Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

Giants' Causeway4

Whenever people talk of ‘must sees’ in Ireland, the Giants Causeway in country Antrim tends to be at the top of everybody’s list. As a natural topographical feature alone, the place is certainly unique but combined with the beauty of the rugged Antrim coastline and (the more recent) local filming of the Game of Thrones, it’s become something of a ‘tourist destination par excellence’ over the last decade’. I’ve walked over those strange rock formations on several occasions and must admit that, on each occasion, I’m freshly struck by just how impressive they are.

In Irish, the Giants Causeway is generally known as Clochán an Aifir (in Rathlin Island Gaelic) or Clochán na bhFomhórach  (the Stepping Stones of the Fomorians).  It was also known as Tóchar na dTréanfhear (Causeway of the Strongmen). Because of the shape of the overall rock formation, the Giants Causeway has consistently been associated with the concept of a stepping stone or causeway of the Gods (or other mythological creatures/heroes) and most of the folklore tales tend to be linked in some way with this striking physical characteristic.

The most well-known tale associated with the site is also the most comical – Legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhal (in this version described as a giant) is challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. After accepting the challenge, Fionn builds the causeway across the North Channel to Scotland. When the Scottish giant arrives, however,  Fionn realises how enormous his opponent actually is and, terrified, he runs back to his wife to hide. Fionn’s wife disguises him by making him put on some baby clothing and tucks him into a cradle. When the Scottish Giant arrives, he plays with the ‘baby’ while waiting for his father to return and pokes it with his thumb. Out of fright or bravado, Fionn clamps his teeth on the other giant’s thumb and bites it off. The startled giant, terrified at the thought of how brutal the “baby’s” full-grown father must be, flees Northern Ireland and rips the causeway up behind him so that he cannot be followed.

This particular tale is noteworthy in that it’s the first recorded comic or derogatory depiction of the famed Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhal. It’s fascinating, but it appears that Fionn was held in such reverence by the native Irish population, that no other comic depiction of him existed prior to the printing of this version of the tale in the mid eighteen-hundreds. It probably comes as no surprise to find that this legend was actually reworked by an Anglo-Irish writer called William Carelton (whose patron, Caesar Otway, seemed overly keen on travestying traditional narratives).

These days, the National Trust (the British One) control both the Causeway and all of the surrounding land and in July 2012 opened a new visitor centre there. Unfortunately, the new visitor centre resembles a shopping mall and a cafeteria more than an interpretation centre or museum and seems predominantly focussed on selling cartoon figurines of Fionn mac Cumhal and other plastic doo-dahs. The National Trust is widely disliked by many local people because it has essentially restricted access to the national site by depriving visitors of anywhere to park. The only parking site available (controlled by the Trust) requires you to also pay a substantial entry fee for the ‘MacDonalds of local culture’.

It’s hard to see where things are going to go with this particular cultural site. Certainly, the Giants Causeway is worth a visit but the price, both on your pocket and your sense of fair play, might be too high.  There’s also a definite sense that the National Trust and their commercial partners lack any true respect for the original cultural heritage of this area and are more interested in skin-deep history and its use as a touristic cash cow.

 

 

Folklore: Sexuality in an Irish Graveyard

St Olann’s Cap is the name given to another station in the St Olann’s pattern (held on September 5th), located in the graveyard at Aghabullogue. Although the site where the graveyard is currently located was originally an important pre-Christian site (in other words, it existed pre-5th century) and records show two successive Church of Ireland churches located there from the late 1600s, it’s not so clear how long St Olann’s cap itself has been around.

From the  carved marks on the ‘corners’, the stone is obviously an Ogham stone (Ogham is the earliest form of writing in Ireland. It dates to around 4th century A.D. and was in use for around 500 years or so).  What’s interesting with this stone, however, is the “cap” placed on top of the larger stone to create a form of phallic symbol. Because of it’s shape, the stone was associated with fertility rituals but also with a number of other female illnesses (barrenness, headaches etc.). From the smoothness of the upper  quartzite “cap”, it’s obvious that the “cap” was repeatedly rubbed by human hands as part of the ritual, similar to the way fertility symbols are treated in many other early cultures around the world.

