'the past and present are stitched together with threads of magic, if we could only open our eyes to see them…'

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... the home of Ireland's mythology, and all things Irish. I blog about my books, my experiences living with a special needs child, and anything else which takes my fancy. Thank you for stopping by.
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Irish Mythology and Reincarnation

Druid greets the dawn at Stonehenge

The Druids left us no written record of their religion, or the belief system of our ancient Irish ancestors. What we know has been patched together from later Christian interpretations of the myths and legends, and the writings of observers such as Julius Ceaser, but none of it can be proven to be fact.

Reincarnation is a Latin word, meaning ‘entering the flesh again’. As far back as the C1stBC, Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor wrote that the Gauls teach “that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body”.

Julius Caeser wrote of the Celts in his ‘De Bello Gallico’ that “the principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another….. a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.”

Although these writers are referring to the Celts of Europe, it is reasonable to suppose that the Irish people of the same time period may have held similar beliefs. Indeed, there is much evidence to support this in the stories of Irish mythology.

In the Tochmarc Étaíne, ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ from the Mythological Cycle, Etain is transformed by magic into a butterfly. After fourteen years, she lands in a cup of wine which is drunk by the wife of Etar, a warrior of the Ulaid. Etar’s wife swallows the butterfly and becomes pregnant, and thus Etain is reborn into human form a thousand years after her first birth.

This story illustrates the Celtic acceptance of transformation, ie the temporary taking of another shape, and transmigration, when the soul transfers into another body following an actual rebirth.

A similar story is told about the birth of Cuchullain. Dechtire drank a cup of wine in which a mayfly had landed. That night she was visited by the God Lugh in a dream, who told her that the mayfly was him, and that she would soon give birth to a boy child. When she awoke, he transformed her into a swan, and took her to his halls in the Otherworld, where she duly gave birth to Setanta. She returned with him to Emain Macha in Ulster, where he was raised, and went on to become the hero known as Cuchullain.

The biggest difference to the Etain story, is the presence of the God Lugh. It implies that not only did the deity father a son on a mortal woman, but that he was actually reborn as his own son, thus manifesting himself again in the mortal world.

Most people are familiar with the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the most popular tales of Irish mythology. It tells how Connacht Queen Medbh and her husband Aillil waged war on Ulster over possession of the mighty bull Donn Cúailnge. At the end of the saga, Donn Cúailnge fights the white bull Finnbhennach and kills him before dying of exhaustion.

It is interesting to note that these were no ordinary beasts. In the Tale of Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are minding livestock belonging to the Gods Ochall and Bodb, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge.

Unrequited love is often associated with reincarnation in Irish mythology. In the Fenian Cycle, hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhal, rescues a small deer in the forest, which turns out to be a Sidhe Princess named Sadbh. She had been transformed by the mysterious figure known only as the Dark Druid, for refusing to marry him. In the safety of Fionn’s fortress, she is able to return to her true form. She and Fionn fall in love, and she becomes pregnant, but when Fionn is away at battle, the Dark Druid returns and steals her away, returning her to the shape of a doe. She is never seen again, but apparently gives birth to a human child, a son named Oisin, whom Fionn finds on the slopes of Benbulben after seven years of searching.

Similarly, in the popular Irish legend of The Children of Lir, Aoife transforms Lir’s children into swans as she is jealous because he loves them more than he loves her. They are doomed to spend 900 years as swans, during which time St Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity. A monk was able to baptise them and turn them back into humans, but unfortunately, they were so old, they died. Another version, possibly pre-Christian, claims that the marriage of Lairgren and Deoch broke the curse.

Another Aoife, daughter of Daelbeth, and Luchra, daughter of Abhartach, both fell in love with Illbreac, but he had eyes only for Aoife. In a fit of jealous rage, Luchra turned Aoife into a crane, whereupon she flew to the lands of Manannán and lived there for 200 years. When she died, Manannán was so sad, he used her skin to make the crane-skin bag in which he kept all his magical treasures.

Mongán mac Fiachnai was a Prince of the kingdom of Cruthin who is recorded in the Annals as dying in 625AD. Little is known about him, except that he was said to have possessed remarkable shape-shifting powers, and had access to the Otherworld. One curious tale claims that, although fathered by Sea-God Manannán, he is in fact the reincarnation of hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.

It might be that the concept of reincarnation served to perpetuate those ancestors, kings or heroes most admired and beloved, that perhaps the ordinary folk were loath to let go. Certainly, the characters reputed in mythology to have transformed or to have been reborn seem to arise from nobility, royalty, deities or the hero-warrior, rather than commoners.

As the Milesians in their fleet of ships neared the shores of Ireland, intent on wresting it from the Tuatha de Denann, their poet Amergin chanted this verse, which begins:

“I am the wind which blows over the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the bull of seven battles,
I am the eagle on the rock…
I am a boar for courage,
I am a salmon in the water…”

At first glance, these words seem to confirm a belief in transformation, or shape-shifting, but perhaps they had nothing to do with reincarnation at all. It occurred to me that this poem could just as easily have been an example of Dichetal do Chennaib, a technique of the ancient Fili, or poet, involving chanting to achieve an altered state of being, or knowing, much as the warrior before battle would invoke the riastradh, or battle frenzy. Perhaps he hoped to achieve each of these qualities, or perhaps it was simply boastful talk designed to strike fear into an enemy which well understood the qualities each of the entities quoted.

