My Writing: Secrets, Sighs and Sex

My walk at Galway

It’s always fascinating to learn how other people have interpreted something you’ve created, particularly when it’s something as complex as a novel. I’m still a bit surprised at times when a reviewer comments on my books and adds an interpretation that I really didn’t have in mind when I was writing the story.

This week, a review (here) on Beara: Dark Legends  came out from Tintean Magazine (an excellent Irish magazine from Australia). Again, as I was reading through it, the reviewer’s experience of the book was quite different (at times) to the one I’d imagined a reader would have. Still. That’s no real biggie. The reality is that different people experience different things from the same art form. Thousands, if not millions of people can study a painting and see something completely different based on their own life experiences. The same is certainly true with respect to a book.

Years ago I wrote a short story entitled Sex with Sarah which was basically about the moral corruption endemic in some large public departments. Yes, there was some sexual content in there of course – but essentially as a mechanism of reflecting that corruption (God, yes, I can be up myself sometimes!)  –  and for years afterwards people would come up asking me who Sarah (of the title) was.

I thought it was a bit funny that so few people seemed to get the key message I was trying to get across. Most seemed more interested in getting her contact details.

 

Irish Folklore: Murder and Secrets in the Land of the Mastiff

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The valley of Cummeengadhra (which probably derives from the word ‘Coimín’ – a commonage or common land and ‘gadhra’ a mastiff) is a pretty isolated spot. It’s very typical of Beara; grey slabs of mountain granite, bogland, shredded tatters of green, incessant rain. All the rock you could eat!

These days it’s a pretty tranquil area apart from some isolated farmhouses, the Shronebirrane stone circle and, of course, The Rabach’s Way. Prior to the Great Famine, though, there was actually a relatively large community living here with at least 29 people registered in the 1824 Tithe Applotment Books. The area is probably most famous, however, because of the deeds of one particular inhabitant; Cornelius O’Sullivan (An Rabach – The Rabach).

One evening in the early 1800s, a mariner is said to have arrived at the house of the O’Sullivans Raib (ráib meaning ‘active’ or ‘bold’ was a family nickname), seeking shelter. During the course of the evening, that mariner was killed because he was believed to be carrying a sum of money. Although all of the family would probably have had some complicity in the murder, it was Cornelius O’Sullivan – the eldest of three sons – who’s said to have completed the fatal deed by cutting the mariner’s throat. Unfortunately for him, one of his neighbours (Máire Caoch) happened to be passing and saw either the murder or the subsequent disposal of the body.

Fearful of the violent O’Sullivan Raib family, Máire Caoch had the sense to keep her tongue for several years but, one day, after a period of sustained, but unrelated, harassment from the family, she foolishly threatened Cornelius by telling him:

Tá rún agam ort, agus ní ar ba ná ar caoiribhe.

I know a secret about you and it’s not about cows or sheep.

 Cornelius must have been convinced by the threat for, on a dank June morning in 1814, he followed her up into the high-country grazing pastures and strangled her to death. Once again, however, An Rabach was unfortunate in that there was a witness to this particular murder as well; Daniel Sullivan – a frail man – who was also scared of the violent farmer and decided to keep his mouth shut.

The body of Máire Caoch was discovered, ironically, by a servant girl from the Rabach household. Alerting her friends, they carried the body back to the Rabach family home where she was laid out in preparation for her burial. It was at this point that the community’s initial suspicions of An Rabach were roused. A local at the time belief with respect to murder was that, if the murderer entered into the same room as his victim, the victim’s corpse would immediately gush blood. Unwilling to take the chance, the Rabach refused to enter the house, odd behaviour in such a small community that immediately made his neighbours look at him sideways.

Whatever their suspicions however, nothing more transpired for another 16 years (1830), when Daniel Sullivan was badly injured in an accident at the Allihies mines. Convinced that he was dying, Daniel confessed what he’d seen all those years before to his priest. Horrified, the priest immediately took it to a magistrate and a warrant of arrest was issued for An Rabach.

Forewarned by other family members, An Rabach (who was now about fifty years old) fled his family home and headed much deeper into the valley, finally taking refuge in a cave (now known as The Rabach’s Cave) which offered an excellent view of anyone coming up the valley trail. In total, An Rabach remained in hiding for about nine months and there are numerous tales of the various tricks he used to evade the local authorities. Eventually, however, he was lured back to his home in January 1831 where his wife was due to give birth to his son.

The Rabach was captured by two local constables and a man called Patrick Sullivan (the son of Máire Caoch). In a capricious twist of fate, An Rabach’s son was stillborn. Escorted to Tralee Gaol, he was tried and hanged two months later.

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.