Although St Olann’s Cap is fascinating in itself, the reason I love this place is because of the story associated with it in the late nineteenth century. At that time, the Church in Ireland was flexing its ecclesiastical muscle by sanitising many of the early Irish pagan elements it had earlier incorporated into rituals designed to convert the population. Disapproval by the Irish clergy of the ‘sexual’ nature of the stone (and its popularity) led to the local priest arrogantly desecrating the site ” (with a fanatical disregard not really that different from the actions of the Taliban in blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001).

Although originally, consisting of two superimposed stones, the priest removed the upper one. Within days of him doing so, the stolen stone was replaced by the current Caipín Olainn (Olann’s Cap) which has remained there ever since.

Strike one for Community Action!

 

Folklore: Irish saints in Cork

Back in Cork a few years back, I did a quick trip to see my cousin in Aghabullogue. During the visit, we took a side-trip out to Coolineagh which is where I first came across the stories of St Lachtín and St Olann. These two saints were said to be great competitors and were always arguing or fighting over something and some of the stories associated with them are quite hilarious.

St Olann was the patron saint of the local parish and the ecclesiastical site he’s associated with (now, the Coolineagh graveyard) is also associated with a ring fort near Dromatimore (to the south-west of Aghabullogue). This pretty much follows the pattern of most recorded Christian sites (i.e. they are established on important or sacred pre-christian sites).

When Christianity came to Ireland (from the mid-4th century onwards), in order to absorb the local population and get them on board, the Church also had to absorb many of the existing belief systems (including sacred sites, rituals etc.) which they later attempted to remove and sanitise with varying degrees of success. St Olan’s is another classic example of that

The photo in this post is that of St Olan’s Stone and if you look closely you’ll see two small depressions which are said to be the footprints of St Olann, himself. Inquisitive guy that I am, I couldn’t resist standing on the stone to test the size of the prints and, frankly, they were not really life-sized (unless, St Olann was a leprechaun, which in an earlier version of the tale, he might have been).

In technical or academic terms footprints like these are referred to as petrosomatoglyph footprints. A petrosomatoglyph is an image in a rock that’s interpreted as resembling a human or animal body part. These have been used in the past by most early cultures and often served as an important form of symbolism for religious or ritual ceremonies (the crowning of kings, sacrificial ceremonies etc.). Some, such as this one, are regarded as artefacts linked to saints or cultural heroes (Brian Boru, Fionn ma Cumhal etc.).

The St Olan’s Stone in Coolineagh cemetery was traditionally said to mark his grave but, in fact, it was moved into the graveyard from its original location (to the north of the graveyard) in 1985. It formed one of the stations of the St Olan’s Day ‘pattern’ (see my last post) along with St Olan’s Well (down the road) and St Olan’s Cap (which will be covered in the next post).

Folklore: Following The Pattern

In its most general term, a pattern is a religious devotion that usually occurs around the feast day of a patron saint in Ireland. These days, the practice is nowhere near as popular as it used to be but you can still find places where the ritual takes place if you make the effort to look. In the attached photo, you can see one such site based on a small lake island in West Cork where St Finbar (Cork’s patron saint) is celebrated. On the right hand side of the photo, are a number of white crosses which have been etched into the gateway stone over many years. This marks this area as one of the ‘prayer stations’ in the pattern.

The word ‘pattern’ is actually a derivation of the Latin word patrun (or patron – as in ‘patron saint’). Despite the use of the Latin term, the ritual is very much older than that. In fact, patterns usually take place in sites that were sacred for pre-Christian Irish religious rituals (predominantly around holy wells and springs). When the Christian church came to Ireland – as with many other places – it simply incorporated the existing religious festivals and rituals such as the deiseal (walking a circle of patterns that followed the movement of the sun) and adopted them as Christian events. Any of the magical elements traditionally associated with these sites (such as healing powers) were subsequently attributed to Christian saints.