The mythology we have inherited is ambiguous at best, and hard to decipher. Whilst it is certainly possible that the Celts and ancient Irish people may have believed in the concept of reincarnation, although not quite in the way we understand it today, it is not something we can say with any certainty. Whilst to some, this may be a source of frustration, for me, it is its strength; it is open to interpretation, thus it can be whatever you want it to be.

Guest Post | Combat in Medieval Ireland By Ed Mooney

Ed1

First of all, I would like to thank Ali, for affording me the opportunity to share this article with you. To start off, I would like to share a little about myself and how I got involved in Medieval Combat. For those readers who don’t know me, I am an amateur Photographer based in Kildare.

I have always had a great interest in ancient history, especially that of Ireland. And it was this interest which eventually got me involved in a Living History group, where amongst other things we trained in medieval re-enactment and combat.

On the combat side of things, I guess my initial journey started off when I was about four years old, when my parents enrolled me in the local Shotokan Karate Club. At the time for obvious reasons I did not realize, but this was to be the beginning which laid a strong foundation in various Martial Arts which spanned well over twenty years.

Sadly for the moment, with a young family to look after, my adventures in Martial Arts and Medieval Combat have taken a back seat for the last few years. I have however managed to continue my historical interests and adventurous nature through the medium of photography. These days much of my photography work is based on the many historic or heritage sites that I visit and explore.

Ed2

One of the biggest issues with training in Irish Medieval Combat lies in our history. Knowledge in Ireland was always passed on through word of mouth, very little was ever written down until the arrival of Christianity, so we really don’t have any ancient texts or manuscripts which we can learn from. Also we never had clan Dojo’s or schools which taught Gaelic fighting arts to young warriors.

We no longer have the Red Branch Knights, whom the young Setanta joined before becoming the Legendary Cu Chuliann or the legendary Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There are no secret Druid Masters to teach young warriors the arts of war. So where do we learn these things in the modern era?

Well to be honest, it’s a bit like a jig-saw. There are numerous manuscripts from the medieval period from which we can take scraps of information relative to our quest. Then we look to our neighbour across the water to fill in the gaps.

The one constant thing that I have learned during my training, which never changes, is movement. Combat is essentially a movement of one person against another. This never changes and has always been same in all cultures since the dawn of time. So when you take into account the various cultural influences and material constraints, you can bring together a much clearer picture of Ireland’s fighting practises.

Ed3

Now I am by no means a scholar or expert on the subject so I am writing this article based on my views and experience as a practitioner having both trained and fought in some of the major re-enactment shows in both Ireland and Britain.

Our living history group, which has since sadly disbanded, focused primarily on the early to middle medieval period, c400 -1170 AD. This was a time also known as the beginning of the middle Ages which post-dated the Golden Age of Ireland. The arrival of Christianity in Ireland had brought with it many changes which affected the culture of Ireland.

It was this period where Ireland became known as a land of Saints and Scholars. But life was still hard. Whilst many scholars where attracted to the monasteries as centres of learning, Ireland was still a country at war, having been split into several large Kingdoms with lesser Kingdoms and clans claiming lands for themselves. This meant that like our ancient tales of Táin Bó or Cattle raids, the Irish continued to fight amongst themselves.

One major concern in Ireland during this period was the arrival of our Northern friends the Vikings. These rogues who came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden to plunder and pillage, played such an important part in shaping both the cultural and fighting history of the time, that our group also incorporated Viking culture, customs and weapons into our training.

Ed4

So what is the difference between a living history group and a re-enactment group, I hear you ask. Well quite a bit actually, although many people involved in the re-enactment scene also belong to a living history group, there are some minor differences. The re-enactor is trained primarily in combat, where the living history practitioner focuses on showing how life was back in these times.

So when we went to a show, not only did we participate in the numerous battles which were staged, but our entire camp had to be historically correct. Everything from our tents or sleeping arrangements, to how we cooked, ate and drank  was replicated as accurately as possible.

Ed5

Moving on to the basics of clothing and armour of the early warriors in medieval Ireland, the léine,(which was a loose fitting long-sleeved tunic made from wool or linen) was the common garment of the time for both men and women. The men wore the léine down to the thigh or knee region, whilst the women wore theirs much longer.

Men would also sometimes wear truis, a type of tight fitting trousers, but otherwise were bare legged. Over the léine, it was common to wear a brat, (woollen cloak). The brat would normally be fastened by a crios (belt) and dealg (brooch). The only difference would be that the men would fasten the dealg on their shoulder, whilst the women would fasten it on their chest.

Interestingly I recall being told by a member of our group that the length of the man’s crios which hung from the buckle on his waist was said to be an indication of how well-endowed the wearer was!

The colour of garments was also quite important to the Irish, with purple commonly used to denote the Irish nobility. Reds, greens, and blues were also popular for those who could afford or acquire the items required to produce these dyes. Later on the tight fitting jacket known as ionar also became fashionable.

Shoes were not always commonly worn with many images of warriors from the time being depicted as barefooted. Though as the middle ages progressed, so too did footwear, with various styles, from the very basic to a more luxurious crafted item.

Ed6

When we think of the typical warrior from the middle ages, most would imagine a knight clad in shiny plate armour. Well in Ireland this could not be more further from the truth. Most accounts from the time tend to describe the native Gaelic warriors as being naked! Now beautiful as our fine Emerald isle is, we are not fortunate enough to live in a climate where you could travel around in comfort, stark naked, let alone into battle.

In my opinion when these medieval writers where describing our Gaelic warriors as naked, they meant that they fought without armour. That is to say, compared to their counterparts in England and the rest of Europe. Whilst the typical combatant from outside Ireland would go into battle in various degrees of plate armour, which we would fondly refer to as Clankie’s.

