(Irish Folklore) The Truth Behind The King With Horse’s Ears

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE KING WITH HORSES EARS

Loch Íne (or Lough Hyne for the Gaelically impaired) is a popular spot a few miles outside Skibbereen that’s very pleasant for swimming, walking and picnics. Despite its popularity, most people who visit this tranquil area are completely unfamiliar with its connection to one of Ireland’s most famous legends – the King with the Horse’s Ears.

Out in the centre of the lake is an island called Castle Island with the ruins of the O’Driscoll stronghold (Cloghan Castle now completely overgrown – see red circle), from which the island derives its English name. According to local folklore, this is the area where the events of the ‘King with Horse’s Ears’ take place.

In the local version of the story, an O’Driscoll king was said to have had donkey’s ears. Because a blemish such as this would traditionally have meant the king was unfit to rule, he kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death. At the Loch Íne site, the barber was supposedly drowned and a bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the water at that spot. Some time later, the king’s piper, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe and at a feast thrown in the hall by the O’Driscoll King, the pipes took on a life of their own and started calling:

 “The King has Horses Ears!”

 This version of the story seems to be a mish-mash of the more famous tenth century version of the story associated with the great king Labhraidh Loingseach, (king and mythological ancestor of the Leinster people – the Laighin) and the story associated with Welsh King March ap Meirchion. Both of these are quite similar in that they deal with a physical blemish and the ramifications of holding a terrible secret, a situation known in Ireland as a galar rúnach (a malady of secrets).

The Labhraidh Loingseach version goes as follows:

Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.

One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved, Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.

 The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.

 Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang

Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach

Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!

 In the Welsh version of the story, the Welsh King March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appear and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe leading to similar consequences.

Both of these version are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.

Although the galar rúnach concept was a much later development, it was one that very much appealed to me which is why it became an essential part of my book Beara Dark Legends It does not, however, have any real connection to the earliest development of the story.

Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.

[irishimbasbooks.com]

Irish Folklore: Magic rocks, Bullán stones and curses (Part 2)

east-altar

(ref: inishmurray.com)

How to Curse Someone with a Bullán!

Cursing someone (basically wishing bad luck or evil on someone by invoking a non-human power) is found in many different cultures around the world and, in most cases, involves the use of a formula (e.g. prayer, spell – whatever you want to call it!) and an associated prop such as a wand, personal object associated with the person you want to curse, a magic doo-dah or …. a cursing stone!

Most of what  we know about cursing – in terms of cursing stones – comes from folklore and the remnants of ritual traditions but when you take a step back and look at it in context you can see that in most cases its all about a kind of reverse of ‘positive’ based powers.  This ‘reverse’ motif occurs everywhere. A spell, for example, is often considered the opposite or the reverse of a prayer. This is also why, for example, you can supposedly hear the Devil’s voice when you play certain records backward (unless, of course, it’s by Cliff Richard!).

In Ireland, cursing stones are generally associated with early ecclesiastical sites and involve the invoking of power by an early Christian saint. As part of the early Christian tradition, pilgrims would often go to these sites and recite a prayer while turning the stone clockwise or, if they wanted to curse someone, anti-clockwise (against the sun and other natural processes).  There is absolutely no recognition in ancient literature of the irony of a Christian Saint (supposedly positive) using such an unchristian-like power for negative effect.

My favourite Irish cursing stones are the Clocha Breacha located out in Inismurray. These are pretty hefty stones (so you know you’re getting your effort’s worth) but the real reason I like them so much was that I was out there once with a friend who’d recently been involved in a very messy and poisonous divorce process.  When I showed him the cursing stones, my friend leaped forward, grasped one with both hands and stood there, head bowed, sweat pouring for his forehead with concentration for a good five minutes before replacing the stone.

Needless to say, I didn’t have to ask who the object of his concentration was directed at.

