Irish Mythology, Negative Spins, and Newly discovered Werewolves

Much of what people see as Irish folklore and Irish mythology today, is actually a confused muddle of snippets of fact, cultural misinterpretation, Chinese whispers, intentional and unintentional misinformation. Generally speaking, the latter tends to be disseminated by bloggers who aren’t Irish (but have an interest in Celtic mythology) however most people are surprised to learn that the more proactive form of cultural misinformation started back in the 12th century with an individual known as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).

Born in 1146, Gerald of Wales was the scion of a noble family (he was the son of William FitzOdo de Barry or Barri, one of Wales most powerful Anglo-Norman barons). Like his peers, Gerald had a healthy appreciation for power and for those who wielded it. Driven by ambitions, he placed himself in positions associated with powerful men, ceaselessly self-promoted and worked his way up the social/political ladder until he was appointed archdeacon of Brecon in 1174 (a role he obtained by ‘dobbing in’ the previous archdeacon for having a live-in mistress).

Propelled by this success, Gerald soon managed to inveigle his way into the role of royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II and, following the Norman invasions of Ireland (in 1169 and 1171), secured the prestigious position of accompanying the King’s son (Earl John – later, King John as of Robin Hood fame) on a tour of the conquered lands.

During this exploratory visit to Ireland, in an effort to impress his masters, Gerald commenced a propaganda piece known as the Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland). Even at the time, this document was remarkable not only for its length but the amazing depths of prejudicial description that essentially portrayed the native Irish as depraved barbarians.

Published in 1188, Gerald’s account proved immensely popular in Great Britain with the ruling Norman classes as it’s dehumanisation of the Irish helped justify their invasion and the subsequent treatment of the natives. It’s important not to dismiss the impact of the Topographia Hibernica as many of its ‘factual’ descriptions established those stereotypes of the “wild Irish” that continued up to the early modern period (and which some would argue continue today).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the Topographia Hibernica has been discredited for centuries, you’ll still find contemporary bloggers quoting liberally from it in an effort to justify their own particular passions or interests (usually related to fantasy beliefs which are then linked – kicking and screaming – to Irish mythology). To be fair, reading some of Gerald’s writing is actually quite hilarious from a contemporary viewpoint but the fact that this was a propaganda document written by a non-Irish person and an official government spin-doctor for the Norman government, seems to have flown over the heads of many of the quoting bloggers. As in Geralds’ day, it seems people will still rearrange the facts to suit themselves.

One example I pulled from the Topographia Hibernica involves a fanciful ‘record’ of some Irish people being ‘part-wolf’. It reads as follows:

Of the prodigies of our times, and first of a wolf which conversed with a priest

I now proceed to relate some wonderful occurrences which have happened within our times. About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest who was journeying from Ulster to Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! A wolf came up to them and immediately addressed them to this effect.

“Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is.”

The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature it was that in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last:

“There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.”

At this word, the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he led the way to a tree, at no great distance in the hollow of which he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation. She then received from the priest all the rites duly performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importantly demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck, under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt, using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf, form the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it, and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards, the he-wolf rolled back the skin and fitted it to its original form.
These rites having been duly, rather than rightly, performed the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey, pointed to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude if the Lord should call him back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed. At the close of their conversation, the priest inquired of the wolf whether the hostile race which had now landed on the island would continue there for the time to come, and be established in it. To which the wolf replied: –

“For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vices, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the arms of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also.”

It’s quite likely that Gerald received additional brownie points from his masters for the final paragraph which essentially suggests the native Irish deserved everything they got (i.e. being invaded) as they were essentially sinful.

As you can see, Gerald of Wales had no particular qualms using fiction to portray the natives as partly inhuman (something which aligned well with the Roman Church who often likened native Irish war parties as ‘wolf bands’). This is something he also did in other sections of the document such as:

  • Of a fish which had three golden teeth
  • Of a woman who had a beard, and a hairy crest and mane on her back
  • Of an animal who was half-ox, half-man
  • Of a goat who had intercourse with a woman
  •  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

You get the idea.

I came across the above section as a result of some research I was recently carrying out on Irish wolves and, to my great amusement, discovered numerous bloggers have used this section to argue their belief that there’s always been werewolves in Ireland.

On the bright side of course, we should probably thank our lucky stars they didn’t quote Mein Kampf.

Adam and Eve and the Salmon of Knowledge

The salmon of the River Cong didn’t strike me as particularly wise when I passed the other day. A savagely beautiful day, the fish were leaping in great numbers and to surprising height while I sat watching them from the river bank, thinking of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

salmon-of-knowledge

Tradition has it that the well of Seghais (the source of the River Boyne) was encircled by hazel trees that dropped their nuts (often used by our ancestors as a metaphor for wisdom) into the water. These floated downriver where they were eaten by a salmon that, by consuming the nuts, absorbed all the wisdom and knowledge of the hazel trees and, thus, became the fabled Salmon of Knowledge. By eating the Salmon, the understanding was that a person could, in turn, obtain that knowledge too.