Irish Folklore: Water Values

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Two words that most Irish people know – no matter how limited their Gaelic vocabulary – are ‘uisce beatha’: the Irish for ‘whiskey’. Uisce beatha – as everyone loves to explain ad nauseum – literally means ‘water of life’. Most Irish people are pretty proud about that description. It’s a cool intellectual construct after all, based around a relatively cool product (unless, of course, you’ve overindulged). What’s not to like?

Respect for water as an important necessity of life is a common theme in most early cultures. If you delve a little deeper into the reasoning behind that, it’s quite easy to see why. On the most basic individual level, water is required to sustain life (i.e. if you don’t replenish your body fluids, you die. If you don’t wash, no one will want to have sex with you).

At the most basic early social level (tribe/community) water was also a fundamental essential for the cleaning and preparation of large volumes of food, transport, farming, etc. All early settlements of any size were invariably based near a supply of water for this reason.

Because water was so important in a physical sense, our ancestors also acknowledged this importance in their spiritual practices. Those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs, wells, lakes, etc.) were considered sacred spaces in that they were believed to serve as a conduit for bringing imbas (esoteric knowledge) into the physical world. During the early medieval period in Ireland, many rivers were believed have an association with a specific female river deity (Bóinn for the Boyne, Sionnann for the Shannon etc.) although these were probably all manifestations of the original Land Goddess (generically referred to as Mother Earth in modern parlance). These sites were venerated and votive offerings were often made there. This is why so many of our archaeological treasures have been recovered from ‘watery’ (or ‘previously watery’ places).

If you move across time to our more complex contemporary society, you can see that the value system for water had changed dramatically from what it was 1000 years or even 100 years ago. Most western societies, take it for granted that homes will have a reliable supply of water through home plumbing. If there’s a shortage of supply, it’s simply pumped in from elsewhere.

Over time, this easy availability has resulted in water being devalued from sacred resource to simple commodity (such as electricity, communications inputs etc.) delivered through a tap. Although we retain many aspects of our ancestors reverence for water through our spiritual rituals (baptisms, holy water at church fonts etc.), this is quite a significant change in mindset.

The biggest disjunction of all, however, occurs at the higher, more powerful levels of society (government /commercial institution) where water’s only perceived to have value when it has some kind of input to – or impact on – power (political or financial). To some degree, this is probably why such questionable decisions that impact on local water supply are being made. Over the last few decades we’ve seen increasing disregard for local water supply as a result of uncontrolled industrial/agricultural pollution and fracking driven by commercial interests and facilitated by governments.

Needless to say, this is a  simplistic description of how changing value systems and structures can have a detrimental effect on a society. Nevertheless, when considering aspects of modern society it’s often useful to take a step back and consider what our ancestors might have thought. With respect to water, although there’s no doubt they’d be impressed by the technological advances made over the last millennium, you can’t help but imagine their alarm at a society that treats what they would have considered a fundamental necessity of life, with such disdain.

Mise (me): The Accidental Beara Dark Legends Book Launch

It always takes me a few days to open up when I return to New Zealand. It’s a little strange I know but at those times I just want to hold my experiences in Ireland close. Interacting or talking with people in New Zealand always soak the memories and sensations away faster than I’m willing to give them up.

As ever, Ireland was fun, emotional, refreshing, filling, etc. I had some time with family and friends, did some interviews for the Beara: Dark Legends book and, surprisingly,  ended up doing a book launch for it back in Beara – something I hadn’t really anticipated.  Given that I only had two spare copies of the book with me that was a challenge.

The launch took place with little warning down at the Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat near Na hAoraí  (Eyeries) – a beautiful spot with a staggering view of the Kerry Coast across the bay. Had a very nice crowd of people (about 35-40) there but the highlight for me was seeing some of my family I haven’t seen since I was a kid. There was a nice surreal twist as well with one of the individuals attending Anam Cara turning out to be a juggler/hoola-hooper. She very kindly offered to perform while the various attendees were arriving so as they turned up they found her in full regalia hoola-hooping to some traditional music at the entrance way

In any case, I had a good night so much thanks to all the family (particularly Patrick-Gerard Murphy), Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Sue Booth-Forbes (Anam Cara), The Allihies Museum folk and of course Kirsten and Todd (for performing duties).

Some photos of the night are on my facebook page. An interview with Cork Now magazine is also available here http://www.magazine.corknow.ie/ .

Now, back to writing.

 

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The Difference between Irish Fairy Forts, Fairy Rings, Ráth and Lios

 
Finally back from a ‘research’ trip back home so just a brief post today on ráth or ringforts.  Some people who’ve read Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma have asked for a bit of clarification around what exactly the ráth or ringfort might have consisted of.