 

My writing: Excerpt from Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

One of the more enjoyable aspects of writing is the ability to create a conversation between two or more characters  whose  personality and mannerisms you know intimately. For me, these ‘dialogue’ scenes are probably the most fun and – at the same time – the easiest scenes to write. If you have your characters well defined, the dialogue between them flows easily onto the page however you also need to have a context for the dialogue  (i.e. why the characters are talking together in the first place). Often, dialogue is a handy mechanism for getting plot details across in a fast and natural manner without laboriously having to describe them. Sometimes however – and these are the one I really enjoy – the dialogue is just a scene to cement character development.

This scene is from my new novel Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne and outlines the discussion between the battle weary Liath Luachra (a hardened warrior woman who has difficulty connecting with her emotions or getting close to people) and the six year old Demne (who is soon to be taken away by his real parents).

**********************************

Before she started, she paused for a moment to rest her head in her hands. Fatigue lay heavy on her, the sleepless night and the after effects of the battle adrenalin combining to wear her down. From experience, she knew that she could force herself to remain alert for a while longer if necessary but, at some stage, she would need to curl up in a dark corner and sleep.

Using a ladle from the rainbucket, she poured water over her feet. The liquid was already tepid from the morning sun and its touch briefly reminded her of the moment the blood had spurted over them. That sticky warmth of spilled battle blood was a distinct sensation that wasn’t easily forgotten. There was really no other feeling like it. Even the slaughter of animals was different for it lacked the heady intoxication of violence, the overpowering sensations of desperation and relief.

She wiped the remaining stains away with her hands, watching the pinkish liquid dribble off her skin and onto the surface of the lis where it was immediately absorbed by the dusty soil.

Another offering to the Great Mother.

She felt no remorse at the taking of the scout’s life. The scout and his comrades had posed a threat to those she held dear and she was very clear about where her priorities lay.

A dark shadow slid across the earth in front of her and she looked up to find Demne standing before her, staring down at the pink stains with a troubled expression.

‘The blood of your opponent,’ she said. ‘Always better than the blood of your friend.’

She spoke quietly for most of the Lamhraighe warriors were still dozing in the makeshift beds off to the far side of the hearth. Demne too had slept with the visitors, his mother insisting on removing him from Lí Bán’s roundhouse, where he usually slept with the other children, to spend the night with her and Gleor.

The boy nodded sagely, acknowledging the wisdom of her words although he couldn’t possibly have understood the context behind what she was saying.

‘You do not remain with your mother?’

‘She sleeps.’ He sniffed and looked up towards the sun as though to verify that it was still up there. ‘The old man is tired. He snores.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Liath Luachra grunted sympathetically. The news came as no surprise. The Lamhraighe party had travelled a significant distance in a very short time. Anyone would have been taxed by such a hike. And Gleor was not a young man.

‘You do not like my mother.’

Liath Luachra looked at the boy, surprised by such intuition in one so young. ‘No,’ she admitted and looked down, her attention focussed on scrubbing the last of the blood from her hands and feet.

‘Why?’

‘Your mother is … untrustworthy.’

‘Un-trust-wor-thy,’ he pronounced the word out in four distinct syllables. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that she is scant with the reason of things. She does not always tell the full truth.’

‘Do you always tell the full truth?’

This time she stopped what she was doing and raised her eyes to consider him intently. Demne could be an odd one at times and had the annoying habit of switching from the temperament of a gregarious child to that of a worldly old fogy without any warning. ‘Usually,’ she admitted. ‘Unless I have strong reasons not to. People who lie are fearful of others or fear repercussions for their actions. I have been close to death too often to truly fear the Dark Leap anymore. When you do not fear, you can tell the truth and when you tell the truth you make any problem belong to someone else.’

‘My mother says I am to leave Ráth Bládhma, that I will live in a fortress far from Glenn Ceoch and never see you or Bodhmhall again. Is she telling the full truth?’

Liath Luachra returned to scrubbing her feet. ‘She is probably telling the full truth as she sees it.’