Naturally, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

It seems strange now but, in fact, the whole Salmon of Knowledge story is actually a relatively recent addition to the canon of Fenian literature (believed to have been introduced sometime in the 10th century). In the earliest versions of this story, Fionn actually acquires imbas by entering a síd (a dwelling of the Otherworld inhabitants) and swallowing water from a well located there. The Salmon was actually added in at a later date through confusion with another, similar story. Despite this mistake, most people have always enjoyed the concept of the Salmon and, hence, it’s actually out-lived the earlier stories.

At heart, of course, this tale is all about the acquisition of exclusive or forbidden knowledge (Imbas) by a hero, a story you’ll find in most other cultures. Welsh mythology, for example has a very similar version outlined in Historia Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin) which describes how the early Brythonic poet Taliesin (Gwion Bach in the story) acquired the gift of knowledge by stealing three magic drops from Cerodwen’s cauldron.

Similarly, in Norse mythology there’s a version of the story where the legendary hero Sigurd, having killed a dragon, is asked by his comrade Regin to roast the dragon’s heart. While Sigurd is carrying out this task, a sudden spurt of blood from the heart burns his thumb and, putting it into his mouth to cool it, he finds he’s received the knowledge to understand the speech of birds. Afterwards, when he eats the dragon heart he gains the gift of ‘prophesy’, just as Fionn does.

If you look at one of the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, of course, you’ll also find that similar pattern where Eve takes a bite out of the apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. It just goes to show how old stories hide many truths that go deeper than the literal ones

Interview on Irish Mythology And Folklore

irish-mythology-folklore

It’s been something of a hectic June here in Wellington this year but I did manage to fit in an interview with Capital Irish Radio (based here in the city). Capital Irish Radio are a volunteer-run group who produce a weekly, 28 minute programme for Irish people (I occasionally present a show – about 2/3 times a year). Usually they provide a range of music, interviews and news from Ireland but recently I was asked to come in and explain what exactly Irish Imbas Books does.

During this interview with Finbarr Murray, I explain where Irish Imbas Books comes from and also discuss aspects of Irish mythology and Irish folklore.

Irish Folklore/ Mythology: The Danger of the Hungry Grass!

hungrygrass

In ancient Ireland there were patches of grass called ‘Hungry Grass’ that leapt up off the ground to swallow you whole, digest you down and spit you out like a …

Actually, er … No, wait .. Hang on.

Oh, yeah!

Hungry Grass was actually a patch of grass that was completely indistinguishable from other sections of grass but if you stood on it you were immediately overtaken by a great hunger or weariness.
And, there was A REAL RISK you might swoon to your death.

There you go. That’s much more credible.

As you can see, there’s a fair amount of shite spinning out there on the internet with respect to ‘hungry grass.’ The Celternet, as usual, has delivered some fascinating hypotheses. Read through many of the Celtic “information” websites and you’ll learn that ‘hungry grass’ was, in fact, caused by fairies (the Little People!) or leprechaun spirits (Dun-dun-dun!).

The Wikipedia entries on ‘hungry grass’ and ‘féar gorta’ are also hilariously bad and use some pretty nefarious links as references. Yet another site – my favourite – describes with great cultural authority how Hungry Hill (a mountain in Beara, West Cork, get its name due to the belief of local peasants that “many patches of Féar Gortha grew on it.” To anyone from Beara, this is, of course, not only remarkably stupid but a bit insulting.
[Note: The Irish – and real – name of the mountain is Cnoc Daod and is more likely related to the changeable weather around the summit].

The problem of course, is that most of the Celternet bloggers usually copy verbatim from outdated sources such as books by 18th and 19th century authors like William Carleton (a writer in the vein of W.B. Yeats who wrote somewhat disparagingly about jolly Irish peasants and their foolish cultural beliefs). The internet, being what it is of course, means that these errors are continuously being reproduced.

Today, given the amount of grass in Ireland, the whole concept of ‘hungry grass’ would be a bit alarming if people still believed in it. One or two hundred years ago, when scientific reasoning wasn’t particularly widespread however, it was probably a fair attempt at rationalising the unexplained deaths or episodes of fainting that would occur from time to time. The psychological impact of An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine), would also have remained very strongly in the minds of those people living after the 1850s. This is why, in most variations of the ‘hungry grass’ folklore, the effects are attributed to a person stepping on the grave or burial plot of a victim from An Gorta Mór. It’s also why (probably) the Irish term is ‘féar gorta’ which may be more accurately translated as ‘famine grass’ rather than ‘hungry grass’.

Although the superstition of ‘hungry grass’ is pretty much outdated nowadays, it’s still quite a curious concept that seems very specific to Ireland and has a lot of narrative appeal. That’s pretty much why I ended up using the concept as a minor plot device in Beara Dark Legends (where the protagonist has the supernatural power of being able to detect where dead people are buried). In that book, the protagonist is an archaeologist/historian and his success at finding ancient historical sites and bodies is very much based on that ability.

In hindsight, I suppose I’d probably have been better off making the character a mortician or a police pathologist although, to be honest, that wasn’t really my area of interest. And, besides, from Quincy to Crossing Jordan to Silent Witness and so on, that morbid area of entertainment already seems to have been adequately catered for.

It does beg the question however – how cool would it be to have a television series about an Irish pathologist? You could really have fun with that.

