A Dead Queen and Stones on a Sacred Hill (Irish Mythology)

Heading north in County Sligo, the outline of Knocknarea is clearly visible in the distance. The origin of the hill’s Irish name has been lost to time but there’s no shortage of suggestions, varying from Cnoc na Rí (hill of kings – my preferred option) to Cnoc na Ré (hill of the ages, or possibly, moon) to many others.

Like most of the Sligo mountains and hills, Knocknarea has a cairn (an enormous mound of loose stones dating back at least 2500-3000 years that usually conceals a passage-grave beneath) which is also very visible and is probably one of the biggest in the country.

In Irish, this particular cairn is called Meascán Méabha, which roughly translates to ‘Méabh’s Lump’ and it relates of course to Méabh Leathdearg or Méabh of Connacht (anglicized needlessly to Maeve) who played such an important role in the great Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). According to the remaining literature, when she died Méabh was buried upright at that site so that she could face her Ulster-based enemies.

That’s all a bit of a fanciful conceit of course, given that Méabh was originally a land goddess (a representation of Mother Earth) transformed into a human personage over the ages. Needless to say, a lot of people continue to take the Táin Bó Cúailnge literally however, and hence get a bit excited when they come to Sligo and visit it. They also tend to get a bit outraged when they learn that the cairn has never been excavated until you point out there are literally tons of cairns all over the locality and given the unlikelihood of Méabh actually being buried there, it makes more sense to focus limited national archaeological resources elsewhere.

Undeterred in their conviction that this is the final resting place of some famous queen, some of them are driven to continue uphill to gather cairn stones as souvenirs which they then carry away with them.

To the point that it’s now becoming something of a conservation issue.

It’s often part of the human condition that we can’t just look at and respect what’s directly in front of us. Driven to interfere and meddle, we often end up destroying the very thing we love. Fortunately, there are still plenty more stones on the cairn but if people keep nicking them, it’ll eventually end up being unintentionally excavated far sooner than expected.

Final Cover for Liath Luachra – The Grey One

Liath Luachra cover

Some months ago I mentioned that I was writing a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series entitled Liath Luachra – The Friendly Ones. The latter part of that title referred to the mercenary group Na Cinéaltaí (The Friendly Ones) originally mentioned in FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma and to which the character Liath Luachra had at one point belonged. After some feedback from various people, the title name was changed to Liath Luachra – The Grey One and the final cover completed (at last!).

Some of you will have recognised An Grianàn Ailigh (the Grianán of Aileach) there in the background. An ancient stone structure up in Donegal that’s believed to date back to around 1700 B.C.,  I passed it by on my way to visit the ever-amazing Mel and Ruairidh last year. For the purpose of the the story, I actually transferred the Grianàn south and east to northern Leinster. It’s a pretty amazing place with spectacular views that I’ll write about again at some stage.

This particular book basically came about about as I was keen to explore some research I’d carried out on tribal dynamics and on the use of fian (the original word for a ‘war party’ but also the word that later became ‘fianna’) in pre-fifth century Ireland. I was also keen to provide some additional background context to the character of Liath Luachra in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series.

The book currently has it’s own page on this site and although it won’t be released until September/ October this year, I will be putting a sample chapter up in the next two weeks or so.

The back cover blurb reads as follows:

Liath Luachra – The Grey One
Ireland 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.
Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.

Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own undoing.

Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.

Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail – this is her story.

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To be honest, it always feels a bit weird doing the whole back cover blurb thing. Obviously, you want to give people some idea what the book’s about and try to make it sound interesting (with a limited number of words). At the same time though, it’s hard not to find yourself falling into cliché. To my ear, the blurb often rings wincingly melodramatic at times. I guess this was as good as I could make it without taking it all WAAAYY too seriously.

Hope you enjoy!

(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!