Demne went very quiet and stared down at the ground. The woman warrior glanced sideways at him and saw that he was trembling and his face had gone very pale.

With a grunt, she got to her feet. ‘Perhaps this is a good time to give you something.’ She started across the lis in the direction of her roundhouse, trailed by Demne’s haunted eyes. Her flax backpack lay against the wall by the entrance way and as she knelt to rummage through it, she could hear Bodhmhall and the others arguing inside. The voices were heated and full of emotion, not anger so much as concern and fear.

Ignoring them, she pulled an object wrapped in dock leaves from the basket and returned to where the boy was waiting. His face was still pale and his lip quivered but his eyes held an unmistakable trace of curiosity. She held out the package. ‘This is for you.’

Demne looked at it and then at her. ‘What is it?’

‘A weapon.’

‘A weapon?’ His eyes widened.

‘You are no longer a child of the hearth ashes. Tomorrow you go Out. You travel in the Great Wild so you will need a weapon of your own, something more threatening than the wooden sword we practise with.’

Face bright with suppressed excitement, he took the package and started to rip it apart, tossing the torn leaves aside until the contents were exposed: a hand-woven flax cradle attached to two separate lengths of braided flax and a small leather bag.

‘It’s a sling.’ The boy’s voice was flat.

Liath Luachra scowled. ‘Do you want a weapon or do you not?’

‘I want a real weapon. A man’s weapon.’

‘You’re too small to fight with a full-grown man’s weapon. You need something you can use from a distance. Something that’s accurate and fast but allows you to flee if you miss.’

The boy’s eye brightened at that. ‘I could use a javelin. Or a harpoon. Like Aodhán.’

She shook her head. ‘No. You’re too small. Your cast would lack force.’

‘Bran’s small. And he casts javelins.’

‘He’s bigger than you. And he’s had practice casting javelins for many years.’ There was no give in the woman warrior’s voice. For her, at least, the subject was closed. She picked up the leather bag, undid the leather string that bound the opening. ‘Hold out your hand.’

Demne did as he was told and she poured a number of smooth, pigeon-egg sized stones into his palm. Each individual stone had been painstakingly decorated with small carvings, basic but creative depictions of wild-fern curls, bird’s wings, or badger claws.

Demne stared at them, intrigued and suddenly looking more impressed. Noting his expression, the woman warrior put the leather pouch aside. ‘These stones … They are not playthings, do you understand? They are carriers of death and should be respected as such.’

The boy reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the stones and glanced up to give a half-hearted nod before his attention turned once more to his gifts.

‘The sling carries no name for it does not draw blood. It is the stones – the bullets – that do that.’ Liath Luachra took the sling from his hand and hefted its weight in hers. ‘Don’t underestimate this weapon. The fools do, the loose-mouths who brag about close quarter fighting. Close quarter fighting’s all hack and cut. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. It all comes down to brute force and strength and it’s only a question of time before you get cut.’

She grew silent for a moment, haunted by some distant memory until she realised, with a start, that Demne was waiting for her to continue. She drew herself up straight. ‘With practice, a good sling cast can hit a man at seventy paces and kill him dead. Even if he’s wearing leather armour the blow from a stone will break him on the inside.’

She reached over to pluck one of the bullets from his hand and dropped it into the cradle. ‘The sling stone is placed in the cradle, like so. You see how I have cut a slit. That allows the flax to fold around the bullet to hold it more securely.’

Demne peered closely. ‘I see, Grey One.’

‘Put your middle finger through the loop at the end of this length of flax. The other length has a release tab that you hold between your thumb and forefinger, like so. When you’re ready, you swing your sling to build up speed, then flick your wrist to release the tab and the bullet flies out to hit the target.’