The Gateway to the Otherworld on the Beara Coast

Teach Donn

Most cultures have their own creation myth. And their own myth to explain the departure of the dead. The absence of life in those we love has always been a difficult concept to grasp, both emotionally and intellectually. Even now, with all our scientific data, we’re not really any closer to understanding where they go or if, in fact they go anywhere at all. Science can tell us that someone or something is biologically inactive but that’s as far as it goes.

Our ancestors had a different way of looking at things that didn’t involve scientific rationale. For them, time was cyclical. Time only ever became linear when were events were written down in sequence and calendars were added. This idea of cyclical time came from what our ancestors saw in the world about them – the continuous ebbing and flow of tides, the repeating pattern of seasons, the growth and harvest of crops and, most strikingly of all, the rise of the morning sun in the east and its sinking at night in the west.

For this reason, they also had a strong belief that the spirits of the dead departed towards the west with the setting sun, sinking with it into the Otherworld each night where it rested with the dead. Celtic cultures weren’t the only culture to believe this of course. The Greeks – amongst others – believed in Elysian Fields “at the world’s end” in the West. Ireland is, however, one of the few areas of Celtic culture the entrance to the Otherworld has actually been identified in some of the older manuscripts – Bull Rock.

Bull Rock is an islet sitting about five miles south-west of the Beara peninsula and it looks like a pyramid-shaped black from some angles. Nevertheless, it’s a substantial chunk of granite poking up out of the Atlantic and it’s the most westerly piece of land in that region). Known in Irish as Teach Donn or Tech Doinn(the House of Donn), this rock was said to be where the souls of the dead departed, following the line of the descending sun by passing via an impressively amazing passage that cuts directly through the heart of the giant rock in a westerly direction.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


[Photo from site: http://ruttledge.se/2008/01/25/bull-island/]

Donn is generally regarded as a sort of overlord of the Dead but of course he’s actually nothing more than a personification of the coming of darkness (the night) and, metaphorically, death. ‘Donn’, in Irish, means ‘brown’ (for modern Irish ) but its meaning was closer to ‘dark’ in the past. The Metrical Dindshenchas (an account of the origins of Irish place-names and traditions – which can’t always be believed) says the following about Tech Duinn. You’ll note this was written from a very Christian perspective that ‘poo-poos’ ‘the heathen’

Tech Duinn, whence the name? Not hard to say.

When the sons of Mil came from the west to Erin, their druid said to them, ‘If one of you climbs the mast’, said he, ‘and chants incantations against the Tuatha De, before they can do so, the battle will be broken against them, and their land will be ours; and he that casts the spell will die.’
They cast lots among themselves, and the lot falls on Donn to climb the mast. So was it done: Donn climbed the mast, and chanted incantations against the Tuatha De, and then came down. And he said: ‘I swear by the gods’, quoth he, ‘that now ye will not be granted right nor justice.’

The Tuatha De also chanted incantations against the sons of Mil in answer from the land. Then after they had cursed Donn, there came forthwith an ague into the ship. Said Amairgen: ‘Donn will die’, said he, ‘and it were not lucky for us to keep his body, lest we catch the disease. For if Donn be brought ashore, the disease will remain in Erin for ever.’

Said Donn: ‘Let my body be carried to one of the islands’, said he, ‘and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.’ Then through the incantations of the druids a storm came upon them, and the ship wherein Donn was foundered.

Let his body be carried to yonder high rock’, says Amairgen: ‘his folk shall come to this spot.’ So hence it is called Tech Duinn: and for this cause, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to hell, and give their blessing, ere they go, to the soul of Donn. But as for the righteous soul of a penitent, it beholds the place from afar, and is not borne astray. Such, at least, is the belief of the heathen. Hence Tech Duinn is so called.”

In this 12th-14th century document, the concept of ‘death’ has been personified through thousands of years of ‘Chinese whispers’ to a character called Donn who forms part of the Melesian invasion force of Ireland (according to this, the Melesians invaded Ireland, replacing the native Tuath De Danann).

Nowadays Bull Rock holds a lighthouse (established in 1889 and still in use today) and its function is about saving lives as opposed to easing them onto the afterlife. When I go home and sit on a ditch on those rare clear days when you can look out across the water, I often wonder how many people truly understand what a amazing edifice we have lying just off the coast.

Secrets of Celtic Mythology

Secrets of Celtic Mythology 02 (2)

For those of you based in Wellington, you may be interested in a seminar we’re holding on Friday 11 December at the Mezzanine in the Wellington Central Library. The seminar is called ‘The Secrets of Irish Mythology’ but will actually focus predominantly on Irish mythology, which is what we know best.

I’m still working through the structure of the seminar but it will probably involve some initial explanation of mythology (what is it, exactly?) followed by some living examples of it in Ireland today. I’m also keen on running through the practical ramifications of this for society as this is an area I’m quite keen on and hope to do some more of in the future.

In any case, the details are below:

“Irish Imbas Books presents Secrets of Celtic Mythology at the mezzanine of Wellington Central Library from 6:00 to 7:30 on Friday 11 December 2015. This one hour presentation will explore the background to the development of mythology, examine some practical examples of Irish mythology in Irish folklore and explain why this is relevant to us all. The event is free to enter. Irish Imbas Books will have a selection of books available for sale for those who are interested.”