Our typical Irish fighter went into battle with minimum protection; the wearing of such was considered a burden, taking into account the fighting style of the Irish, whilst also believing that it was brave and courageous not to wear it.

That said, records show that prior to the arrival of the Vikings and of course the Norman invasion, Gaelic battle wear would have consisted of a length of material which would have been wrapped around the body a number of times, or a gambeson, also known as a padded jacket.

Another form of early Irish armour was the use of hard boiled cow hide, used to make chest armour or greaves for the arms and legs. Chain mail was also in use at this time, but due to the time and expense involved in making chainmail, its use would have been restricted to the likes of chieftains, unless you were fortunate enough to have taken it from a defeated enemy.

The cathbharr was also worn, which was a basic helmet constructed of hardened leather, held together by strips of bronze or iron. Then finally there was the sciath or shield, a must for any warrior of the time; not only could it be used to protect your body from incoming blows, but it could also be used as a very effective weapon, be it smashing through an enemy’s line or cracking heads open by striking with the edge of the shield.

Whilst some of the early shields were constructed of wicker covered in hide, later versions were made from bronze or solid timber. The later were also covered in hide and more often laden with various degrees of metal studs or bands which commonly used as decoration would also have added to the durability of the piece.

Ed7

Weapons in Ireland changed quite a bit as the middle ages progressed, so for the purpose of this article I will concentrate on the weapons I trained with and used on the battlefield during my time, namely the Spear, Javelin, Axe, Knife and Sword.

In re-enactment battles, safety was of utmost importance, even a dull blunt spear-head, axe or sword could inflict rather nasty or life threatening injuries, so in order to fight in a safe manner certain techniques with various weapons were not permitted.

The two handed spear was the most common weapon used by the Irish and the first weapon a newbie (beginner) would have to learn when joining our group. It could be used for both defence and offensive purposes and gave the practitioner a good grounding for the use of other weapons.

There were many variations of the spear, with different length shafts and heads, but the principle use and technique remained the same. Spears could be used to stab, slash or even take an opponent off their horse.

On the battlefield the first couple of lines of each opposing army would have been made up of lines of spear men, also known as spear walls. These walls made cavalry charges quite difficult and could keep the enemy at a distance.

When using a two handed spear, the lead hand is used as a fulcrum, with the rear hand controlling the direction and movement of the spear. With the two handed spear being of considerable length, averaging approx 6ft, it was quite an effective weapon even in such an enclosed space as the spear wall.

One of my favourite techniques to use was known as ‘The Guarding Gate’, which was used when a Clankie, (soldier in plate armour) would try to crash through our spear wall. Two spears would be crossed in front of him, pointed into the ground and the fighters would push their shafts toward the intruder, thus trapping him where he stood, after which he would be impaled with spears from either side of the blocking spearmen.

There was also a shorter single handed spear, which would have been used along with a shield, however I was never a big fan of this and would much prefer a sword in such an instance.

Ed8

The next weapon we will look at is the throwing spear or Javelin/Dart. Not to be confused with an arrow, these throwing darts were surprisingly quite effective at a certain range and great fun to train with.

Usually made from hazel or split ash, some would have come equipped with tips like arrow heads and some would have even used fletching. But for our training we used basic wooden shafts with a rubber tipped head to avoid injury.

Now when you first pick up a dart the natural thing is to try and throw it by hand. But there is a much better way to do this, utilizing what is known as a suaineamh, or throwing strap. The throwing strap has been around for many years and has been used in many cultures, which I think stands for its effectiveness. From Ancient Greece and the Roman legions, the tribes of Gaul, Iberia, North Africa, Ireland and Wales. Even the Norse and Anglo Saxons used them.

We normally used a length of leather thong for our strap, but you could also use a piece of linen. From what I know, there are two ways to use the strap; the first was to tie one end of your strap around the point of balance on the shaft, the strap would then be wound around the shaft a number of times, with the remainder being held in the hand, with what is known as a Floating Grip. Both the shaft and remaining strap are loosely held in the hand with just two fingers. This made throwing the dart more accurate.

The second method, and my personal favourite, was to use a length of thong, starting about six to eight inches from the base of the shaft, the thong was run tightly down around the base and back up the other side, where the remainder was wrapped around the throwing hand. This technique greatly extended the reach and velocity of the throw, similar to the Atlati used by natives of the Americas.

Ed9

The Axe must be one of the oldest tools known to mankind and numerous examples have been found over the years ranging from stone, as well as bronze, copper and iron. What started out as a tool used in daily living quickly evolved into one of the most deadly weapons used in a fight.

The Tuagh, or battle axe, has been in use since prehistoric times in Ireland, with many fine examples to be found in the National Museum. Whilst there are many different variations of the axe which range in both size and shape after the small throwing axe, my favourites have to be the Gallowglass and the Kern Axes.

We used to play a fun little game in training known as ‘Caith an Tua’. In this training game, using a small throwing axe, we would form a circle and start of by calling out the name of a person within the circle and lob the axe to them. This takes a bit of practise, but as you become accustomed to catching a moving axe, the circle would be made bigger and the throws would become faster.

To make things interesting, we would introduce two, sometimes three axes into the circle depending on how many players were involved. Apart from the odd grazed knuckle, ‘Caith an Tua’ was a rather fun game to play and it actually came in useful on the battlefield. I recall a number of occasions, where after losing my weapon in a melee, one of my guys would be able to throw me an axe from a distance, and I could continue fighting.