The woman warrior got to her feet. Turning towards the southern embankment, away from the sleeping Lamhraighe warriors, she slowly started to swing the sling in a vertical loop, adjusting her position until she was facing the lean-to where firewood, tools and other items were stored. To the left of the lean-to was a wide, flat section of wood used as a base for chopping wood. Standing on top was a solitary wedge of firewood.

‘You see the wood there, waiting to be split?’

Demne nodded.

Using the momentum of the arc, Liath Luachra snapped the sling upwards, releasing the tab at the exact same time. The discharged bullet flew through the air, smashing the firewood backwards off the base. Demne clapped enthusiastically, his earlier sorrow forgotten. Off to the side of the lis, one of the Lamhraighe warriors cursed and turned on his side, angrily drawing his cloak tight over his shoulder.

The woman warrior bent down and started to wrap the sling about the boy’s forearm. ‘This way,’ she explained, ‘you can carry your weapon at all times.’

Demne looked up at her shyly. ‘Thank you, Grey One. This truly is a wondrous gift.’

He moved as though to hug her but the woman warrior quickly shifted backwards. ‘The sling extends the strength and the length of your arm,’ she said hurriedly. ‘That means you can cast your shot farther and faster than you would if you tried to throw it by hand. If you cast from higher ground you can increase that range. If you have enough comrades you can create a hailstorm of stone that no force will resist.’

Demne stared at her, confused and unsure how to respond to the woman warrior’s sudden coldness. Liath Luachra, meanwhile, continued with her awkward lecture. ‘You might wonder why the flax cords are braided. That would be a good question. It’s because the braiding stops the flax from twisting when it’s stretched. It improves the accuracy of-’

‘Liath Luachra.’

Taken by surprise, the woman warrior turned to find Bodhmhall standing beside her.

Excerpt from Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

Photos - May-June 2011 1234

This is an excerpt from the soon to be released Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.
In this piece, the woman warrior Liath Luachra is making her way back to Ráth Bládhma (the ringfort Bládhma) after an encounter with the youth Fintán mac Gleor when she finds some disturbing sign.

People occasionally ask why I write such detailed descriptions for the Great Wild. The truth is because it’s a central part (or element) to the series. Given that the story is set in a time period when there was very little safety or security from the elements and people greatly mistrusted anything or anyone they weren’t familiar with, I felt that needed to be reflected in the storyline.

**********************

Liath Luachra left An Folamh Mór at a rapid pace, initially following the same route taken by the Lamhraighe youth. As she ran along the trail, she crossed sign of his passing on a regular basis, every ten paces or so, and her lips compressed into a tight line. Confident in his ability and fleetness of foot, Fintán was making no effort to cover his tracks, a potentially lethal oversight in the hostile lands of the Great Wild.

The trail she followed was a natural track from the low hills where An Folamh Mór was situated. Several hundred paces south of the clearing the forest faded into a stony flatland that resulted from the poor topsoil and the rocky terrain which she knew as An Slí Cráite – the Tormented Path. This rough flatland extended towards the south-east, spotted with occasional clusters of trees and scrub. Although Liath Luachra didn’t like being out in the open, on this occasion her desire to get away from An Folamh Mór meant that she was willing to compromise safety for speed.

As she progressed further south-west, the forest gradually began to close in again on either side and An Slí Cráite grew more and more constricted. Further on, she knew, it would reduce to little more than a narrow passage through the forest before, eventually, petering out.

Soon she reached a natural fork in the path where a new trial branched off to the south-west along the remains of an old river bed. This turn-off marked the point where her shared route with Fintán ended for it was her intention to follow the south-westerly trail.

Throwing one last look at An Slí Cráite, she veered off to the left.

And came to a complete stop.

Slowly turning about, she backtracked to the fork in the trail and stared down at what had caught her eye.

A footprint.