Location/venue:
The Mezzanine, Wellington Central Library 65 Victoria Street Wellington
Date:
11 Dec 2015

A Mysterious Concrete Chair on the Side of the Road

Several years ago while visiting a friend I found a concrete chair set up a ditch on the side of the road in the townland of Doonflin. Fascinated, I stopped the car to have a look and try to work out what it was. Because of its dilapidated condition, the writing engraved on it was almost completely erased. I drove past it again a few other times but the only people around that I could ask were either tourists or knew only that it was a monument to someone who’d been murdered in the vicinity. One person told me it was called ‘The Bard’s Chair’.
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0806300061

Although I was intrigued I didn’t have time to research it any further so I just let it go and went my way.

Not long ago, my friend contacted me and mentioned that the concrete chair had been removed but, fortunately, replaced by a new chair and an information panel that explained its predecessor. Apparently, the original had been constructed sometime in 1931-34 when the road was still a quiet botharín (little road) and was a monument dedicated to Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh, a famous Irish writer most people have never heard of.

Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh was a member of Clan MacFhirbhigh (Mac Firbis in English), a family whose original territory was north Connacht (their descendants can still be found predominantly around Ballina in County Mayo). This clan were the hereditary poets and historiographers to the O’Dowds of Tireragh (an area that stretched along the west coast of Co. Sligo) from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh was one of the last Gaelically trained scribes of his day and is best known for his work Leabhar na nGenealach (the Great Book of Irish Genealogies). This work compiled Irish genealogical lore relating to the key Gaelic and Anglo-Norman families of Ireland from pre-Christian times to the mid-17th century.

To understand the significance of that you need to understand a bit about the context of the literary caste in Ireland from about the ninth century onwards. Essentially, this group held an official place in the Gaelic social system, they were extremely well educated (trained through a Gaelic educational system independent of the Christian system – although they eventually overlapped) and were immensely respected. In Gaelic Ireland, most Irish dynasties employed these men of learning as their official poets and genealogists/historians, and occasionally advisors (although the latter decreased over the centuries). In essence, these scholar-scribes were the direct descendents of the druidic class and responsibility for their role was passed down through select families from generation to generation.

At the time Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh was active (1640 to 1671), Ireland was undergoing a period of immense societal change. Due to the encroachment and increasing military influence of the English crown, most of the great hereditary Irish dynasties had fallen (or were in the process of it) and as a result, these scribes no longer had patrons to support or employ them. Some made a living doing translations, researching and writing genealogies and transcriptions for a dwindling number of clients. Others – despite their immense intellect and education – ended up doing the most basic of menial tasks. In a contemporary sense, this impact would be the same as if someone took over your country today and forced all of your university academics to make a living through manual labour (and you may have your own views on that). These men were an essential part of Gaelic culture but by the end of the 1600s, their positions were eroded just as effectively as the memorial writing on the original concrete chair.

Although we don’t know much about Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh, what we do know was that he was a supremely educated and competent (but, more importantly, a fanatically dedicated) scribe. At the time he was producing some of his greatest works in the Galway region (around 1949) bubonic plague had broken out in the city (causing an evacuation by most of the population). He was also in the environs around July 1650, when English parliamentary forces crossed the Shannon and began a nine-month siege of the city. Preoccupied with his own literary projects however, MacFhirbhisigh never makes reference or commentary on the activities taking place around him (except once where it disturbed his work). What’s even more amazing is that despite all the violence and furore taking place around him, he managed to produce works that far exceed those of the scribes before him, often without any financial support. The Leabhar na nGenealach, for example is almost as large and as detailed as the more famous Annals of the Four Masters which was produced by a whole teams of scholars around the same period. Quite frankly, MacFhirbhisigh was the ultimate scholar. Nothing mattered as much to him as research and knowledge.

Although scribes like MacFhirbhisigh lived in constant fear of their lives from Crown forces and supporters, they were still respected by the native population and it looks as though MacFhirbhisigh managed to scrape a living carrying out translations and other literary work for a wealthy peer in Dublin. During the latter years of his life, he moved back to a place near Easkey village and it was at a sibín (an illegal pub) near the village of Skreen (when he was in his eighties), that he was stabbed to death by a local man called Thomas Crofton. Little is known about the actual altercation apart from what the celebrated academic, Eugene O’Curry, wrote:

…the last of the Mac Firbiscs was unfortunately murdered at Dunflin, in the county of Sligo, in the year 1670…. Mac Firbis was, at that time, under the ban of the penal laws, and, consequently, a marked and almost defenceless man in the eye of the law, whilst the friends of the murderer enjoyed the full protection of the constitution. He must have been then past his eightieth year, and he was, it is believed, on his way to Dublin, probably to visit Robert, the son of Sir James Ware. He took up his lodgings for the night at a small house in the little village of Dun Flin, in his native county. While sitting and resting himself in a little room off the shop, a young gentleman, of the Crofton family, came in, and began to take some liberties with a young woman who had care of the shop. She, to check his freedom, told him that he would be seen by the old gentleman in the next room; upon which, in a sudden rage, he snatched up a knife from the counter, rushed furiously into the room, and plunged it into the heart of Mac Firbis

MacFhirbhisigh truly was an astonishing individual in that he managed to save the history and records of Gaelic culture and allow them to be passed on for future generations at a time when other forces were doing all in their power to destroy that culture. Most of the source material he used no longer exists and if he hadn’t worked with the almost manic determination he did, we would have a much lesser understanding of our ancestors today. For that, at least, he deserves his chair – and his story – preserved for future passers-by along the road.