Patterns were a very popular rural tradition in Ireland not because of the religious element but because of the very powerful social element. Pattern Days’ attracted huge crowds of people who, having completed their religious devotion, would immediately partake in activities such as drinking, singing, dancing, and horse racing. Some of these ‘patterns’ could last for days. From the early 1600s (and possibly before), the patterns’ started to lose support from the Church (who didn’t appreciate the earlier pagan rituals or the non-pious behaviour of the festivities after the pattern). This was why, at the Synod of Tuam in 1660, a decree was announced as follows:

“Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden….”
The English administration who, essentially ran most of the country from the 1600s onwards, also saw ‘patterns’ as a potential threat to their authority in that the gatherings provided a hotbed of opportunity for rebellious incitement. As a result, they instigated specific clauses in the Penal Laws to forbid such activities.
For the most part, both the Penal Laws and the Synod of Tuam decree were pretty much ignored. This was noted by Thomas Croften Croker (who visited this particular West Cork site in 1813) in a fascinating description of the Pattern Day festivities from his book ’Researches in the South of Ireland’:
“After having satisfied our mental craving, we felt it necessary to attend to our bodily appetites, and for this purpose adjourned to a tent where some tempting slices of curdy Kerry salmon had attracted our notice. In this tent, with the exception of almost half an hour, we remained located from half-past seven in the evening, until two o’clock the following morning, when we took our departure from Cork.
After discussing the merits of this salmon, and washing it down with some of “Beamish & Crawford’s Porter” we whiled away the time by drinking whiskey-punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us.
As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near who I sat, for an explanation or translation, which she readily gave me, and I found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the Blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Bonaparte’s achievement were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people.”

Although the dissolution of such activities was a goal that both the Irish Church and the British Colonial Administration were keen to achieve, in the end, it was the Famine and subsequent emigration that did for the ‘patterns’. With entire regions laid waste by starvation and ‘pestilence’, survivors had neither the energy nor inclination to celebrate or venerate the saints who were meant to be protecting them. Although, over time, the country recovered, the subsequent emigration and pressure from Crown and church authorities continued to force its decline.
These days when I visit the pattern sites, I’m always impressed by the overlap of Christian and pre-Christian elements I find there. The crosses and rosary beads are always easy to find but the water rituals and blessings for the dead are anything but Christian. It’s as though, even after all this time, the local communities are reluctant to relinquish the old – the very old – ways.

Mise (Me): Drawing From the Well

DSC00147

Sometimes when you live abroad, the alien nature of where you’re located can come in at you from the side. Sometimes it’s incremental – particularly if you’re living in an English-speaking culture that’s not too different from Ireland – sometimes a bit less so. It’s at such times the homesickness kicks in, a kind of ache in your gut for family, friends, the sound of accents similar to your own and old, familiar sites you grew up in.

These days, living overseas is nowhere near as bad as it was for those who went before us. We can get the RTE Player online to keep up to date with the news, we can skype with loved ones, there are even more flights home than ever before and prices haven’t really changed that much in the last 20 years (even in a place as distant as New Zealand). In most places, there are usually plenty of other Irish emigrants around to share the craic with, traditional music, GAA and so on.

What is missing, though, is that inherent sense of place, of culture. This isn’t exactly something you can recreate or reproduce, even with the technology available to us today. Sometimes you just have to go home, to walk the land and ‘draw from the well’ to get the fix you need to keep on going.

In ancient times, wells and springs – anywhere that water issued forth from the earth in fact – were considered places of significance. The ancient Celts (and probably a number of other cultures) saw wells and springs as conduits for knowledge from the Otherworld to the physical world. This is where ancient motifs such as the Salmon of Knowledge originate, it’s also why, even today, people carry out ‘patterns’ around a water source, rituals and traditions that have lost their original meaning over time and have been replaced by Christian interpretation (baptism, water conversion etc.). Its also why archaeologists tend to find so many ‘offerings’ in such areas (interpreted these days as a wishing well, for example).