Essentially, ráth were ancient circular settlements that were enclosed by one or more earthen banks. The banks were usually constructed using upcast dirt from the ditch; an effective way of forming a second defensive structure for the effort of a single one. On occasion, the inner bank was also topped with a timber palisade which made entry even that much more difficult.

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Because of their relative simplicity, the ráth was a relatively common defensive living area with more than 60,000 identified surviving examples in Ireland. In Defence of Ráth Bládhma, I set a ráth siege situation towards the end of the second century. This might be stretching the truth but, to be honest, it’s not too much of a stretch. It’s true the vast majority of recorded ráth date back to a period between 500 – 900 A.D. but there’s some clear evidence of much earlier prehistoric pre-ringfort activity (and later re-use of them into the later and post-Medieval periods).

In the west of Ireland where stone was much more prevalent, stone versions (caiseal) did exist which consisted of a large circular stone wall with stone huts in the interior. Sometimes, the remains of a ráth is called a lis (lios) but this actually refers to the circular enclosed courtyard.

Ráth were probably preceded in most cases by open settlements which became more defensive as the population grew and the need for protection became necessary. Although sometimes known as a ‘ringforts’ this is really a poor description as they were agricultural settlements, not martial structures. The defensive structures tended to defend the inhabitants and their cattle – their most prized possessions – against predators such as wolves and occasionally (if they were unlucky) raiders. They certainly weren’t designed for warfare.

The inhabitants were largely self-sufficient and it is wasn’t uncommon in the early medieval period (when the population was larger) to have neighbouring ringforts. Traces of iron and bronze working have also been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional.

With the passing of centuries, the basic facts about ráth became lost or confused. Later generations in Ireland – particularly those in the deeper countryside – could see these significant structures within their local area and, not knowing what they, came up with alternative rationales to explain them (usually as sidhe or fairy rings).

It’s relatively difficult to find decent photographs or recreations of a ráth but the above shows the remains of a relatively well preserved example down on the Beara Peninsula. I tramped around this particular one last week during a period of good weather and it was still in pretty excellent condition given the many centuries since it was first constructed.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, the first book in the Fionn Series (Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma which describes how a ráth operated in practice, is currently available for free by simply signing up for the monthly newsletter.]

My Writing: Taking the Bog Road Home

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Finally heading home to carry out some final research on the second book of my Beara Trilogy.

With this particular series, as well as the usual thriller and mystery element, I’ve always been keen to include a strong contemporary issue that’s recently been to the fore in Ireland. Unfortunately, these days, I seem a bit spoiled for choice. Events in Ireland  over the last few years have pretty much been overshadowed by the recession but, more recently, we’ve also had to deal with a new wave of emigration, Garda upper management that cannot be trusted with issues of justice, a complete dearth of political  leadership (seriously, anyone voting for either of the two larger political parties really has to ask themselves why), the impacts of climate change in terms of flooding etc. blah, blah, blah and so on.

If you’ve read the first book in this trilogy, you’ll know of course that, structurally, it consists of two separate (but interlinking) mystery stories – a style to be reproduced in the remaining two books.  For the second book, I can finally say that I have the contemporary section completely plotted out – something that proved decidedly difficult.

Now, however, I have to work in the folklore an mythology linkages that connect the contemporary mystery not only to the Beara of the 1960s but to an issue the country faces today. I do have one particular theme in mind which I found through my research some years ago and which encompasses all of the issues raised above. It is something, in fact, so important I’m pretty shocked that it seems to have disappeared through the cracks of history.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

Once I finish the second Fionn book (due in September).

Until then, research, friends and lots of yacking beckons.

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 Writing: Prologue to Fionn: The Traitor of Dun Baosicne

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Something a little different today.

This is the prologue for the second book in my Fionn series (Fionn Traitor of Dun Baoiscne). Essentially it’s a stand-alone short story that introduces a number of characters who turn up in that book.  The Book (Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne) is due for release in September this year.

The main group of characters in this particular story are based on a group of aosdána (individuals who were very skilled or respected) that Fionn encounters in the Macgnímartha Finn manuscript (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).  The description of those characters in the original written manuscript was quite skeletal (most of the manuscripts were concise to the point of sketchiness to say the least) so I had a lot of fun playing around with it and filling in the gaps.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Prologue:

Sárán an Srón smelled it as he emerged from the rock-strewn pass of Bealach Cam. Drifting in on a gentle breeze from the south, it hung heavy in the air around the rocky entrance, striking his nostrils with a meaty intensity that stopped him in his tracks.

Stew!