Bards chair 1

Bard's chair 2

What Irish Mythology Is Not

Blarney-West Cork18-20April 2011 031 (2)[I had a fascinating, if somewhat surreal, conversation about two weeks ago with someone (not Irish) asking me about elements of Irish mythology for a book he was writing. This is a summarised version of that discussion.]

HIM: ‘So there’s no vampires in Irish mythology, then?’
ME: ‘No.’
HIM: ‘But what about Bram Stoker?’
ME: ‘Well, I suppose it’s true he came from Ireland but he was one of the more privileged Anglo-Irish types so it’s probably unlikely he had much time for native folklore. He certainly knew his Transylvanian legends though because that’s what Dracula was based on.’
HIM: ‘How about werewolves then?’
ME: ‘Nah. No werewolves in Irish mythology.
HIM: ‘Dragons?’
ME: ‘Dragons? They’re feckin Welsh or Chinese!’
HIM: ‘Huh! OK. That’s pretty boring, then. Did you, like, have monsters and stuff. Or wild animals? Lions and sharks and shit.’
ME: ‘We have basking sharks.’
HIM: ‘Are they dangerous?’
ME: ‘Well, if one sat on you you’d know about it.’
HIM: ‘I was being serious.’
ME: ‘Me too. Basking sharks are fucking huge.’
HIM: ‘Do they kill many people?’
ME: ‘No. They’re harmless. I hit one by accident years ago when I was out sailing in Kinsale but he didn’t seem to care too much. We did actually have monsters though.’
HIM: ‘Really? What kind?’
ME: ‘Monster worms.’

Momentary silence.

HIM: ‘Monster worms. You have got to be shitting me!’
ME: ‘No, no.’ [Laughing.] ’There were quite a few.’
HIM: ‘And what did they do? Mug a bunch of midget sparrows?’
ME: ‘Actually, they were said to have carved the earth to make rivers and lakes. I suppose you could say they were our creation stories.’
HIM: ‘Creation stories?’
ME: ‘Stories developed by a local population to explain how their world and local environment were made. I suspect the Loch Ness monster was probably based on one of those.’
HIM: ‘But the Loch Ness Monsters in Scotland.’
ME: ‘Same thing. It was the same cultural and societal grouping as in Ireland. The defined territories of Scotland and Ireland came in much later but, to be honest, borders don’t really mean anything from a mythological perspective.’

Laughter.

ME: ‘What’s so funny?’
HIM: ‘Giant worms. It’s hardly … scary.’
ME: ‘Fair enough. But we also had some badass pigs. They did pretty much the same as the worms although usually on a slightly smaller scale.’
HIM: ‘I’m hanging up now.

This is going to be a bestseller!!!

I received a personal message from the Rain Gods

Rainbow2

 

Thank God it’s spring!

After a long and particularly arduous winter we were rewarded last weekend with this stunning double rainbow over the Miramar peninsula. Set at the very end of the peninsula, it really was an amazing sight from the other side of the harbour. In some respects it felt like a personal message from the Gods along the lines of “All right, lads! Enough’s enough. You can have some sun now.”

When my kids were growing up here in Wellington, I taught them a little poem to help them remember the names of the colours in Irish. It went:

Dearg agus glas – red and green
Gorm agus buí – blue and yellow
Feach sa spéir – look up at the sky
An bogha báistí – the rainbow!

Because of their sheer scale and striking visual impact, it’s hard not to be impressed by a rainbow, particularly the big ones that span large swatches of space. Its’ hardly surprising so, that every culture has some associated mythology or folklore. In Hindu mythology, their Thunder God uses a rainbow as a form of bow to shoot arrows made of lightning. Maori have a legend about Hina (the mother of Maui), the moon, who causes a rainbow to span the heavens for her husband to return to earth. In Ireland of course, the most famous legend is the story of the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Although most Irish people hate the plastic paddy shite associated with leprechauns, I have to admit the central concept of this particular story is quite clever. Rainbows don’t have an end so you can never get the gold. In fact, to see a rainbow you have to have the sun behind you. Hence it’s only got one side as well – truly a no-win situation!!

Ironically then, I once saw the end of the rainbow. This happened when we were kids and my Dad was driving the family home from a weekend in Beara. Naturally, this being West Cork, it was raining but as we drove through the Cousane Pass the clouds cleared and this beautiful rainbow opened up, one end filling the field with the standing stone at the top of the Cousane.

Needless to say, the event caused some consternation amongst the four kids stuffed in the back of the car. My poor Dad nearly crashed when we started screaming at him to stop so we that could run in and get the gold. We were smart. We all knew that you could only reach the gold for as long as the rainbow remained.

For some reason, my father ignored the screeching from behind and kept on driving but I’ll never forget how galling it was to see the rainbow’s end just alongside, marking untold wealth and riches. And us driving placidly (not) by.

I’ve never really forgiven my father for that excruciating lapse of judgement. If he’d only stopped the car for twenty seconds, we’d all be multi-millionaires today.