Even living on the other side of the planet, I can still derive pleasure from water sources but the experiences are never as fulfilling as they would be back home. A lot of that’s because such places lack the historical or cultural context we take for granted. These places are visitor sites because they’re ‘pretty’ or ‘scenic’ but they lack the associated stories that make them relevant and meaningful. Except when it comes to local Maori of course. The natives of New Zealand have their own stories but much of these are poorly transferred for tourism purposes and, subsequently, lack authenticity. Like Irish people, they have a healthy, subcutaneous paganism beneath the veneer of civilization. When I visit these places with Maori, that is when I truly feel that I have drank the water.

My Writing: Who was Liath Luachra?

Who was Liath Luachra?

I’ve had a few people ask me whether my book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma is based on real characters and, in particular, whether Liath Luachra was real or not. I figured I’d focus this week’s post on that.

There really isn’t much information available on the original source of the character, Liath Luachra.  When I first started the initial chapters of that particular novel, it wasn’t even my intention for that character have much of a role beyond the second chapter. If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know she ends up dominating the entire story. Characters work like that sometimes when you’re writing a longer piece of fiction.

But back to the facts!

All we really know about this character is what we’re told in the 12th century text Macgnímartha Finn (the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) and even that’s pretty sparse. The relevant part of that text reads as follows:

Cumall left his wife Muirne pregnant. And she brought forth a son, to whom the name of Demne was given. Fiacal mac Con­chinn, and Bodball the druidess, and the Gray one of Luachar came to Muirne, and carried away the boy, for his mother durst not let him be with her. Muirne afterwards slept with Gleor Red-hand, king of the Lamraige, whence the saying, “Finn, son of Gleor.” Bodball, however, and the Gray one, and the boy with them, went into the forest of Sliab Bladma. There the boy was secretly reared.

Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. 1936

Hardly much to go on but, to be honest, from a writer’s perspective that’s absolutely fine. The text provides the skeleton of a story and a basic outline of a character but there’s plenty of room to have fun and to flesh out the story as you see fit.

Basically the name ‘Liath Luachra’ means the ‘Grey One of Luachair’. Why she was known as ‘The Grey One’ – it’s impossible to tell. The text collates oral narratives that were in existence well before the story was ever written down. It’s possible the character was meant to be an old woman (i.e. grey-haired). Another possibility was that she had a ‘grey’ personality or simply dressed in grey. The possibility I introduce in Liath Luachra: The Grey One is very much my own

Luachair, meanwhile, is an Irish word that means ‘rushes’ (as in reed plants) but could also mean ‘a place of rushes’. There was a Luachair in West Kerry mentioned in many of the early texts (Luachair Deaghaidh – Sliabh Luachra) but, of course, it’s impossible to tell if that was where the author of Macgnímartha Finn was referring to.

Another, possibility, of course is that the author simply made her up. Writers do that.

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

beara6

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.

 

 

Mise: The Bird Messenger

ID-10051

(Image source: James Barker at freedigitalphotos.net)

[two_third_last]
A funny thing happened to me on the way to this office this morning. That, in itself, is quite peculiar. My office – a basement separate from the rest of the house – is, literally, ten steps down from my front door.