Ed10

The Galloglach or Gallowglass translates as ‘foreign solider’, after a bunch of armoured mercenary soldiers of Scottish/Norman descent. These foreign warriors served mainly as bodyguards to the Gaelic Chieftains. These guys were notorious for their strength and size and their weapons reflected this. One of their main weapons was the Sparth, a rather large axe which was used to devastating effect. Not something you would want to come up against in battle.

Then you have the Ceithernach or Kern, a bunch of light infantry foot soldiers. One of their weapons, the Kern Axe, which is quite similar to a Halberd, is a real nasty piece of work, and nicknamed ‘the tin opener’, by many Irish re-enactors due to its ability to devastate opponents wearing full plate armour.

This axe which can be also be used for stabbing is in my personal opinion, one of the best all round fighting weapons. The fact that the English knights in their shiny plate armour hate to see it on the field, attests to its effectiveness.

Ed11

Whilst our previously mentioned weapons are all relatively inexpensive and could serve a  dual purpose for hunting and battle,  the sword in medieval Ireland would have been mainly used by the wealthy members of the clan. Back then, swords were not mass produced and each one would have been made to suit the individual, taking into account such factors as height, reach, strength, etc.

Prior to the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland there is thought to be two main types of sword in Ireland. The Colg, a small thrusting sword and the Claideb, a longer sword designed for slashing or cutting. My personal favourite Gaelic sword was the ‘Leaf Blade’ which is remarkably similar to the Roman Gladius. This sword dates back to the Bronze Age and so does not fit in to our medieval time frame. So I will concentrate on the popular Ring sword and the infamous Claiomh Mor.

Ed12

The ring sword, pictured below, or ‘bastard sword’ as it was also known, was a constant design used exclusively by the Irish during the medieval period. Only the hilt changed around the 15th/16th centuries. It was made in both single and double handed varieties. Easily distinguished by the common open ring design of the pommel, these blades have a lovely balance and were surprisingly light and easy to manoeuvre.

Ed13

The Gallowglass were also well known for their use of a particular massive broadsword, similar to that of the Claiomh Mor, or Claymore, which means ‘Big Sword’. These guys sure did nothing in half measures, think of that big sword used in the movie Braveheart and you will get an idea of what I mean.

Despite their massive bulk, these swords where actually quite light considering their size and where utilized by the Gallowglass with devastating efficiency. In fact these mercenaries saw action not just in Ireland and England, but were also much sought after in continental Europe right up until the 16th century and the arrival of gun powder.

Ed14

I shall finish off with the must most underestimated weapon of them all, the scian. Like many of the previously mentioned weapons which served a dual purpose, the Scian or Irish long knife was the Swiss Army Knife of medieval Ireland.

Ed15

But up close and personal, this was my favourite weapon to finish off opponents with, even if they were covered from head to toe in plate armour. The Scian had the ability to penetrate in between the armour and reach vital areas of the opponent like no other weapon could do. Once you got inside the range of your opponents weapon, be it a spear or sword, this was the perfect tool to finish the job. Any knife fighter worth their salt will tell you that with a knife, chances are you won’t see your end coming until it’s too late.


Thanks, Ed, for a fascinating glimpse into your life as a medieval re-enactor, and the life of a warrior in ancient Ireland!

Ed has a blog where he showcases his stunning photography of Ireland’s ancient places, with accompanying articles on their history and mythology. If you enjoyed Ed’s post, you will love his post on the famous Battle of Clontarf, and be enthralled by his post on the Brian Boru Millennium festival last year.

Why not hop over there and check him out now? 

Book Review | Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens

I am very pleased to be reviewing books for Children’s Books Ireland and Inis Magazine. CBI is the national children’s books organisation of Ireland. Through their many activities and events they aim to engage young people with books, foster a greater understanding of the importance of books for young people and act as a core resource for those with an interest in books for children in Ireland. 

Children’s Books Ireland publishes Inis magazine three times in the year. Each issue contains a rich array of children’s literature articles and features, as well as in depth reviews of new titles for children and teenagers. This is my first book review for them. You can see it here.

valjoe

Following the recent unexpected death of her father, Rose travels to Ypres in Belgium with her Grandpa to visit the graves of the fallen soldiers of the First World War. There, she finds herself mysteriously transported back in time, where she meets fifteen-year-old soldier, Joe.

Stevens vividly recreates the atmosphere of the war, whilst shielding younger readers from its more gruesome details. Her characters are engaging, from Grandpa with his comical and mildly annoying habits, to grieving Rose, who is struggling to come to terms with her bereavement, to the plucky and loveable character of Valentine Joe himself.

After a gentle start, the pace of the story picks up, the sights and sounds of the city of Ypres, past and present, propelling us along in the wake of our heroine, lending authenticity to her adventures.

A month before his sixteenth birthday, on the morning of his death, we find ourselves in the trench alongside Joe and Rose. Whilst Rose professes her sorrow and despair throughout the story, I didn’t really feel it, and it seems to me a missed opportunity which distinguishes a good book from a great one.

Having said that, the author does an excellent job of highlighting the shocking issue of the boy soldiers, and effectively brings the atrocities of war to life.

With its clear, simple language, its teen love theme, and its young female hero, this book is ideally aimed at girls.


I am currently reading ‘The High Hills’ by Jill Barklem, and ‘FishOut of Water’ by Natalie Whipple. My reviews must be submitted by 9th April.

Irish Mythology | The Art of Combat

The Irish warrior of ancient times may have been an undisciplined killing machine, fighting under the influence of the Riastradh, or battle frenzy, on behalf of his family, his chieftain, or his country, but it may surprise you to know that there was an unwritten code of practice, or chivalry involved in the art of making war.