The Moving Statues and Me

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When people talk of 1985 in Ireland, a lot of them mention how awful the weather was that summer. Oddly enough, for me it was one of the brightest and sunniest summers I can recall. It’s all down to perspective, of course. In the summer of 1985, I was in Kinsale, a beautiful seaside town/ tourist centre on the Cork coast. Having completed my university exams (successfully, for once!), I’d been unable to find work (Ireland was in mid-recession at the time) and a result, I was living on my Dad’s boat on Kinsale marina. I had a whole summer of sailing, drinking and partying ahead of me and I was blissfully unaware of the storm blowing in from about five miles off to the south west, a storm that was about to set the country alight.

The story of the moving statues started in Ballinspittle one evening in July. I have memories of meeting a French girl I really liked so around that time so I was desperately preoccupied trying to win her affections. Over in Ballinspittle however, two local girls had just told their parents they’d seen a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary move while they were praying. Most people who’ve been to Ireland will be familiar with these roadside grottos and their statues of the Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of these statues dotting the country in all sorts of places as a result of the religious fervor during the Marian Year in the 1950s.

By late July, the French girl was well gone, continuing her tourist trip around Ireland. I consoled myself by sailing with my family at the Schull and Baltimore regattas and then returning to skim around Kinsale harbour on my Lazer (a very fast and fun one-man sailing dinghy). Most nights, I’d end up drinking at a friend’s house (or at my cousins) as I rarely had enough money to actually get to a pub. By then, people were already talking about the “Ballinspittle Miracle” and the small groups of four or five congregating around the grotto. By the time I got back from Schull a week or two later, the Cork Examiner was reporting on the matter at length. The one thing that really indicated how serious things were getting however, was the sudden and startling presence of a double decker bus on the tiny streets of Kinsale as it brought the faithful down from Cork city to see the miracle.

Looking back now, in many respects it seems strange that nobody really took notice or reacted to the event for such a long time. I guess, the truth is that most of us kind of took it for granted. Miracles weren’t exactly unheard of. In Ireland, we’d always been raised with tales of the miracle up at the Knock shrine in Mayo. My parents – and most of my friends’ parents – had visited Lourdes or Fatima at least once to see the miracle sites there. I don’t think my friends were ‘believers’ by any stretch of the imagination but our generation had been raised to adhere to the beliefs of those that preceded us. The interesting thing was that although we accepted their religious beliefs, we were never truly confronted with them (not, really). They were our parents’ “thing”, not ours and we were fortunate in that we had sufficient freedom that they didn’t really touch us as much.

In August, the country started to get a bit crazy when a Marian statue was reported moving at the grotto in Mount Melleray (County Waterford). The papers picked up the story and connected it with Ballinspittle and almost immediately, competing Marian statues started shifting at thirty other grottos around the country. Everybody was now talking about it – mockingly or fervently – and it was becoming a phenomenon that could no longer be ignored. A tangible religious fervor was picking up amongst the more fanatical believers although the developing sceptics movement was just as strong. Thousands of people had started to gather at Ballinspittle every Sunday, although it has to be said that not all of them were believers. A large proportion were going out of sheer curiosity, for the craic, or simply to take the piss (something not unheard of in Ireland).

Even at the time, feckless youth that I was, I remember being surprised that the Catholic Church were so silent on the whole matter, refusing to be drawn on whether this was a genuine miracle or not. Fortunately, I’d discovered the joys of sex by then. That and the sheer physical pleasure of skimming across the waves in the Kinsale’s outer harbour held much more appeal than discussing the theological strangeness of moving statues although the subject seemed impossible to ignore. At this stage, reports of moving statues were on the television every night and public opinion seemed to be polarised predominantly along the lines of:

  • Yes, this is some kind of supernatural event and God is sending us a message (we’re just not exactly sure what it is)
  • No, it’s all an illusion driven by religious hysteria

Keen to get in on the action, a group of scientists from University College Cork (the Psychology Department) declared that the visions were either optical illusions caused by staring at static objects too hard in the evening light or a general psychological and sociological reaction to the recession, the crippling unemployment, the wet summer (WTF? It’s raining?!). Given the fact that I was actually studying Science at University College Cork, I was immediately skeptical, although for no particularly strong reason. I ‘knew’ many of the scientific ‘experts’ (albeit more for their personal foibles than for their professional competence and when you know people in one light it’s hard to accept them in another). To be honest, I suppose that even back then I was something of a cynic. Personal experience with both groups meant that I distrusted the religious ‘experts’ just as much as I distrusted the scientific ‘experts’.

In September, the situation took a sharp turn off Bizzare Street to career precariously down Wierdo Avenue. Up in Culleens (County Sligo), another moving statue had been spotted and strange things had started to appear in the sky. People were reporting ‘red balls of fire’ and ‘lights descending from the sky’ and for a moment, attention switched away from Ballinspittle. One night, watching the Late Late Show, I saw an interview with some local boy talking wide-eyed about ‘angels in the sky’ (the actual interview can still be found here: http://oldportal.euscreen.eu/play.jsp?id=EUS_F2B237A5C9B1497786593EBDF0F4B31F).

Even then, I felt things were balancing precariously on the hysterical. Despite this, another two or three weeks passed without major event. Life went on. Leaving the freedom of Kinsale behind, I returned to University for another gruelling year of study and socialising. The weather grew colder, it rained more often. Slowly, but surely, the statues started to reclaim their immobile pedestals. Despite the transfer of attention to Sligo and the subsequent ‘statue fatigue’, crowds of people (markedly smaller) kept flocking to Ballinspittle but it was clear the party was drawing to a close.

