Magic Roads in Ireland

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The Magic Hill up in Louth (or ‘The Angel’s Highway’ as it’s sometimes called) is one of a number of magic roads in Ireland where, if you park at the ‘bottom’ of the hill, turn of the engine and shift it out of gear, your car will actually run back uphill.

Magic roads are, in fact, what are sometimes referred to as ‘gravity roads’ (that’s an area where the landscape creates an optical illusion so that a downhill slope actually looks like an uphill slope). There are actually quite a number of such places around the world (and there’s a least three of them in Ireland that I’m aware of). Most have their own folklore associated with them although most of that lore is usually derived after the invention of the motorcar.

When my Dad took us on our very memorable trip to Dundalk (county Louth, we went to see the magic road there and there’s an amusing summary of it here on youtube: http://talkofthetown.ie/2014/02/25/the-real-magic-hill/

It’s hardly deep, intellectual folklore but it’s great craic!!

(Irish Folklore) Shite that W.B. Yeats says!

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When it comes to Irish Folklore, a useful rule of thumb to apply is to avoid anything ‘factual’ written by W.B. Yeats. Lovely man I’m sure, grand poet but, God, he was a complete flake when it came to his writing on Irish folklore.

Despite much of his ‘academic’ work being dismissed many years ago , he’s still revered as an authority in certain circles. His work on Irish ‘fairies’ in particular is constantly quoted on the internet continuing that great tradition of misinformation.

To understand WB’s limitations with respect to Irish culture though, you really have to take the man’s life into context. An important point of context is that WB was of Anglo-Irish descent and a member of a very privileged Protestant aristocracy. Nothing specifically wrong with that of course, but it’s important to consider as back in the day this would essentially have meant Yeats:

(a) was disconnected from the lives of the Irish peasantry (from who he mined much of his folklore and inspiration)

(b) couldn’t speak Irish (again, another significant barrier to accessing folklore)

Yeats also spent quite a substantial period of his life in England which, once again, would have restricted his connection to authentic sources of information on Irish culture and folklore.

Yeats introduction to Lady Gregory in 1986 was probably his most important break when it came to accessing genuine Irish culture and folklore. A strong nationalist, Lady Gregory encouraged him to focus on writing that was ‘identifiably Irish’ in content but, more importantly, she also introduced him to a new generation of up and coming Irish authors such as Synge and Sean O’Casey who were able to offer insights and personal experience on aspects of folklore he would not have known about.

Another important access point for Yeats was the output of academic scholars who were translating ancient Irish manuscripts at that time or doing their best to conserve the Irish language (e.g. Douglas Hyde, also a Protestant but a fluent Irish speaker). These translations introduced the whole country to previously unknown mythological sagas and Ossianic poetry from Ireland past’s and its probable that Yeats was more comfortable with this kind of source material than the more contemporary folklore.

The truth is that although Yeats managed to get a foot in the ‘Irish folklore door’ through his contacts, his background and his inability to speak (or apparently learn) Irish were something of a barrier. When dealing with the little people (the Irish peasantry as opposed to the ‘f-f-faeries!!), he was often dependent on others to translate for him or to provide abridged details. There’s a sad kind of humour to be found, for example, when reading his efforts to list and classify Irish fairies in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Not only did he completely misunderstand what ‘fairies’ were, one cant help getting the impression that his sources were either forelock-tugging peasants desperately making up any old shite to please him or local smartarses taking the mickey out of the ‘bigwig’ from the capital.

The biggest problem with Yeats however was not so much the barrier of his background as his fascination with spiritualism/mysticism and the occult (magic). This passion very much coloured his interpretation of Irish folklore, as it did with much of his writing throughout his life. Not only was he a member of occult groups such as ‘The Ghost Club’ (a kind of paranormal research organisation formed in 1862 but still going, apparently) and the ‘Golden Dawn’ (an organization devoted to the study and practice of the occult) he also studied and was influenced by many of the self-proclaimed ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of his day.  In 1892, he wrote:

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist.”

Which explains a lot. Mind you, although Yeats based the play on a supposed Irish legend, later tracing of that legend identified it as a French work

In fairness, though, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales and other works by Yeats were very much a product of their time. Yeats, no doubt, had his own artistic and reputational agenda but there’s no denying his passion for his subject. In addition, with the rise of nationalism you can be sure that certain Irish elements were more than happy to have an internationally recognised poet and a sanitised national cultural history for them to wave about as a flag in support of their cause.

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

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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)

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(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.

 

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: Let Sleeping Giants Lie

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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.

Folklore: Messing with the Past

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I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the prehistoric structures around Aghabullogue (there’s an ancient bivallate ring fort to the south-west, sacred saint stone and of course the Ogham stones etc.). Although the prehistoric remnants there are quite cool, what I find particularly fascinating is the way that later communities of that region have actually interacted with them. In present day Ireland there’s, generally, a pretty decent respect for historic monuments and for ‘old stuff’. That hasn’t always been the case, though.

A classic example are the Aghabullogue Ogham stones.  One of these – the eight foot stone in the picture – now stands in a position of honour down by St Olan’s Well in mute attestation of the pattern that takes place in honour of St Olan every year.  To be honest, that’s actually quite funny because an ancient non-Christian spiritual icon is now being used as a prop for what is essentially a Catholic (Christian) process (admittedly also ‘borrowed’ from the early pagan rituals – see previous posts). What’s even funnier, though, was the use to which this monolith was put prior to being placed in its current location. According to the records, this Ogham stone was actually discovered in a nearby drain where it had been used in a much more practical sense as a bridge across the local stream for many centuries.