We see this, for example in the story of the First Battle of Moytura, when Bres of the Tuatha de Denann meets Sreng, battle champion of the Fir Bolg. According to the translation by Mary Jones, they parley, exchange weapons and part as friends. However, battle for possession of Ireland inevitably follows, with the Fir Bolg requesting a delay while they prepare their weapons, to which the Denann actually agree.

Much later, when the Denann are attacked by the invading Milesians, the Denann also request a delay in which to prepare for war. This is duly granted, with the Milesians even returning to their ships and retreating nine waves from the shore while the Denann make all ready for battle.

It should also be noted that no battle was ever won in  a day. They usually continued over a period of several days, during which time both sides retreated at dusk to their camps to rest, regroup, repair weapons, eat, drink, bury their dead, look after their wounded, and sleep, rejoining the combat at first light.

You would think that cover of darkness would lead to all sorts of sneaky shenanigans as one army tried to gain the advantage over the other, but this was not the case. Honour and dignity were paramount, even in the dealings of war. Again, the First Battle of Moytura is a perfect example of this battle etiquette.

Historically, every man who held land, whether rented or owned, was legally obliged to spend a certain number of days each year fighting in his tribe’s wars, or participating in their defence, after which he was free to return home to his family. This was clearly defined by Brehon Law.

Each chieftain was likewise required to supply his provincial King, and thus the High King, with a contingent of armed men.

The King always maintained a champion in his service, known as the Aire-Echta. He was responsible for avenging any insult to the King or his family, and discharged military duties as required. Ogma fulfilled this role for Nuada, High King of the Denann until Lugh challenged him.

A small group of hired mercenaries would also be maintained by the King, often to serve as his bodyguard. This practice was called buanacht in Irish.

Among Irish nobles, it was customary to ‘knight’ boys as young as seven years old. The Irish called this initiation ‘taking the valour’, and it began their journey into the ways of the warrior and manhood.

The Romans in their conquest across Europe observed how the Celts went into battle ‘naked’, ie without armour. This practice, which continued as late as the C12th in Ireland, was observed by Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales, arch-deacon of Breccon; he wrote, ‘They [the Irish warriors] go into battle without armour, for they consider it a burden, and deem it brave and honourable to fight without it.’

The ancient Irish army was composed of several battalions called catha, containing three thousand men. Each catha consisted of many smaller groupings, some as small as nine men and women.  They employed their own medics, and it was not uncommon for physicians to give medical aid regardless of which army the wounded fought for.

The Irish warrior was heard to rush into battle screaming their fearsome war-chant. Likely, this formed part of the summoning of the Riastradh. This cry was known as the barrán glaed, meaning ‘warrior shout’, and probably united the warriors against their enemy, as well as providing an outlet for all their pent-up emotion. This custom continued well into later centuries, an example of which was the cry of the O’Neill clan, Lamb derg aboo, which translates as ‘The red hand to victory’.

The most famous warbands in Irish mythology are Cuchullain’s Red Branch Knights, and Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna.

It was extremely difficult to get into the Fianna. The applicant had to go through all kinds of tests, both physical and mental, before he, or she, could be accepted… standards were very high, and there were no exceptions. You can read more about that here. The Fianna also accepted female warriors.

What differentiates the warriors of the Fianna from all others, is that they had to be able to recite and compose poetry. This may sound daft to you now, but in those days there was no writing, all lore and knowledge was handed down and learned by oral tradition. In effect, this rule shows that the warriors of the Fianna had to be well educated. They certainly weren’t all brawn and no brain!

However, the brawn was still important, and as fighting men they had to train daily, and become highly skilled in all manner of combat techniques. These were known as Na hEalaiona Troda, or Na hEalaiona Camraic, meaning ‘Irish fighting arts’, or ‘Irish martial arts’. They were divided into two broad types of combat; unarmed, known as Gráscar Lámh, and armed, known as Troid Armáilte. 

I should just like to point out at this stage that many of the most skilled warriors in the Irish fighting arts were women, who famously passed on their skills to their male students. Cuchullain was taught by Scathach, and Fionn mac Cumhall was taught by Liath Luachra.

Gráscar Lámh consisted of the following techniques;

  • Dornálíocht (durn-awl-ee-okht), which meant bare knuckle boxing.
  • Coraíocht (cur-ee-okht), which was collar and elbow wrestling.
  • Speachóireacht (spack-er-okht), kicking techniques such as those used in Gaelic football, Irish dancing, and shin-kicking contests.

Troid Armáilte consisted primarily of the following techniques, among others;

  • Batadóireocht (bat-a-rokht), which was stick fighting. This later evolved into the traditional art of the shillelagh, or Sailéille in Irish. You can read more about it here.
  • Claíomhóireacht, which was swordcraft.
  • Scianóireacht, knife arts.
  • Tuadóireacht, which was fighting with the axe.

Interestingly, though the spear was the weapon of choice for the ancient Irish warriors, I could find no reference to the name of this battle skill during my research; perhaps it fell under swordcraft, or even stick fighting. (if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!)

And finally, we come to my favourite part, the Feats of the Hero. These techniques were known as cleasa, or ‘tricks’, and were clearly more magical in origin than the combative arts listed above. They were skills used in conjunction with the Na hEalaiona Camraic, or supported the learning of them.

For example, Cuchullain was famous for his skill at the ‘Salmon Leap’. Observers such as the Romans had commented that during battle, Celtic warriors were able to leap over the shields of their opponents. It’s likely that the ‘Salmon Leap’ was simply a high jumping technique practised until the warrior could jump higher than anyone else.