On Halloween (October 31st), it all flared back to life again when the Ballinspittle statue was attacked by three men wielding axes and hammers. Destroyed in front of a number of praying onlookers, the men (led by a man called Robert Draper) were arrested by Gardaí and the ensuing court case filled the headlines for weeks. The three men were some opposing religious group who disbelieved in praying to false idols. Like all fanatics, rather than protesting or getting their own message across though peaceful means, they’d taken it upon themselves to ensure nobody else could pray to them either. Despite boasting publically of what they’d done, the men were never sentenced. This caused immense resentment but the response was remarkably restrained (apart from a number of broken windows at Draper’s home). Apparently, buoyed by success, Draper went on a roll smashing other statues and ended up doing six months in prison in 1987. Whatever you believe however, following the Draper attack, I’ve not heard of the Ballinspittle statue ever moving again. Things went all quiet and the resulting silence was ear-splitting.

Thirty years have passed since the whole Moving Statues event and yet, despite all the weirdness, the thing I find most striking is the total silence surrounding the topic since 1985. In some respects, it’s as though it never happened. Loathe to be ridiculed, few people are willing to discuss the subject (although there have been one or two small documentaries where the original witnesses were sticking strongly to their stories). To be honest, to this day, I still don’t completely understand the madness that overtook the country.

A few years ago, when I was back home I finally went down to the grotto in Ballinspittle. Ironically, despite everything (and the fact that I was living just a few miles up the road) I’d never actually got around to visiting the site of all the action. On two separate occasions, I’d actually been invited to join a group of friends going over to the statue for a ‘squizz’ but on both, I’d declined. The first time, because I was still chasing the French girl, the second because of more ‘generic’ party reasons. I’ve never really regretted either decision.

It was early morning when I got there. I’d driven over from Kinsale where I’d spent the night revisiting some old friends and some old haunts and I was in a melancholic state of mind. Conscious of the fact that my plane back to New Zealand was in two days time, I was feeling ‘homesick’ although in hindsight, I think it was a homesickness for my youth and the freedom I’d enjoyed in Kinsale rather than for my country.

The grotto is actually a pretty place that reminds me of my childhood, with its white balustrade and blue concrete letters reading “The Immaculate Conception”. The new statue has small electric bulbs around its head in the form of a halo. Because it was so early, there was no-one else around although I’m not sure if people still come here anymore. Before I hopped into the car to drive back to Cork, I looked up at the statue one last time, waved and shouted goodbye.

But it didn’t move.

(Irish Folklore and mythology) The Mystery of the Jumping Church

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Our family got dragged up north years ago, when my Dad took us to stay at a friend’s house in Dundalk (county Louth). I have particularly fond memories of that trip, not only because we had access to the luxury of children’s morning television from the BBC (this didn’t come into the Republic until about the same year as legalised condoms!) but because of some of the downright weird places we visited while we were there.  The two places I still recall most vividly were ‘The Jumping Church’ and ‘The Angel’s Highway’ (next blog article). Back in the day, the famous Jumping Church of Kildemock wasn’t particularly famous and sounded more like the title for an episode of Father Ted than a place to visit.

Nowadays, the site is actually a popular visitor destination for tourists. The church ruin that remains dates back to the 14th century and there’s only one wall remaining but it’s still a fascinating spot for according to local folklore, the west gable of the building jumped two feet inside the wall of the original foundation (marked in red). The reason as to why it did this? To exclude an excommunicated church member who’d been buried in the church.

For kids of course, the weirdness of this story was instantly appealing although I remember that when we were passing through, the version we heard from the locals concerned a Protestant landlord who’d insisted on being buried within the church (and, no, even at the time that didn’t seem to make much sense). The more commonly touted version, of course, states that someone buried an apostate of the Catholic Church just inside the wall of the building (some of the stories claim that the man had been excommunicated) … and the church didn’t like it. The building was so incensed at the presence of this ‘heathen’ that it shore off its own west wall and ‘jumped’ it back three feet so that the body lay outside the building.

A third story – a MUCH more scientific one –suggests that a terrible storm in 1715 caused the wall to fall over so that it was subsequently rebuilt. Two feet inside the foundations. I know that Irish people have a bad rep as ‘cowboy’ builders but, come on!

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In fact, none of the above stories are probably true (although fragments of the storm story may hold weight). The real story is very much older than that. Burial places and cemeteries (and, much later, church graveyards) have always had an important physical and symbolic importance in Ireland (and still do today) and often, to understand the past or appreciate how the past is reflected in modern customs or beliefs we need to understand that context.

Long ago, communities held great pride in local warriors, saints or political heroes (essentially the celebrities of the day – albeit usually dead). As most of them ended up in the burial place eventually, this was often the sacred site associated with their veneration. For this reason, there are a lot of stories about these sacred sites being ‘guarded’ by the people buried there. Probably the most well-known example of this is Lóegaire, who was said to have demanded to be buried upright at Tara to defend it against enemies but there are plenty other examples as well.