His body reacted immediately, from instinct, even as his head struggled to register the presence of a scent so alien to the Great Wild. Slipping into the shelter of the nearest tree, a tall holly thick with green fern and scrub about its base, he crouched in silence, scrutinising the surrounding terrain, as he subconsciously worked through the individual elements beneath the smell.

Some kind of meat. Wild mushrooms and onions. Herbs … but not any he immediately recognised.

His mouth watered as he turned his eyes to the south but beyond the rocky entrance to the pass there was little enough to see, nothing but a rough landscape choked in places with oak and pine. Despite his habitual caution on encountering strangers so far Out in the Great Wild, Sárán allowed himself to relax. There was no evidence of any immediate threat, he was well concealed and the smell was not one to provoke any particular sense of dread. It was not, for example, the acrid stink of urine and shit, the tang of adrenalin or the iron-tinged stench of freshly spilled blood, all distinctly foul odours he’d encountered in the past and which still had the ability to raise the hairs on the back of his neck.

A long period of time passed without incident and Sárán slowly rose to his feet, although he made sure to remain within the shadow of the holly tree. A big, shaggy-haired man of twenty-seven years, he had a muscular frame and a range of scars on his left cheek and shoulder that marked him as an experienced warrior. In his right hand, he carried a javelin with an easy grip that, although loose, allowed him to raise and cast the weapon at speed should the need arise. At the small of his back, tucked into his belt, he felt the reassuring weight of a small – but deadly – hand-axe. Three additional javelins were strapped to a wicker basket that hung from his shoulders. Intended to transport the game he’d caught, the basket was dispiritingly empty.

He tugged at a greasy moustache as he stood in the shadows, closing his eyes to better appreciate the scent of stew. Raising his hand, he wiped a gob of saliva from his lips for it did smell delicious.

He found himself drooling happily at the prospect of food. It had been over five days since Sárán an Srón had left his wife and two boys at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, a settlement far beyond the eastern swampland. Since then he’d eaten nothing but hard tack and water cress, drunk nothing but river water. Such hardships would have been borne more easily with company but, on this occasion, he was travelling alone. Both his usual hunting companions had remained behind at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, preoccupied with more pressing matters of their own. Domhnall Dubh, a keen hunter, was awaiting the birth of his first child. When Sárán had called on him to propose the expedition he’d looked longingly at his own javelins but his wife, an irritable woman rendered all the more ill-tempered from the pregnancy, had threatened him with no sex if he dared to leave.

Dalbach, his other regular companion, was also unavailable due to a twisted ankle obtained during a romantic tryst with a local girl on the rocks at Carraig. Flaunting his leaping ability, the warrior had slipped on one of the moss-coated boulders and fallen from a substantial height. He’d been lucky not to break his leg or worse but that hadn’t stopped him moaning when Sárán informed him of his intention to go Out alone. He’d consoled his friend by promising to bring him back a haunch of venison. A big one.

Given his lack of success to date, that boast now looked overly optimistic.

Sárán scrutinised the southern forest once more, this time pleased to note a tendril of smoke rising up from the green canopy not too far to the south-east.

A campfire.

That would be the source of the smell. He stroked his nose, an overly large proboscis that had earned his nickname: Sárán an Srón – Sárán The Nose. Because of its size, many of the people at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil believed that he had sensory skills beyond that of ordinary mortals, that he could in fact ‘sniff out’ potential threats or dangers. Although he encouraged the stories because he enjoyed the attention, Sárán knew there was no truth in them. His sense of smell was no better, no worse, than most others at the settlement.

Staring at the distant plume of smoke, he frowned and scratched at the stubble on his jaw. He should be moving east, using the remaining sunlight to travel back in the direction of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil before he was obliged to set up camp for the night.

A dry camp.

With hard tack.

And cold water.

He sighed. Travelling alone as he was, he knew it would be wise to avoid strangers in the Great Wild, despite the fact that he was a fearsome warrior, a fact that several opponents – now dead – had discovered to their detriment.

His stomach grumbled in counter argument.

Sárán mulled over the possibilities. He could always, he reasoned, scout out the source of the odour. If the people responsible for it looked in any way dangerous, he could simply slip away and continue his journey.

He stared to the south. The smell of the stew was delectable.

And he was hungry.

***

Once Sárán had reached the trees, he worked his way through the forest with the ease of an experienced hunter, carefully avoiding sections of woody debris where branches or twigs might crack beneath his feet and alert others to his presence. As he advanced, the smell of stew grew perceptibly stronger. Soon he was able to make out the muffled sound of a distant conversation.

Dropping to his stomach, he wriggled forward, working his way towards a heavily vegetated mound coated with a thick copse of ash trees and heavy foliage. As far as he could tell, the voices were coming from somewhere on the other side and this particular route offered both the best concealment for his approach and his possible flight, if that were required.