Anyway, there I was enjoying the sun, looking out at the green hills in the distance when this wee bird suddenly flaps down and starts hovering right in front of me at eye level, staying in place through some pretty deft, and probably exhausting, wing work.
We both kinda stayed there, staring at each other for several moments, me in shock, him in – I don’t really know what; challenge, outrage, curiosity, impossible to tell. Finally, the wing work must have got too much for him for he suddenly whipped around and disappeared out of sight. I hung around for a few minutes, wondering if he was going to come back and trying to figure out why he’d acted in such an of odd manner. Was he some kind of oblique teachtaire – messenger? Had he mistaken me for some kind of territorial invader? The only realistic possibility I could come up with was that he was trying to draw me away from a nest (seen that behaviour quite frequently in the past) but it seemed unlikely there was a nest at the front of the house and I’m pretty sure it’s out of nesting season.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this but I actually have no idea what kind of bird it was. My best guess would be some kind of chaffinch but I really don’t know. That’s something I’ve noticed over the years I’ve spent in New Zealand. As an emigrant in another country, living for the most part in the city, I‘m embarrassingly unfamiliar with the native wildlife. I’d like to think that if I was back in Cork, this would be different and, to be fair, it probably would. I’m much more familiar with the native fauna back there. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the country as a kid and I have a pretty good grasp of Irish birds and other mammals and their behaviours. These days, I’m also much more acquainted with the folklore around them, the myths and stories we took for granted as kids.

Here in New Zealand, my interaction with my physical environment is much more stilted. I’m not that familiar with the varieties of birdlife or their birdsong (although I’ve learned to recognise some of them). More importantly I’m not familiar with the associated folklore and stories about them. As a result, I’m also ignorant of their long-term interaction with humans here. This means my interaction with my physical environment is stilted, making my connection to New Zealand more tenuous and my experience of the country that much more limited.
Back in Ireland, even up to the not so distant past, people interacted more intensively with their environment. From many years of careful and extended observation, they learned lessons on how to best ensure their own survival. As a reaching tool for their descendants, they also created stories and sayings to pass on this acquired knowledge. For example: Má lábhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duilliúr, díol do bhó and ceannaigh arbhar (If the cuckoo calls on a leafless tree sell your cow and buy corn). Meaningless words to today’s city-dwelling audience but practical advice to a farmer in the past.

Irish draoi (druids) were also said to be able to prophesise the future from the movement of birds and, to an extent, I get that. Anyone who’s sat down and put the time into observing bird populations in their local environment will be able to identify behavioural trends for climate events, feeding patterns and unusual environmental events that might change those trends. As I said earlier, this takes time – a lot of time – and as I sit here thinking of my teachtaire this morning, it seems clear to me that I have a long wait ahead of me.

Stories: Death on the Mountain

Sligo(Benbulben)

Benbulben or Binn Ghulbain in Irish (the Peak of Gulbain) is a substantial piece of rock that dominates the country north of Sligo. I was lucky enough to catch it on a clear day and had the time to sit back and stare at it. It truly is an impressive chunk of granite.

Like many dominant topographical sites in Ireland, Benbulben’s often linked to legendary or mythological characters. This was an old trick of the ancient storytellers, their way of making stories more interesting and personally relevant. By linking a tale they’d heard elsewhere to part of the local topography well known to their audience, it added impact and resonance. This is why it’s so common to find the same – or very similar – versions of the same ancient tale set in a number of different localities (sometimes with local variations added on). A nightmare for the professional folklorist attempting to establish the true origin of the narrative but fun for the local population all the same.

Benbulben is particularly associated with the Fenian Cycle tale Tóraíocht Dhiarmuida agus Gráinne (the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne). The earliest surviving text with this story dates back to the 16th century but it’s pretty clear that the material contains much older elements that go back as least as far as the tenth century (and possibly before).

The Tóraíocht – as it’s more commonly known back home – is a tragic love triangle at heart. It concerns the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, the princess Gráinne and the Fenian warrior Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The story’s striking, not only because of its rich epic tragedy, but also because it’s one of the first times in Irish literature where Fionn mac Cumhaill is shown in a poor light.