In later times, insults to the community were often articulated through ‘sacrilege stories’ – insults against the community’s sacred site (cemetery) and in order to create a suitable ‘satisfactory’ ending, ‘justice’ was often achieved through contrived intercession of its ghostly occupants. This is why, all over Ireland, you’ll find cemeteries with similar stories where villains (English, Protestants, landlords or all of the above!) create a ‘sacrilege situation’ but are then resoundingly ‘outdone’ by the inhabitants or the character of the site itself.

Everyone loves a ‘happy’ ending!

(Irish Folklore) The Souls of Butterflies

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Some elements of Irish folklore refer to butterflies as ‘souls of the dead’, making their way from the physical world into the Otherworld. You can actually see why this might occur. The transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly provides a perfect model to explain the concept of changing states (i.e. from life to death) and the stuttering, almost hesitant, fragility of butterfly flight aligns perfectly with what we’d expect of some confused soul in the process of passing on. In fact, this conceptual interpretation is a common one found in many different cultures and religions and I’ve even used it myself in Fionn 2: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.

Although we have limited knowledge on what our oldest ancestors believed (prior to the introduction of writing in the 5th century) what we do know is that they utilised imagery and symbolism to explain the world about them much more than we do today. This is essentially because they didn’t have the technology and scientific rationale we have today to clarify and explain things with greater certainty. In effect, our ancestors were explaining things through extrapolation of what they did know.

Naturally, religions like Christianity were also quick to grab onto the butterfly symbolism because it allowed the concept of a soul to be explained in a way most people could understand (religions are also founded on faith-based concepts rather than tangible realities that we can measure or prove). Because we lack information on pre-Christian Ireland however, we have a chicken and egg situation in that we don’t know if the butterfly-soul imagery existed prior to Christianity or whether it was introduced because of Christianity. Either way, fragments of the belief exist now in some parts of common culture or in Irish expressions such as ‘na féileacán a bhrú as duine – to crush someone (literally ‘to push the butterflies out of someone’).

The best known example of changing state and butterflies in Ireland is the famous Irish myth, Tochmarc Étaín, (The Wooing of Étaín). In this story, Étaín (daughter of Ailill, king of the Ulaid) is transformed by a jealous woman into the form of a fly (this was later romantised to the more aesthetically pleasing butterfly). Later, Étaín falls into the drinking cup of the wife of Étar (a warrior of the Ulaid), who swallows her, becomes pregnant, and subsequently gives rebirth to her.

The existing manuscripts of Tochmarc Étaín are estimated to date back to the 8th or 9th century – a time by which Christianity was well established in Ireland, so again, it’s impossible to tell whether the belief was an ethnic thing or not.

Another, more recent – if somewhat surreal – example involving a butterfly and changing states is to be found in the wonderful Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty-Years A Growing), the autobiography of Muiris O’Súilleabháin and his childhood on the Blasket Islands. In the relevant scene, the author describes a dream that he had concerning himself and his friend.

After a while it seemed that Mickail fell asleep. I was looking at him, snoring fine and easy. While I sat thinking what a strange thing was that sleep, when what would I see come out of his mouth but a pretty white butterfly. It began to walk down over his body. I stopped and reflected that it was a queer thing to come out of his mouth. Down went the butterfly through the meadow, I after it, ever and ever, till it came to an iron gate. It began to climb the bars of the gate, from bar to bar, slow and easy, I watching. When it came to the top of the gate, down it went on the other side. I stood watching every turn it was taking. It came down into another meadow where there was an old skull of a horse which looked as if it had been there for years. In went the butterfly through the holes of the eyes, I still watching intently.

It must have been five minutes before I saw it coming out again through the mouth of the skull. Back it came to the gate, up each bar and down the other side, just as it had done before, then up through the meadow, I following it ever and ever, till it went back into Mickail’s mouth.

At that moment he awoke.

‘Where am I?’ said he looking round.

‘Don’t you know the place?’ said I, not letting on to him yet about the butterfly.

‘Oh, Maurice,’ said he, ‘sit down till I tell you the fine dream I am after having. Would you believe it, I dreamt we went astray on each other when we were gathering the flowers, and that I walked on for a long, long way till I came to some railway tracks which crossed each other like the threads of a stocking. I didn’t know where in the world I was. I kept shouting and calling out to you but that was all the good I got out of it. When I came to the end of the railway line, I saw a big bright house. I went up to it. There was a big round doorway with no door in it. I stopped and looked. God save my soul, said I, what place is this? Will I go inside? Oh, there is not a lie in what I am saying, Maurice.’

‘I believe you well,’ said I. ‘Go on with your story.’

Well, in I went. But, if so, there was no one alive or dead to be seen. I was passing from room to room, but upon my word, Maurice, my fill of fear was coming over me.’

‘It was no wonder for you.’’

‘Well, faith, I thought I was going astray in the rooms and that I would never be able to find the way out. I was groping my way, ever and ever, till at last I reached the doorway, and the devil if I didn’t come back again over the same railway tracks, and just as I found myself in the meadow again, I awake.’

I first read that book over twenty years ago and I don’t know what you think but it pretty much left me gobsmacked. I was so impressed by the book that when I wrote the first serious novel of my own (Beara Dark Legends) I ended up using Muiris O’Suilleabhain (Maurice O’Sullivan) as the name of the protagonist.