There were other feats, too, such as the ‘Sword Feat’, or Faobhar Chleas, described in the Mesca Ulad, ‘the Intoxication of the Ulstermen’, as a kind of dance involving the juggling of a sword. This may have been performed before battle to impress and strike fear into the enemy. It may also have concentrated the warrior’s mind, helping him to achieve riastradh.

The ‘Body Feat’ was thought to have been a dance which showed off unarmed combat skills. Cuchullain’s ‘Leap Over a Poisoned Stroke’ may have demonstrated his ability to leap over a sword slashing at his legs.

The ‘Feat of the Pole-Throw’ is thought to be the same as the  Scottish ‘Tossing the Caber’. The ‘Apple Feat’ was said to consist of juggling apples, apparently useful when learning to fight with a sword… don’t ask. The ‘Breath Feat’ was described as blowing apples up in the air, which may have been a breathing technique.

I’m sure there were many more, and no doubt they all contributed to making the warrior appear dashing and heroic, as well as enhancing his combat skills and chances of survival.


Please be sure to drop by on Friday to meet my special guest, photographer, blogger and RuinHunter Ed Mooney, who will be talking about his Celtic re-enactment days, and the authentic weapons training he was involved in.

Irish Mythology | Riastradh, the Warrior’s Battle Frenzy

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The Norsemen were famous for it, the Romans accused the Celts of it, but  it seems our Irish ancestors were capable of it too; the strange phenomenon known as the ‘battle frenzy‘.

Here is how Cuchullain, one of Ireland’s best loved warrior heroes, is described when the battle frenzy took hold;

‘Within his skin he put forth an unnatural effort of his body: his feet, his shins, and his knees shifted themselves and were behind him; his heels and calves and hams were displaced to the front of his leg-bones, in condition such that their knotted muscles stood up in lumps large as the clenched fist of fighting man.

The frontal sinews of his head were dragged to the back of his neck, where they showed in lumps bigger than the head of a man-child aged one month. Then his face underwent extraordinary transformation: one eye became engulfed in his head so far that ’tis a question whether a wild heron could have got at it where it lay against his occiput, to drag it out upon the surface of his cheek; the other eye on the contrary protruded suddenly, and of itself so rested upon the cheek.

His mouth was twisted awry till it met his ears. His lion’s gnashings caused flakes of fire, each one larger than fleece of three-year-old wether, to stream from his throat into his mouth and so outwards. The sounding blows of the heart that panted within him were as the howl of a ban-dog doing his office, or of a lion in the act of charging bears.

Among the clouds over his head were visible the virulent pouring showers and sparks of ruddy fire which the seething of his savage wrath caused to mount up above him. His hair became tangled about his head, as it had been branches of a red thorn-bush stuffed into a strongly fenced gap to block it; over the which though a prime apple-tree had been shaken, yet may we surmise that never an apple of them would have reached the ground, but rather that all would have been held impaled each on an individual hair as it bristled on him for fury.

His hero’s paroxysm projected itself out of his forehead, and showed longer than the whet-stone of a first-rate man-at-arms. Taller, thicker, more rigid, longer than mast of a great ship was the perpendicular jet of dusky blood which out of his scalp’s very central point shot upwards and then was scattered to the four cardinal points.’

(Quote from Shee-Eire)

Scary stuff! But perhaps a tad over-exaggerated… However, the battle frenzy phenomenon is undoubted.

The Norsemen called their warriors Berserkers; they worked themselves into a trance-like fury before battle, during which they mercilessly killed all in their path, seemingly unaffected by injury to themselves. Afterwards, they would be weak and dull-witted for days while they ‘came down’ from their altered state.

Medieval knight in the field with an axe

The term berserker comes from the Old Norse serkr, meaning ‘shirt/ coat’ and ber,  meaning ‘bear’. It is said they were thus named because they often wore the skin of a bear into battle; the bear was a manifestation of their god, Odin, and in their trance they assumed the fierce strength and courage of the bear as they fought, in an attempt to please him.

However, some dispute that; they claim the prefix ber simply means ‘bare’, as in they went into battle naked ie without armour.

Some time around the first century BC, Roman poet Lucan coined the Latin phrase Furor Teutonicus to describe the mad, terrifying, berserk rage of the Teuton (a Celtic Germanic tribe) warriors in battle. When the Romans then invaded the British Isles in AD43, they found the native tribes so ferocious in combat, they named them Furor Celticus.

The Celts even had a warrior God who was patron of the battle frenzy. His name was Rudianus, which meant ‘he of the red [battle] frenzy’. In Irish mythology, he was said to be associated with a trio of brothers, possibly Sidhe and possibly also a triple aspect deity, known as ‘the three Ruadchoin of the Cuala’, who murdered  legendary king Conaire Mór in ‘the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, a story from the Ulster Cycle.

Cuchullain’s battle frenzy, as described above, was known in Irish as the riastradh, (pronounced ree-uss-trah), which is now translated as ‘contortion/ convulsion’, but is thought to have originally referred to the red rage of battle in ancient times.

So how did the warrior achieve riastradh? There are all kinds of theories. It’s possible that the fly agaric, or amanita-muscaria mushroom, known to have been used in Ireland for medicinal and ritual purposes, could have been consumed by warriors in food or drink before battle. The mushroom’s psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties could certainly explain the sudden violent mindless rage and following torpor.

