Sex Education (or lack of) with Diarmuid and Gráinne

For many years, most Irish schoolkids had the dubious pleasure of studying the Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne (the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) as part of the national Irish school curriculum. An epic Irish narrative, the oldest remaining copy is believed to date from the 15th century but it’s generally agreed to contain elements that date back to the 9th century. This proved little solace to most of us although we could, at least, console ourselves with the fact that it wasn’t Peig Sayers mind-numbing biography.

Remember this anyone?

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Years later, I can now finally look at the Tóraíocht with less ‘negative’ eyes. The tale is actually quite unique in that it’s one of the first narratives (and one of the very few) in which mythological legend Fionn mac Cumhaill is portrayed as ‘The Bad Guy’ and shown to have human foibles. In this particular tale, he’s portrayed as an old man set to marry a much younger woman (Gráinne). Not enthralled at the prospect of being taken to bed by the elderly Fionn, Gráinne instead opts to put one of warriors at the wedding banquet that she fancies – Diarmuid – faoi geasa (under a magical obligation). While all the other guests are snoring under the influence of a sleeping draught, Diarmuid is forced to elope with her and the subsequent pursuit across Ireland by Fionn forms the basis of the narrative.

In Ireland, the Tóraíocht proved exceptionally popular (until it was made a compulsory school book!!) because it has all the elements of a good melodrama; a love triangle, young lovers, a pursuit, a revenge quest, action and adventure, etc. Given the story’s popularity and the scope of the legendary pursuit, local storytellers, back in the day, often stretched the chase to include topographical features in their own area to make the story more interesting for their audience. This is probably one of the key reasons for the many different existing variants.

Although some elements of the tale are difficult for a contemporary audience (and incomprehensible to a modern schoolkid), there are some motifs that stand out more than others. One of these is the sexual restraint displayed by the hero. While being chased by Fionn and his men, Diarmuid marks his loyalty to his leader and the abstention from sexual activity, by leaving an uncooked fish behind. This way, when Fionn subsequently locates their campsite, he knows that there hasn’t been any hanky-panky.

In fact, a prolonged period of time (and many adventures) passes before Diarmuid actually succumbs to temptation. This occurs when Gráinne is crossing a small stream and a spray of water spurts up to splash on the inside of her thigh. Looking at Diarmuid, Gráinne remarks – cuttingly – that the water is actually bolder than he is. Spurred by her words, Diarmuid takes her and “makes a woman of her”. Needless to say, absolutely no clarification of this particular scene took place during my school reading at least.

Another interesting motif of the tale is the constant need for the lovers to sleep in a different location every night (due the constant harrying by Fionn and his hunting dogs, always on their trail, always just behind). Over the subsequent centuries, this particular motif was absorbed into local folklore through the dolmans – neolithic burial portals that consist of a large flat rock overlaying two support rocks. Again, local storytellers started to explain the presence of these startling monuments by describing them as the ‘leaba’ (beds) of the fleeing lovers.

Beware! Ancient Mythological Sex Site!

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Examples of these ‘leaba’ exist all over the country and many still retain names associated with the Tóraíocht (e.g. Labby Rock in county Sligo). One of the more interesting folk beliefs that also developed from this interpretation, was that young women had a much better chance of becoming pregnant if they slept on the leaba (linking this action to that of Gráinne who became pregnant over the course of the chase).

Looking back on my own schooldays, I can actually understand why those in charge wanted to include the Tóraíocht in the national educational curriculum. It’s a very important piece of our culture that everyone should be familiar with and … (yaaaawn!) etc. etc. To be honest, the effort to inspire kids with this mythological tale was doomed to failure. Kids in my class never received any explanation as to what the story really entailed, had no comprehension (or therefore, appreciation) of the many references it contained. Many of the actions and events were obscure to the point of ‘alien’ and therefore had no real relevance or meaning to us. It’s hardly surprising most of us yawned our way through it and hoped against hope the bloody bell would ring soon.

