COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide t0 Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift to all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. So if you haven’t signed up yet, now’s the time to do it!
Sounds like a sweet little piece of nonsense, doesn’t it? A fairy tale to amuse the kids. Well, not in Ireland. We take our fairy trees, and our fairy tales for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by 10 years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.
Wait… what? Really?
Absolutely. You can check out the story right here, if you don’t believe me. Having spent some time in Co Clare this year, and last year, walking the Burren Way, I can confirm that it is a very magical and mystical place steeped in ancient lore, and it’s impossible to be there, and not be seduced by it. As with many of Ireland’s ancient places, there is magic there waiting for you.
So, what exactly is a ‘fairy tree’?
Well, they look like this…
You will often find one at an ancient pagan site, or a holy well. They are usually hawthorn trees, but not always. People leave prayers, gifts or a personal token of some kind attached to the trees branches in the hope of receiving healing, or good fortune, or having their prayer answered. It can be fascinating viewing the strange objects people leave; children’s toys, socks, photos, ribbons, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, balloons, even strips of fabric torn from their clothing.
A TWOFER! One fairy tree either side of the path at maire na Gaill holy well, Co Claire
A closer look at the gifts left by visitors
The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.
In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.
So, a little bit of background about the hawthorn itself: the hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.
In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called Huath(pronounced Hoo-ah).
Excitement overload! I just found out I’ve been short-listed in the Arts and Culture category of The Littlewoods Ireland Bloggers Awards 2016! To say I am delighted is an understatement! You can tell just by the number of bad boy exclamation marks in this short paragraph! Luckily, this being a Blog rather than a Vlog, you don’t have to witness my demonic grin, demented jumping up and down, and depraved ‘happy dance’. Sighs of relief all round, huh?
But see, this is where I really need your help, because in order to progress through to the next round, I need your vote.
Yes, there is a public vote, and it’s brief; voting opens today, Wednesday 17th August, and closes Tuesday 23rd August. That’s only one week to get your vote in, so please don’t put it off till later… you’ll only get distracted by important, real-life meaningful stuff, like should you have peas or beans with your dinner, or taking the cat for a walk, or which selfish sod (ahem… it wasn’t me. No, really it wasn’t!) drank the last dregs of that last bottle of wine.
If you have ever enjoyed anything you have read on aliisaacstoryteller, please VOTE NOW. It would mean so much to me. How? By clicking the whopping great ‘VOTE FOR US‘ button. Lol! You can’t miss it! And please don’t forget to annoy tell all your friends, family and social media followers too.
Go raibh míle maith agat. A thousand thank you’s! Not just for voting, but for supporting me and my blog over the years… it’s been a wonderful journey so far, and you’ve all been great company. 😊
Until I moved to Cavan eight years ago, I had always lived within sight or sound of the sea. Every summer I head down to Co Kerry for a few days with friends and the boys. There, we are surrounded by sea, and mountains. I love wide open spaces. Both the sea and the high places provide that.
Turquoise lagoon of Kerry
Sometimes the sun shines and it rains at the same time, but that doesn’t stop us swimming
Kerry sand and sea
Being a small island, peoples lives have been dominated by the sea. In mythology, the Danann, the Milesians, and various other races came to Ireland from the sea. According to legend, Ireland had two sea deities: Lir, and Manannán mac Lir, which means ‘son of Lir’, or ‘son of the sea’.
Little is known about Lir; there is a Lir who was father to the four children turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, but it is by no means certain that he is one and the same with the sea-god of the same name.
Rocks and hills
Harbour where we went crabbing. Notice the amazing dead tree!
Even Manannán’s identity is uncertain, although he features far more in the stories and legends. According to the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1400 AD), there were four Manannáns: Manandán mac Alloit, a ‘druid of the Tuatha dé Danann’ whose ‘proper name was Oirbsen’; Manandán mac Lir, a renowned sailor and merchant; Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isles and Mann; and Manandán mac Atgnai, who took in the sons of Uisnech.
Confused? Me too.