It has been suggested that the warrior believed himself to be ‘taken over’ by the Goddess known as the Morrigan, who was the triple aspect deity of war to the ancient Irish. As Nemain, she represented battle frenzy, and as Badb, the battle crow. This transformation may have been brought about by meditation.

war

However, it’s also possible that they simply worked themselves into a trance-like fury by more simple means. For example, as the two sides faced each other before battle commenced, it was typical for the warriors to hurl abuse at each other, and ridicule each other. Individuals would step forward and demonstrate their battle skills to the enemy, cheered on by their comrades. They would even issue challenges of single combat, the resulting skirmish only serving to raise tensions and ignite the war-bands fury further, particularly when one of the combatants was killed.

The Tuatha de Denann were said to have even played hurling matches with their enemies prior to battle; in some versions of the stories, they used their enemies heads as the sliotar! (the ball)

The rhythmic clashing of swords or spears on shields, hypnotic stamping of feet, joining of many voices in war chants, the braying call of the carnyx or Dord wailing through the air and the primal beat of drums would all have contributed to stirring expectations of heroism and reckless feats of bravery. And finally, the uplifting words of their leader exhorting them to victory.

The battle frenzy may well have been the tool which helped them conquer their most basic instinct under such pressure, that of fear.


Please join me on Wednesday for my post on Irish martial arts, and a very special guest post from blogger-friend, photographer and RuinHunter, Ed Mooney on Friday!

Guest Post | Multi Touch Technology and the Future of Ebooks by R.J. Madigan

sword of air 1

‘The Sword of Air,’ – Using Punk Publishing and iBook to stand out in a crowded market place.

Authors are publishing new YA Fantasy titles every day and it is getting harder and harder to stand out in such a crowded market place. This is why I decided to publish ‘The Sword of Air,’ my first novel as an iBook. With world building creative options like music, HD video, 3D modelling and photography to colour my world I was able to create a book unlike anything else on the market.

We are on the edge of a paradigm change in the way people consume their stories. Sales of printed books are falling every year and the sale of ebooks are rising. I believe this change is even more evident with children and young people today. Kids are brought up with broadband wireless and touchscreen technology. It’s not just that they know how to use it from a young age, it’s in their mind, part of their consciousness and it affects the way they think. In schools teachers use internet enabled, interactive touchscreen whiteboards instead of blackboards and chalk like when I was at school. Children expect everything to be linked to the greater hive mind that is the internet and something that isn’t interactive is almost bizarre.

I was also inspired to publish ‘The Sword of Air,’ as an iBook by writers such as Isaac Asimov and Neil Stephenson. In Asimov’s short story ‘Robbie,’ and Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age,’ both writers envisaged a world where books were more than just print. They came alive and talked to you, reacted and interacted with you. That world is now. The iPad has brought science fiction into reality.

The challenge has been to take the audience with you. When I’m marketing the book I have to try and get people excited by the story but also explain what an iBook is. Not easy in a short advert or a Facebook post!

Apple has given everyone the iBooks author software for free because they have a very forward thinking strategy towards their users. This software enabled me to take my story and illustrate it in a way that isn’t possible in normal printed books. Music, video, 3D modelling and photography gives my readers a much more visceral experience rather than just being told about the events that unfold in the course of the story. Surely if this new technology best described as ebooks meets movies, gets more young people interested in reading again then that must be a good thing?

Don’t get me wrong I love printed books as much as you do and own many beautiful editions. I just believe young people expect more from books today than we did as kids. Why should books be just pages of printed text and not more interactive. The technological tide is rising and taking all of us with it whether we like it or not.

Of course there are barriers with any new technology. Producing an iBook unlike anything else on the market has not been without its frustrations and difficulties. Firstly the technology is so new and cutting edge that it is only currently available for iPad and Mac. If you don’t own either of these devices then you can’t read ‘The Sword of Air.’ As a writer this has been incredibly frustrating for me because I know a lot of readers have been disappointed because they are unable to access my book. It has also caused problems in the marketing stage of the publishing process because I have lost out on reviews because people willing to do so did not own an iPad or a Mac.

Secondly it can be difficult to make your work visible because you can’t publish on Amazon or similar platforms. You have to use the iBooks store.

However I think the greatest barrier for writers is that iBooks author has such a steep learning curve. This technology is not user-friendly like software such as WordPress and Facebook. I had to team up with a computer whizz known as ‘The Producer’ on my blog, to get the book I wanted out of iBooks Author. This is why despite the interest in iBooks authors are not yet taking advantage of this new technology for their storytelling.

Producing an iBook requires you to source media, photos, video, music, even 3D models. My partner in making the iBook, ‘The Producer’ is a great photographer and was able to contribute some stunning photography as part of his involvement. The other aspects, the music, the video etc… has to be licensed. So this does mean you have to commit to your book and invest some money up front. This is a challenge but realistically these days, creating a best-selling book without investing money up front is very unlikely.

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Once you’ve got all this media, you need to be able to manipulate it, to get it into a package that fits the story. This does require a (reasonably) high level of skill in multiple software programs, e.g. iBooks Author, iPhoto and iMovie.

‘The Sword of Air,’ is an epic fantasy story set in an altered reality of medieval Ireland. Sixteen year old Niamh Kelly’s village is burnt to the ground by the Raven Queen’s Fomor army, and her adoptive grandmother is brutally murdered right in front of her. She is forced to flee into the forest of the Nadur with only an old storyteller, her best friend Rauri and his wolfhound Bran for protection. Hunted by the Raven Queen, the brutal ruler of Ireland, and her armies, Niamh desperately searches for the forgotten Fae people to help her. She must find allies and the power within herself if she is to survive against the dark powers of the Raven Queen.