Dropping to a crouch, she reached around to the wicker basket on her back and slid a javelin free. After carefully scrutinising the surrounding scrub, she shuffled forwards on all fours and lay on her stomach in front of the track to examine it in more detail.
It was an impression of a bare foot. No boots, no moccasins. No missing toes either from the look of it. It was an adult size, big enough to assume it’d been made by a man but whoever it was, he’d been travelling light for the imprint wasn’t deep. The footprint was also pointed in the direction of the north-east, the direction Fintán had taken.

Snapping a dry spine off a withered blackthorn bush beside the track, she used it to poke the imprint gently on its outer side. It did not crumble.

Recent then.

She frowned. Very recent. In this heat, the shallow imprint would have dried out very quickly and the brittle remnants crumbled apart at the slightest poke.

But it hadn’t.

Studying the surrounding trees with care, she rose to her feet and cautiously advanced along An Slí Cráite once more. Sure enough, now that she was actively looking for it, she found another, similar, imprint several paces further on from the first. This one lay in the shade of the treeline where the soil was still soft, untouched from the sun.

A few paces on from that she found another and now she was able to see that the tracks were quite widely spaced. The person who had left them was running, apparently in a hurry. Unlike Fintán, this individual had made some effort to hide his passing but given the speed at which he was travelling he couldn’t avoid leaving some trace, like this imprint, behind.

So why is he hurrying?

She frowned and chewed thoughtfully on her inner cheek, an old habit of hers when she was absorbed in concentration.
A stranger travels on An Slí Cráite. He is hurrying, trailing Fintán who also travels at speed.
She frowned. Perhaps she was being too suspicious. This new stranger might simply be on the same trail. It happened.
Except she didn’t believe it. Her instincts were telling her that this was not right. In terms of timing, this person would have had to come across Fintán’s track after he left An Folamh Mór and before she herself had left. Besides, as a general rule in the Great Wild, people tended to avoid contact with strangers and, when an unfamiliar track was encountered, would often take a more circuitous route to their destination to avoid any kind of engagement.

She bit her lower lip.

No. Whoever this person was, he was following Fintán. She was convinced of that. Given the freshness of the tracks, she was equally convinced that if she backtracked to An Folamh Mór, she’d find similar tracks somewhere along the edge of the clearing. This person had probably been watching while she’d been talking with the youth and then followed him directly once he’d departed.
A good thing there was no rutting in the long grass.

Liath Luachra cursed quietly under her breath. Once again, Fintán was unconsciously interfering in her plans. Despite her dislike of the youth she could not ignore the fact that someone was following him and possibly intended harm.
She considered her options a little further.

She’d directed him to Ráth Bládhma via the longer route that circled about Ros Mór and brought him into Glenn Ceoch from the west. She herself could return much more quickly via a route through the secret pass at Gág na Muice. Her directions for the slower Ros Mór passage had not been given out of spite so much as from simple necessity. The Gág na Muice route was a secret known only to the members of Ráth Bládhma and she didn’t want it spread further than that. The western route was also more practical and easier for a stranger to find. If the youth strictly followed the topographical bearings she’d provided, he would find his destination. If he did not, he might wander the forests for years, despite the directions that Muirne Muncháem had given him.
If she moved fast, she could reach Glenn Ceoch before him and intercept him – and his pursuer – in the woods at the entrance to the valley.

She sighed as she replaced the javelin.

It was time to run.

Book Two of Fionn mac Cumhal series for release

I’m pleased to say that Book Two of the Fionn mac Cumhal series is almost ready for release. Given a lot of family, work and other pressures this has come out several weeks later than originally planned.

The story is set six years after the events of the previous book. The survivors of the assault on Rath Bladhma (in book one) are still struggling to get their lives back together when two separate techtaire (messengers) show up unexpectedly. Both bear unwanted news that will take Bodhmhall, Liath Luachra and Demne on a dangerous trek across the treacherous lands of the Great Wild.

A three chapter sample is available here.

The book will be released digitally on Amazon on 18 October 2014 and will be available on hardcopy a few weeks after that. The book will also be available on Kobo and other ebookstores.