (Máire Caoch) happened to be passing and saw either the murder or the subsequent disposal of the body.

Fearful of the violent O’Sullivan Raib family, Máire Caoch had the sense to keep her tongue for several years but, one day, after a period of sustained, but unrelated, harassment from the family, she foolishly threatened Cornelius by telling him:

Tá rún agam ort, agus ní ar ba ná ar caoiribhe.

I know a secret about you and it’s not about cows or sheep.

 Cornelius must have been convinced by the threat for, on a dank June morning in 1814, he followed her up into the high-country grazing pastures and strangled her to death. Once again, however, An Rabach was unfortunate in that there was a witness to this particular murder as well; Daniel Sullivan – a frail man – who was also scared of the violent farmer and decided to keep his mouth shut.

The body of Máire Caoch was discovered, ironically, by a servant girl from the Rabach household. Alerting her friends, they carried the body back to the Rabach family home where she was laid out in preparation for her burial. It was at this point that the community’s initial suspicions of An Rabach were roused. A local at the time belief with respect to murder was that, if the murderer entered into the same room as his victim, the victim’s corpse would immediately gush blood. Unwilling to take the chance, the Rabach refused to enter the house, odd behaviour in such a small community that immediately made his neighbours look at him sideways.

Whatever their suspicions however, nothing more transpired for another 16 years (1830), when Daniel Sullivan was badly injured in an accident at the Allihies mines. Convinced that he was dying, Daniel confessed what he’d seen all those years before to his priest. Horrified, the priest immediately took it to a magistrate and a warrant of arrest was issued for An Rabach.

Forewarned by other family members, An Rabach (who was now about fifty years old) fled his family home and headed much deeper into the valley, finally taking refuge in a cave (now known as The Rabach’s Cave) which offered an excellent view of anyone coming up the valley trail. In total, An Rabach remained in hiding for about nine months and there are numerous tales of the various tricks he used to evade the local authorities. Eventually, however, he was lured back to his home in January 1831 where his wife was due to give birth to his son.

The Rabach was captured by two local constables and a man called Patrick Sullivan (the son of Máire Caoch). In a capricious twist of fate, An Rabach’s son was stillborn. Escorted to Tralee Gaol, he was tried and hanged two months later.