The Tóraíocht relates how Fionn – now an aging man – seeks the hand of Gráinne (the daughter of king Cormac mac Airt). An unwilling participant in the deal, however, Gráinne falls in love with the handsome warrior Diarmuid during the pre-marriage feast. Slipping a sleeping potion into the wine, she places Diarmuid faoi geasa – under a magical obligation – to elope with her.
The tóraíocht – pursuit – commences in earnest then with Fionn and the Fianna chasing the couple around the country, occasionally pulling in celebrity cameos from the likes of Aengus to help them when all seems lost. After many adventures, peace is finally made with Fionn and the lovers settle in Keshcorran.

One day, years later, Fionn and the Fianna pass by and invite Diarmuid to join them on a boar hunt. Despite the warnings of his lover, he leaves with them only to be fatally wounded by the supernatural boar. Because of his own powers, Fionn has the ability to save the warrior by simply allowing him to drink water from his hands. Still smouldering from the insult of their elopement however, he refuses to do this despite the warnings of his own warriors. On two occasions, he pretends to help but allows the water to slip through his fingers. Finally, his own grandson, Oscar, threatens him and Fionn reluctantly agrees to help. By the time he returns from the well however it’s all too late and Diarmuid’s already succumbed to his wounds.

Originally, when I was writing Beara: Dark Legends – which contains a very strong Fenian component – I had intended to include Benbulben and the Tóraíocht within the storyline. In the end, though, I decided against it and now it’s just referenced briefly towards the beginning of the novel. The way I figured it, Benbulben was very much a Sligo feature. The Beara storyline is focused very much at the opposite end of the country in a place which has strong topographical features of its own.

Maybe another time.

Stories: Dancing on the cliffs

 

By Fair Means of Foul1

One of the reasons I return home as often as I do is to collect stories, snippets of songs or local folklore that provide plot ideas or concepts for books I’m writing. Recently, I was out visiting Rathlin Island off the Northern Ireland coastline (offshore from Ballycastle) and came across a particularly striking ‘local legend’ about Fair Head. The rocky headland of Fair Head is actually onshore (not on Rathlin) and can be easily seen from Ballycastle. According to “local legend” this striking piece of rock is named after a princess who actually lived on Rathlin.

When it comes to placenames you have to treat the authenticity of “local legend” with a bit of caution, particularly if the name associated with the origin story is English. This is an important clue as an English placename usually indicates it was derived from after the early 1600s (when the colonisation process in Ireland commenced in earnest). A second thing to consider with respect to placenames is topography. In this particular case, the Irish name – An Bhinn Mhór (The Big Peak or The Big Tip) – seems more apt for such a striking topographical feature, thereby suggesting you could probably treat the veracity of the ‘legend’ with a strong keg of salt.

Despite all that, the story about the princes is quite a striking story. According to the “local legend”:

She was a beautiful creature with long blond hair. There were two particularly ardent young men amongst her admirers. Naturally, they hated each other. At a feast on the island, their hatred turned to rage. They fought and eventually one was fatally wounded. As he lay dying, he made his liegeman swear to take revenge on his behalf. The winner called for music and dancing to celebrate his betrothal. The liegeman danced with the princess. He whirled her round and round, closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and flung her over the edge. The body was eventually washed ashore at Fair Head.

So, there you have it. Love, violence, drinking and dancing and a terrible revenge. All the elements for a powerful piece of fiction in less than a hundred words.

Folklore: Stone Confessions

Actually, I have a bit of a confession to make.

I am not proud …

But the truth is …

I am a closet stone freak, a Dolmen nerd.

Oh, yes! Stone circles, standing stones, cairns, barrows, hillforts. If I had my way, I’d be out there clambering all over them every weekend, grabbing photos, jotting down stories, associated mythologies and folklore. The truth is, though, that in many Irish rural areas these ancient monuments form a key part of the landscape. They’re familiar features that we’ve grown up with, played by, and in some cases identify with and the stories associated with them are passed down from generation to generation in local families.