It was almost dark when he reached the crest of the mound. Shuffling sideways to one of the wider tree trunks, he cautiously eased his head around it.

Ah!

The campsite was located in a little grotto, part of a long gully carved out of the ground by some ancient waterway and still strewn with smooth, green boulders. That section of the grotto closest to Sárán’s hiding place was relatively level and held a flattened rock that reached up to waist height. In the centre of this boulder was a deep depression full of rainwater from the previous night’s shower. Beside the rock, an impressive fire was crackling. Sárán’s eyes, however, were drawn less to the flicker of the flames than to the metal cauldron that dangled over it, the source of the delicious odour that now completely filled the air.

He licked his lips.

It was something of an effort to pull his eyes away to study the grotto’s human occupants. All six were seated at the fire, three each in a single line on separate logs, facing each other across the flames. They were a strange looking group. Of the trio looking in his direction, two were big men, bald but stocky. Because of their size, both would have drawn the eye even if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were completely identical. From the bald, sunburned skulls, right down to the rough dark robes they were wearing, each was a perfect copy of the other.

A Man Pair.

Sárán bit his lip. He had heard of man pairs before but he’d never actually seen one. Apparently, there’ been such a family at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil in the past. It had been before his time but people still spoke of the cursed mother who’d given birth to two sets of Man Pairs. On both occasions, the babies had died and, after the second pair, the woman had succumbed to fever. Grief-stricken, the father had wandered out into the Great Wild, never to be seen again.

The man seated to the left of the Man Pair, staring into the flames, was a skinny, old man. He too was bald but had countered the absence of hair on the back of his head with a thick growth of beard on his face that fell all the way to his waist.

Although he couldn’t see the faces of the threesome on the closest side of the fire as they had their backs to him, they too looked quite odd. One of them, a cowl pulled tight over his head, looked to be extremely short and was probably a child. Seated beside him, another, taller, individual seemed all the taller for the shortness of his companion. He too was completely bald. On the far right of this trio, the final figure appeared to be of a more normal height but rather rotund given the tightness of the material around his girth and frame.

Sárán nodded in approval at their choice of campsite. It was a good location, one that provided shelter from the wind and which was well hidden. He himself would have bypassed it, completely unaware of their presence, if it hadn’t been for the smell.

With this, his lips formed into a thin line. Despite their clever choice of location, this little group did not appear to have taken any other precautions. There was no-one standing guard and, as far as he could see, only two of them sported weapons – the two staffs carried by the Man Pair.

He gave a scornful shake of his head. Out in the Great Wild, death lurked behind every tree, lay waiting in every shadow for the unwary. Wolves and other predators prowled the land. If he had been a bandit, he could have snuck in and murdered them all without too much difficulty.

Reassured by this initial assessment and confident in his ability to deal with any threat that might arise from this particular group, Sárán got to his feet, stepped out of the trees and started walking down towards the fire.

Naturally, because they were facing in his direction, the Man Pair were the first to spot him. Startled, they quickly jumped to their feet, pulling their staffs up to hold them at the ready.

Sárán suppressed a smile. He could take both of them out easily with a javelin cast, leaving him with the hand axe to take care of the others.

And he was deadly with a hand-axe.

Seeing the Man Pair’s reaction, the others had also turned about and quickly stood up to examine the unexpected arrival. Only the old man with the beard took his time, stiffly rising to his feet to face the newcomer.

Sárán raised a placatory hand. ‘Hallo, Travellers,’ he called out. ‘I come in peace.’

The six strangers looked at one another. In the end, it was the bearded elder who finally stepped forward. He coughed and cleared his throat. ‘I see you, stranger. I am named Rogein.’

‘I see you, Old One. I am named Sárán ua Baoiscne.’

‘Welcome to our campsite, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are preparing our meal. Would you care to eat with us? There is not much but we are happy to share.’

The old man’s voice sounded oddly brittle as though he’d done some damage to his throat in the past.

Sárán glanced at the steaming cauldron and nodded curtly, not trusting himself to successfully disguise his hunger for its contents. He advanced further into the little grotto and stood closer to the fire. ‘I will join you,’ he said, taking a seat on a small rock set back at an angle from the two logs on which the others were seated. As he sat, he made sure to keep his javelin close to hand. The men seemed harmless enough but he did not intend to take any chances. If necessary, the rock was sufficiently far from the group to allow him time to respond to any hostility.

And they will pay dearly if they tried.

If the old man noticed his caution, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he plunged a ladle into the little cauldron and scooped out a portion of stew which he slapped into a wooden bowl. He passed it to the big warrior who took it in one hand and held it under his nose. Briefly closing his eyes, he inhaled and savoured the aroma one last time before raising the bowl to his mouth and swallowing the contents whole.