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Fortunately, nowadays, there are other – more accessible – versions of the tale available. One of my favourites is Colmán Ó Raghallaigh’s graphic novel (entitled: An Tóraíocht) but there are several others including the recent movie ‘Pursuit’ by Paul Mericer (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen). Hopefully, these more contemporary versions (or equivalents) are used nowadays. Even the sex scenes wouldn’t have saved what we were being taught all those years ago.

Beauty That’s Just Too Big to Absorb

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to truly appreciate beauty when other people you know are present. When you’re in a group staring at a beautiful view, person, piece of art, for example, you’re often conditioned to vocalise it out loud and invariably end up saying things like “Wow! She/he/it’s beautiful, stunning …[insert appropriate adjective here]”.

This weekend I spent a weekend tramping with friends (in between intense periods of drinking and eating) down in New Zealand’s south island. The sheer scale of some of the scenery there is on a level of grandeur we don’t seem to get in Ireland. Even while I was staring at it however, I felt oddly detached. I found myself looking at it much in the way I’d look at a television screen or a computer monitor. It was beautiful but oddly two dimensional. It did not touch me.

For me, the beauty of the landscape back in Ireland tends to be smaller, more contained and easier to digest. Cutting through the Healy Pass or heading out of Glengarrif for Beara, I can have an equally dramatic physical terrain stretched out before me but when I pull the car over and step out to look at it I can genuinely appreciate it. I’m pretty sure this is because I have a familiarity (a connection) with this landscape. I know how Irish landscape ‘works’. I know its contours, I know the dynamics of the sea, the cliffs, the fields. Down in West Cork, I also know the stories associated with the land, stories of my own family working it or living on it. I’ve lived and grown up on it and that gives the land an emotional resonance that makes it particularly accessible.

Which is most beautiful? Depends on so many things!
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Personally, I think to truly appreciate beauty (in terms of landscape at least) you need to have an aesthetic AND an emotional/cultural connection. Up in New Zealand’s high country, I knew – theoretically – know how things worked. I watched the people on the stations (a bit like American ranches) operate the land. My friends explained how the rivers and the mountain slopes interlinked, how the climate affected (or restricted) the use and transport across the land. But the problem, of course, was that I’ve never personally walked it before or known those who had. I’m also unfamiliar with the physical dynamics (which is why so many Irish tourists can get into trouble over here) and I have no cultural or emotional connection. I can genuinely appreciate it – and I do – on an intellectual and aesthetic basis but my connection is purely visual. I love coming here but if I want beauty I can break down and warm the soul then I know I’ll always need to go home.

Deadlines and Deadlines

There are now eight days left until the closing date for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition. While we’re waiting, we’ve been busy preparing the draft cover for the final collection (obviously based on the original poster image – see below) and attempting to plan out the formatting.

3D Book Preview

The latter is actually something of an impossibility in that we still don’t know the range and style of the stories with any certainty. I suspect there’ll be feverish mutterings as we attempt to add the background mythology facts for each of the stories chosen. I must admit it’s something of a struggle to resist having a peek at the submissions but I’m forcing myself to hold off. It’s not really possible to judge a number of different works properly unless you look at them all at the same time and do your best to judge on an equal basis.

In terms of numbers, at this stage, we’ve received just under twenty-five entries which is a pretty low number – but we’re not particularly fussed. It’s only natural for any new writing community to grow and gain credibility slowly and we’re still within budget. It’s also nice in that – unlike many of the major international competitions (which I stopped entering many years ago) – the odds of actually winning one of the prizes are substantially more realistic.

In any case, don’t forget the deadline for entries is midnight 10 December 2015.

Meanwhile, for those of you in Wellington, we’re delivering our Secrets of Celtic Mythology seminar in the mezzanine of the central library at 6:00 on 11 December. This will be the first seminar I’ve run in a while so I’m a bit nervous and hoping to God the technology holds together.

Wish me luck!