Characters such as the beautiful but merciless Raven Queen and bad boy Jareth, Crown Prince of the Fae, spring from the page with hundreds of beautiful photographs, that go full screen at the tap of a finger. Sound effects put you inside the action instead of just being told about it. The cinematic soundtrack adds another layer telling the story and giving depth to the characters as the book progresses. Short movies built right into the story put you inside the characters head, let you see what they see and feel their emotions.

iBooks Author allowed me to build the character map for ‘The Sword of Air’ as an interactive guide for the reader. As they come into the story each character and location is described at the end of each chapter. A fantastic feature for a high fantasy book with a large cast of characters and multiple location changes.

If you have the patience and determination to overcome the barriers that come with iBooks Author then there is so much you can do with this software to make your book stand out from the crowd and literally wow readers.

I hope that you will love ‘The Sword of Air.’ You can download the first three chapters for free from the iBooks store to experience the exciting multi-touch features for yourself.

‘The Sword of Air,’ is new, different, exciting, and I promise you won’t be able to put it down. It is punk publishing at its best. Pushing the boundaries of the publishing medium to create something new.

There are many (and myriad!) challenges in putting together an iBook. But the total creative freedom is so liberating and empowering! You only live once and I wanted to do something amazing. Despite all the challenges, I’m really enjoying the journey.

Once you’ve read ‘The Sword of Air’ I’d love to hear what you think of the story, the technology and how you think this will develop in the future.

You can follow ‘The Sword of Air,’ at www.swordofair.net
on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Sword-of-Air/855233981196248?ref=hl
on Pinterest at https://uk.pinterest.com/authorrjmadigan/

R. J. Madigan

50 + Landscape images of Ireland : Happy St Patricks Day !

Ali Isaac:

It’s Paddy’s Day today (for those that might not know) and no doubt you will have overdosed on cheap symbols of Irishness like the shamrock and the leprachaun by now. Well, I’m here to help you; here are some REAL images of Ireland, as seen through the lense of photographer Nigel Borrington. My personal fave is the lambs in the mist… enjoy!

Originally posted on Nigel Borrington:

It the weekend so get out into the country 4

Happy St Patricks day everyone :) :)

Below I have posted lots of images from the last few years, all Landscape images of this great Island of Ireland !


St Particks day 2015, an Irish Landscape Gallery

galway fishing boats 4

Tipperary Landscapes Nigel BorringtonThe North wind and the Sun 1

Monday Mornings in Kilkenny 02

Images of a winters day 4

Black and white challenge 1

Images of a winters day 2

Kilkenny Rivers in December 02

allihies-copper-mines-1

The old bridge 2

The Morning Foggy Dew Callan, County Kilkenny Irish Landscape Photogaphy : Nigel Borrington

The Red Cottage door Irish Landscape Photography : Nigel Borrington

Monday Morning at the Beach, Monatray West, Youghal, Irish Landscape Photography : Nigel BorringtonA view of the hills county carlow

Orion 2

The bog of Allen 3

The Lake 1

Green landscape 5

killarney castle 7

Molly swimming 2

The Harbour 2

Sunday evenings

Its the weekend 1

Nothing Gold can stay 4

A beach walk at tramor waterford

A Farmer by Trade 3

A beach walk at tramore

KIlkenny and tipperary ring forts 14

KIlkenny and tipperary ring forts 15

Ghosts house 2

Sunset over the moustain 1

Sitting in the blues bells 1

Slievenamon April 2014

Primrose 02

Walking down a country lane 2

Skellig Michael and the Skellig islands Irish Landscape photography : Nigel BorringtonSkellig Michael 24

Skellig Michael 26

Skellig Michael 10

Kilkenny Slate Quarries 4

Kings river 2

Spring equinox 1

Spring equinox 7

Spring equinox 5

saltees islands 003

saltees islands 002

Irish Landscape photography 3

A view from the Irish hills 5

river suir 1

Autonomy 2014 1

Waterford coast line 3

View original

Happy Paddy’s Day!

Here is a modern Irish anthem for the day that’s in it! I couldn’t find you a pretty video of these handsome boys, so the lyrics will have to do… enjoy!

Personally, I will be avoiding pubs, parades, Guinness, Leprachauns and all other Irish stereotypes tomorrow, but enjoy your festivities, whatever they might be!

St. Patrick's Day Greeting Card

May the luck o’ the Irish be with yez!

Grá mo Chroí – Celebrate St Patrick’s day… Free on Kindle!

Ali Isaac:

The delightful and multi-talented Sue Vincent has kindly hosted us on her blog today… thank you very much, Sue! We have had an amazing amount of support for this book, so thank you all, I hope you will grab yourselves a free copy, and I hope you enjoy it. Happy St Patrick’s Day from Ireland!

Originally posted on Daily Echo:

GMC13Grá mo Chroí

Love Stories from Irish Myth

Ali Isaac & Jane Dougherty

I would like to thank Sue Vincent for inviting us (Jane Dougherty and Ali Isaac) to talk about Grá mo Chroí. So here goes, in time for the Saint Patrick’s Day binge.

For the tiny handful who are not fluent Irish speakers, the title means ‘Love of my Heart’: the collection of retellings Ali Isaac and I put together being of some of the great love stories from Irish myth.

Why did we do it? Because we love the rhythm and the language of these stories, written, or rather told, so long ago, in the pre-Christian era before the shadow of Christian purity fell upon Irish culture and expunged many of the legends of inappropriate material. Women, of course, being anathema to the Christian Church, ended up with the short straw in many of the later versions…

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