‘Aaah!’

He smacked his lips with relish. The food had tasted every bit as good as it smelled. He glanced at his empty bowl then back towards the cauldron but Rogein seemed to miss the hint. The other members of the group, meanwhile, were regarding him quietly as though unsure what to make of him. After a moment, they all sat down again.

‘From where do you hail, Sárán ua Baoiscne?’ asked Rogein.

‘From Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. It is located to the east.’

‘You are far from home.’

‘I am on the hunt. Seiscenn Uarbhaoil is a growing settlement. The local forest has been hunted out.’ He glanced at the other members of the party. ‘Who are your friends?’

‘Forgive me,’ the old man answered. ‘I am a poor host.’ He pointed to the Man Pair. ‘These are Futh and Ruth. They are brothers but you may have already noticed the family resemblance.’

Sárán considered them uneasily. Seeing them sitting there side by side was like looking at a reflection in still waters. It seemed unnatural. Despite his disquiet, he smiled politely and nodded a greeting which the two men returned. Rogein, meanwhile, had moved on to the corpulent man to Sárán’s left. The warrior observed the fleshy face and pendulous jowls hanging below his jaw with silent censure. The folds of fat almost obscured a small tattoo of a spider on his right cheek.

‘And this is Regna of Mag Fea,’ said Rogein. ‘He is the man who prepared the repast which you are enjoying.’

Sárán stared at Regna’s stomach which protruded obscenely, pressing against the material of his robe like the belly of a pregnant woman. Although he’d never seen a man with so much useless bulk, he hid his distaste and nodded.

‘This,’ Rogein was indicating the extremely tall figure with the cowl, ‘is Temle’. Temle lowered his cowl to reveal another bald head, a muted pair of eyes and a strikingly bulbous nose. Like Regna of Mag Fea, he too had a spider tattooed on his left cheek. Sárán glanced at the Man Pair and realised that they too had the spider marking although he’d missed it in the flickering shadows thrown up by the fire.

‘And finally,’ said the old man, gesturing towards the smallest figure at the far end of the log. ‘This one is named Olpe.’

Sárán leaned forward in order to see the little shape more clearly.

‘Hallo, little one.’

The figure turned to look at him but beneath the shadowed cowl it was impossible to tell if it was a boy or a girl.

The big warrior grinned. ‘I have two boys about your age.’

With this a small pair of hands appeared from out of the sleeves and reached up to pull the cowl back. To his horror, Sárán found himself staring at the wizened face of a very old man. Like the others, he was completely bald.

Regna of Mag Fea roared with laughter. ‘I very much doubt that!’

Sárán bristled, angered at being embarrassed in this manner. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘Why does such an odd group travel Out in the Great Wild?’

Rogein quickly made a mollifying gesture. ‘Forgive Olpe’s little joke, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are like you. Simple travellers.’

‘I am not a traveller. I am a hunter.’

‘Of course, of course.’ He nodded. ‘My comrades and I …’ He paused. ‘We too are hunters of a sort. Hunters of knowledge.’

‘Hunters of truth.’ Sárán could not hide the scepticism in his voice.

‘Indeed. The stars reveal their secrets to us and we hunt their associated knowledge.’

Sárán continued to look at him blankly.

‘If you can read them, the stars reveal many secrets. Some years past, for example, the stars told us that a great leader, a most powerful figure, had been born. Since then we have been travelling the land to seek him out.’ He made a shrugging gesture. ‘The problem is that although the stars tell us of such events, they do not tell us where they occur. That is why we travel now, seeking the one who was born.’

‘Why would you seek out a baby?’

‘To pay homage to him.’

Sárán struggled to keep the incredulity from his voice. ‘To pay homage to a baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘How would you pay homage to a mewling infant?’

‘Well, we are not wealthy men but we have gathered gifts of significance.’

‘Oh?’ asked Sárán with renewed interest.

‘Temle.’ Rogein looked to the tall man. ‘Show our guest.’

With a sigh, the tall man reached down to open a little backpack resting on the log alongside him. Undoing the upper cord that sealed it, he withdrew three large clay pots and laid them on the ground before him. Removing the sealed lid of the first container, he tilted it forwards so that Sárán could see its contents: a large mixture of some papery bark, paired leaves, and flowers with white petals and a yellow or red centre.’

‘Flowers. Very nice. I’m sure the babe’s mother will appreciate that.’

‘These are no ordinary flowers, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. They come from the lands far to the East and produce an alluring fragrance.’

Sárán ignored him, peering at the other containers. ‘What else do you have?’