Take this boulder for example, located in Kileenduff, over a mile west of Easky (County Sligo).

split rock

This monument is known as ‘split rock’ ( the English name suggesting this was only applied after the late 1800s) and it’s set not too far inland from the coast. According to a Sligo County Council Geological Site report, the boulder was taken from the nearby Ox mountains and deposited in its present location by large sheets of ice during the last glaciation (about 30,000 – 10,000 years ago). As part of this process, the crack or ‘natural fracture’ occurred. Local legend, however, has a different interpretation of events that has been passed down from generation to generation. According to this, the boulder was cast down by Fionn mac Cumhal as part of a boulder-casting competition with a friend called Cicsatóin (literally: Kick in the Ass). Fionn’s attempt at throwing the boulder was a very poor miscast and he was so enraged he actually ran down the mountain and slashed it in two with his sword.

These days many people stop and pass through he crack but the legend also says that if you pass through it three times (circling the rock on your right), the two internal faces will close in and crush you on the final pass. Everyone scoffs at the legend but you’d be surprised how many people actually give up on the final pass and in any case it’s a great story to tell to your kids.

Which, from an Irish perspective, is often more important than the actual facts!

 

Words into the Void

newgrange-image

Starting a blog and releasing a post is a bit like throwing a stone into the bush. You never really know if you’ve hit anything.

Until some angry farmer with a head wound comes striding out, threatening you with a very large stick!!

Hopefully this won’t be the case with this blog.

This blog is dedicated to informing and educating you on various aspects Irish culture that you mightn’t usually come across. My hope is that it helps you to access Irish culture in a more personal and relevant way. I post once a week (on Mondays) and usually on the following topics:

  • Folklore: Irish folklore and/or mythology
  • Stories: Stories from Irish history and mythology
  • Mise (Me): Occasional commentary on how I use Irish history and culture in my writing
  • Updates – an occasional update on what I’m writing

Fáilte romhat go dtí Irish Imbas Books.  Tá súil agam go baineann tú taitneamh as do cuairt anseo.

 

Sleepwalking in English

A sleep-deprived Irish translator struggles to make sense of bizarre events in a foreign French city. A poignant tale of sleepwalking, dreams, loss and an urgent need to go home.

[Category: fiction – literary/contemporary fantasy].

AVAILABLE SOON AS AN AUDIOBOOK

Sex With Sarah

A consultant’s uncomplicated affair with a public service colleague proves anything but.  An intense and compelling short story on the costs and benefits of a sexual affair in the corporate office.

This short story was  written after several years of observation of compelling and extreme behaviour by ambitious individuals within the New Zealand public service. The story, of course, is complete fiction but much of the behaviour is not.

It can be purchased at Amazon.

The Morning After

A short story about an ‘Irish Lothario’ and a middle-aged American woman who awake in an unfamiliar apartment in a foreign city.  They have no recollection of who they are.  Or how they got there.
An hilarious story of two hungover victims struggling to come to grips with the previous night’s excesses.
Not for those of a sensitive nature.

This particular story was actually written after a mind-numbingly bad day at work. As soon as I came home  and sat down to write, the basic tale flowed out onto the page in less than twenty minutes.  It was a wonderful antidote.

This can be purchased at Amazon here

The Ringmaster’s Daughter

“A young woman escaping a dreary existence encounters a ringmaster’s daughter who is too implausible to be true – despite all evidence to the contrary.”

A unique and intriguing tale of magic, lies and female friendship.

———————————————————

At some stage in our lives we all meet individuals that infatuate us because we see them as fresh and exotic. They might speak with an accent, come from a very different culture that we admire, have striking physical or mental traits. Some people have a whole combination of these attributes so when you meet them, they really have that ability to blow you away, to return you to a time when you believed – in the future, in possibility, in magic, in anything!

Infatuation, of course, has a limited shelf-life. Familiarity breeds contempt – or at least a sense of ‘ho-hum’ – and the ‘exotic’ eventually becomes ‘routine’. When I wrote this particular story, I was trying to imagine what would happen if you met someone who had the ability to rekindle that sense of magic, where the infatuation never really stopped.

It can be purchased at Amazon.