This Olan’s Well stone (as it’s now pretty well known) has the inscription “Madora MaQi Deag” which shows it’s connection to Clann Deag, a tribe who lived in the region many centuries earlier. It’s quite probable, though that the stone was removed and put to this practical purpose after the English Crown had become established in Ireland (from early 1600’s onwards). Most likely, the stone was removed around 1690 and used as building material for the local Church of Ireland church built around that same time. Despite the fact that the Ogham stone had been standing up straight (possibly from the 5th or 6th century) it was given pretty short shift when there was a new king in town.

Irish Folklore: The Truth of the Children of Lir

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The Children of Lir is one of the three great ‘tragedy’ narratives of ancient Ireland (the other two being The Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn and Deirdre of the Sorrows). It’s a tale that pretty much everyone in Ireland knows, primarily from school but also through a number of other routes (plays, television, books). Because of its popularity back in our ancestor’s time, it was relatively common for storytellers to link the tale to places near to where their audience were located. This not only helped to provide an explanation or rationale for key topographical features in the local environment but also made the story that much more relevant for people who were hearing it for the first time. This is why, we find the final resting place for the children of Lir in Beara.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, a local sign erected by Beara Tourism summarises the most commonly known version of the story as follows:

The story of the children of Lir is a well known legend in Ireland. Many areas in Ireland claim to be the landing spot of the swans after their 900 year journey on the seas and lakes of Ireland. The children were the sons and daughters of Lir, a member of the Tuatha de Danaan clan, who married Eve daughter of King Bov the Red, King of the Tuatha de Danaan. Eve and Lir were blissfully married and had a set of twins-Aed and Finola, and after a short period there followed another set of twins, 2 boys, Conn and Fiara.

Unfortunately Eve died soon after and Lir, not wanting his children growing up without the love of a mother, married Eva, King Bov’s second daughter. This was a happy marriage until Eva became jealous of Lir’s devotion of his children. Overcome with hatred she brought the children to Lough Darravagh near their home and transformed them into swans. Realising what she had done and overcome with remorse, she attempted to release the spell but could only ease their distress by enabling them to speak and sing and to remain as swans for 900 years until Christianity was introduced into Ireland.

The swans spent the first 300 years on Lough Darravagh close to their home. The next 300 years was spent on the Sea of Moyle, a cold and desolate area between Scotland and the north of Ireland. The last 300 years they endured on the Atlantic sea. When their time was over the swans attracted by the ringing of a bell rung by a monk living in Allihies village in the Beara Peninsula, came ashore and immediately were changed back into their human form. The children were by now old men and women (and) were baptised by the monk. A short time later they died and were buried under these large white boulders.

In fact, the story that we all know today, is believed to originally have come from a tale told in the Netherlands around the 12th century. In Ireland, this was the period when Norman knights had established a firm foothold in Ireland and it seems likely that they brought the tale over with them. Subsequently, a local author incorporated it into local legend.

Sometimes, though, the story is actually more important or more valuable than the reality. In the past, in Beara, people use to do the rounds at this stone, firmly believing in the story. I’ve often walked past this particular spot myself and gazed down at that coin-coated rock and wondered what lay beneath. I’m sure, like me, countless others have been tempted to try digging under the stone just out of sheer curiosity. Possibly, someone has.  I suspect, however, that most of them have simply walked on, sufficiently satisfied with the richness of the story itself.

 

Irish Stories: Survival in Beara

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In 1602, Donal Cam (also known as The O’Sullivan Beara) was caught between a rock and a hard place.  In actual fact, he was caught between many rocks and many hard places, trapped as he was in the bleak valleys around Glenn Garbh (Glengarrif) on the Beara peninsula. Having played his hand and backing the losing side at the Battle of Kinsale, Donal Cam and his followers had lost their home, their herds and were increasingly constricted by English forces. In the middle of a freezing Irish winter, without supplies or sanctuary the situation was pretty desperate.

Most people know the story of how Donal Cam and a thousand of his supporters escaped from Glenn Garbh during the night of 31 December 1602, travelling 250 miles from Beara to the O’Rourke stronghold in Leitrim in the middle of winter. Because of the poignancy and drama associated with that particular struggle most people are unaware of the story related to the survival of his wife and child in hiding back in the valley of Coomerkane.

According to local folklore, Donal Cam left his wife and child in Glenn Garbh with one of his most trusted men so that they could secretly take a boat to Spain while their enemies were focussed on capturing him. To do this, however, they had to endure a freezing winter with no food in the valley of Coomerkane. In order to survive, the story is that Donal Cam’s man climbed up to this spot (the central white ledge) where a pair of eagles had their nest. While the parent eagles were away hunting, this brave individual tied some cord around the eaglets’ throats so that they couldn’t swallow the food. As a result, when the parents returned with the food from their hunt then flew away once more, he was able to climb up to the nest again and snatch the food which he then shared with Donal Cam’s wife and child.

In terms of facts, the story does seem a bit fanciful. European eagles tend to start nesting in March/April – by which time Donal Cam would have been well gone. From the little I know of eagles, it does seem that that the male parents tend to do most of the hunting until at least 4- 6 weeks after the eggs have hatched (when the female parent joins the hunt). The sheer physical practicalities of actually climbing a cliff, manhandling the eaglets so that they can’t swallow (while at the same time not strangling them) and then getting away without being seen by their parents also stretches the limits of credibility.

What is more likely is that someone extrapolated this story from the behaviour of cuckoos – invading the nest, taking the food intended for the young etc. etc. Whatever the case – made up or not – its still a pretty amazing story and one that effectively captures the human imagination. I’m still pretty firm in my belief that its untrue. Having said that, I’m more than happy to be corrected if anyone ever comes across any additional information they’re willing to share.

Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

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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

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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

 

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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

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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.

Folklore: A Great Leap of Faith

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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.