Temle opened the second pot. This was full to the brim with a powdery, reddish resin. Sárán leaned forward to examine it more closely only to draw back in alarm as he caught a whiff of the overpowering scent it gave off.

‘This is another fragrance from the Myrrh trees. Again, they are found far to the East. And finally … ’

The last clay pot was opened. Sárán stared. It seemed to contain a large collection of shiny metal disks.’

He looked at Rogein with a quizzical expression.

‘They call this gold,’ explained the old man. ‘It is of great worth.’

‘Of course, of course.’ Despite his disappointment, Sárán supressed a great desire to roll his eyes. He had been hoping for more food of the quality of the stew, some weapons or even jewellery he could have appropriated to bring back to his wife in compensation for the lack of food. He tried not to laugh as he imagined the expression of the babe’s family when this group arrived offering homage and pots of useless junk. The thought prompted his next question.

‘You say you have been seeking this child for some time.’

‘Yes. For some years. Although we know the child was born, we do not know where. Recently, we learned that he was to be found in a settlement said to be led by a woman.’

‘A woman!’ Sárán scoffed. ‘What settlement would let a woman lead them?’

‘It’s true,’ the old man conceded. ‘It is difficult to believe but we were also told that this woman was a Gifted One and has received training as a bandraoi – a female druid. Have you heard of such a place?’

The warrior thought about that. ‘I know of no such settlement in these parts but I have heard tales of a place far to the west, in the Sliabh Bládhma region. My sister’s man once told me that it has links to Clann Baoiscne but I do not know what those links are.’

Rogein looked eagerly towards his companions who were now all whispering excitedly together. ‘You see, brothers! Our informant did not fail us.’ He quietened then as though absorbed in deep thought but after a moment he returned his attention to the warrior.

‘You have our gratitude, Sárán. Can we offer you more stew as an expression of our appreciation?’

Sárán looked guiltily at the little cauldron. There did not seem to be enough for everyone but the flavours were still raging on his tongue, demanding more.’

‘Very well.’ He did his best to sound as though he was doing them a kindness accepting the reward that was his due for helping them in their bizarre search.

Rogein ladled another measure into his bowl and he immediately lapped it up, fearful that he might have to share. When he was finished, he wiped the leather sleeve of his tunic across his lips. ‘Do not take this the wrong way, Rogein. It is not my intent to insult your hospitality but you are foolish to wander about in the Great Wild without protection. These lands can be very dangerous.’

As he spoke, he eased his javelin onto his knees and slowly, casually, allowed his left hand to drift behind his back to where his hand-axe waited. It was ungrateful of him, he knew, but he had come to the decision to rob this little company. They could keep their smelly pots but he intended to leave the camp with that cauldron. If they did not attempt to stop him, they did not need to die.

‘I have a weapon,’ said Regna of Mag Fea. The fat man held up a short boning knife that, although sharp, would have done little more than cause a gash in a real fight. ‘And both Futh and Ruth have their stout staves.’

Sárán bit his tongue. These men were fools. Simple-minded idiots whose bones would inevitably litter the floor of the Great Wild’s forests.

‘You would not frighten a sandfly with such a knife. Staves are useful up close but they are no match for a sword or a battle axe. And they offer no defence against spear or javelin. You would require real weapons, Rogein.’ He tapped his own javelin to emphasise his point. ‘Something to strike fear into those who would attack you.’

Rogein looked at him in surprise. ‘Why would anyone attack us? Apart from our gifts – which we keep concealed – we have nothing of value, nothing that anyone would want.’

Sárán glanced guiltily at the cauldron from the corner of his eye.

‘You should fear travellers in the night,’ the big warrior said. ‘Death comes easily in the Great Wild.’

‘We are six,’ insisted Rogein. ‘How can you claim to advise us when you are but a single man?’

‘Because I am a warrior from Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. My blades are stained with the blood of many enemies. I am not one to be waylaid or interfered with. I am strong. I kill easily, without passion. You cannot compare us.’

There was a dull thump.

Sárán looked down to find that the wooden bowl had slipped from his fingers, hitting the rocky ground. He started to laugh and was about to make a joke of it but when he attempted to speak only a barely audible croak came out of his mouth.

Surprised, he raised his fingers to touch his lips and tried again. Once again, there was no sound but a croak.

Rogein was looking at him with mild curiosity. ‘What is it, Sárán ua Baoiscne? Is the stew not to your liking?’

Sárán pointed urgently at his mouth and grunted.

‘You cannot speak?’ Rogein leaned forward and peered closely at his guest. Annoyed, Sárán opened his mouth wide, offering the old man a better view in the hope that he could see what was wrong.

After a moment, the old man pulled back and tugged thoughtfully on his long beard. ‘I believe I know the cause. It will be the white root, an ingredient Regna of Mag Fea adds to his stews. It enhances the flavour, magnifies both the taste and the odour. Manipulation of scent is one of the many secret skills he learned in his travels through the Eastern Lands.’

Sárán glanced at the fat man who returned it with a smug smile then chuckled loudly. ‘On occasion, it has the interesting effect of rendering an eater silent. A perfect antidote for boastful guests.’

Furious, the warrior made to reach for the javelin lying across his knees but found that his hand did not move. Alarmed, he tried to stand but found that his legs were not responding either.

‘Ah, yes.’ Regna of Mag Fea was stroking the smooth skin of his meaty jowls as he observed Sárán’s efforts. He got to his feet, waddled towards the warrior and squatted down before him. ‘That is another side effect. The more common one in fact. The white root causes a great lassitude of the limbs. It makes a person still and unmoving.’

He smiled at the growing alarm in Sárán‘s eyes. ‘You are a man of sage advice, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. One should not travel without care within the Great Wild. It is a dangerous place. And it is a shame you are unable to follow your own counsel.’

Pulling the javelin from the warrior’s knees, he tossed the weapon aside.

‘I am glad you enjoyed our cooking. You were aware there was not much food but that did not stop you. Still, it can be said you enjoyed your last meal. The last visitor to our campfire enjoyed his meal just as you enjoyed him.

He nodded at the horrified comprehension in the frozen man’s eyes.

‘And now you see the truth of it. Yes, that is how we travel so light. When we are low on supplies we set our web at sites such as this valley entrance where travellers are, eventually, bound to pass.’

He pulled out the little boning knife and held it up in front of the stricken man.

‘But you will forgive me, I’m sure. The night grows late and my companions grow hungry.’

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: Big Fairy, Small Fairy, Good Fairy, Bad Fairy!!

Sligo(sidhe)

Yesterday afternoon, I had two fairy-related incidents within a few minutes of one other. The first – a somewhat laboured and exaggerated incident, I admit – was listening to Michael O’Súilleabháin’s traditional music piece “Sí Beag, Sí Mór” (Small Fairy, Big Fairy). Shortly afterwards, leaving the house for a reflective walk around the Wilton Bush, I had my second incident when I was struck by a ‘fairy wind’.

A ‘Fairy Wind’ is a sudden and unexplained squall on an otherwise calm day. It is, of course, a very natural occurrence but when it happens in an area where there’s dead leaves and other detritus scattered about, the effect can be quite impressive (essentially, a kind of mini-tornado that ends up showering anyone nearby with a spray of leafy/woody debris). This is, quite possibly, where the expression ‘fairy dust’ comes from. Having seen a few, it’s easy to understand why our forefathers might have assigned it a special significance.

The ‘fairies’ or Na Sidhe (from síd – the ancient name for the burial mounds they were associated with) have always formed an important part of folklore and belief, not only in Ireland but in many other countries as well. In Ireland, however, many of the more intrinsic beliefs of ‘fairies’ were retained much more strongly than elsewhere where, over time they were reduced from an expression of dead ancestors to a kind of midget, flower-hopping creature with wings (think Tinkerbelle, the famous Cottingley Fairies and so on).

In the last two or three decades, the common expression of fairies has morphed yet again, predominantly as a result of poorly researched mass media fiction (books, television and film). Nowadays, a fairy isn’t a real fairy without the wings, the emaciated model-like looks, the pout, and a few special powers thrown in. In fact, they now tend to look more like a sexualised version of an elf – a reflection of current media preoccupation and impact.

Back in the day, Na Sidhe were a force of nature – literally – and topographically. Their actions served, not only to reflect an interpretation of unusual natural phenomenon but to make sense of strange or unusual topographical features. One such feature is the flat rock in the picture above taken at Mullagmore in County Sligo. According to ancient local folklore, the flat rock is a ‘Fairy Door’– one of those sites where Na Sidhe can emerge out onto our world.

The English word “fairies” always used to bug me – and if I’m being honest, it still does, actually. The word feels inappropriate, a bit like calling a sailboat a ‘ship’. The problem is that it links to a concept (the tiny “Tinkerbelle Model”) that really has no meaningful context in Ireland. Back home, we just never really had that model of ‘fairy’. In Ireland, our fairies – Na Sidhe – were as big and as beautiful and as ugly as normal people. There were ‘Good Fairies’ and there were ‘Bad Fairies’, just like there are Good People and Bad People. Because, of course, they originally were people.

Just dead ones!

Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

Giants' Causeway4

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Folklore: Irish saints in Cork

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folklore: Following The Pattern

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

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

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

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

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

Mise (Me): Drawing From the Well

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

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

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

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

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

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.