Manannan was guardian of the Otherworld. To get there, one had to sail west beyond the ninth wave. This was an island realm consisting of many different islets. It was sometimes known as the ‘Land under Sea’, although it is never specifically described as such. However, it could also be approached through water. It is unclear if this is the same land known as Tir na Nog, ‘Land of the Ever Young’.
His magical possessions included Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, a beautiful white horse that could travel over water as easily as land. Note that he was not winged, like Pegasus. He also had a boat named Wavesweeper; it had no sails or oars, but was directed by the thoughts of its occupants. He also he owned a cloak of mists that granted him invisibility, a flaming helmet, and a sword named Fragarach (meaning Answerer/ Retaliator) that could slice through any armour and when pointed at a target could make that target answer any question truthfully.
Although these items were precious, Manannán would sometimes loan them out, particularly to Lugh, who was said to have been his foster son, and whom benefited from the the boat, the sword and Aonbharr.
Howth at low tide
The start of the Burren Way
The Wild Atlantic Way
Of course Manannán and Lir weren’t the only deities associated with the sea: Cliodhna was his daughter, who left her father’s realm to be with her mortal lover, Ciabhán. She is lulled into an enchanted sleep upon the shore of Glandore harbour in Co Cork by the music of Fer I, Manannán’s harper, while her lover is off hunting. Her father sends a wave to bring her back home, but instead she is drowned. The tide there is still known as Tonn Chlíodhna, meaning ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’.
According to legend, the sea was inhabited by many strange and mystical creatures, including the Merrows. These were Ireland’s mer-people. The word ‘merrow’ comes from the Irish murúch, which is said to mean ‘sea singer’. They were a bit scary; as you can probably guess, they would lure sailors to their deaths by singing beautiful songs, then drown and devour them.
Like all mermaids, she was half human, half fish, very beautiful, with pale skin and webbing between her fingers. She was said to be gentle and benevolent (huh?). Sometimes, a mermaid would fall in love with a human, and leave the sea to be with him, but she would always long to return. In order to prevent this, her human husband would have to hide her cohuleen druith, a little magic hat. If she found it, she would be off like a shot, never to be seen again.
Lí Ban was a woman who was turned into a mermaid when a spring burst under her house to form Lough Neagh, named after her father, Eochaid mac Mairidh, who was drowned. Li Ban survived in an underwater chamber in the lake for one year, after which she shape-shifted into a mermaid form, half human and half salmon. After 300 years, she was captured by a monk who was in a boat fishing, and she agreed to come ashore. She was then baptised Muirgen, meaning sea-born’, but died immediately and ascended to heaven. This story is recorded in two ancient manuscripts, he Four Masters in an entry under year 558, and the Annals of Ulster in the year 571. So I guess it must be true! 😂
A legend made popular in recent years by movies such as Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish is that of the Selkie, or Roanes/ Rón in Irish. By day, Selkies swim the seas as seals, but during the dark of night, they shed their skins and hide them carefully on the shore. Their human form is beautiful with dark hair and eyes and a creamy white skin. Humans are instantly enamoured of them and try to win their love. As with the Merrows and their little caps, however, the only way a human can keep a Selkie is to find their skin and hide it. A Selkie that is thus trapped on land will always long for the sea.
Sun, sand and sky
And boats… and sandcastles
Of them all, though, my favourite sea legend is the story of Fergus and the fearful sea-dragon, Muirdris. Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Not a very safe thing to do in Irish mythology. Anyway, three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.
The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay).
Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed.
One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts. No happy ever after for him, then. Sigh.
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE??? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
The fields and hedgerows are awash with the blaze of wildflowers right now. Sadly, I don’t think many people see them, as we are always in such a hurry to get from A to B; we are focused on the destination, not the journey.
One fellow you can’t possibly miss at the moment, though, is this…
It’s called Rosebay Willowherb. It grows taller than me, up to a height of 2m, in great swathes of vibrant eye-popping purple, and it’s everywhere! Roadsides, embankments, railway sidings, bogland, woodland, building sites, and anywhere the ground has been recently disturbed. It brightens up all the abandoned, un-loved forgotten places, and I just love it!
A fireweed blossom
This little chap loved fireweed
But he was too busy to stay still for long
And then he moved on the the next bloom
In ancient times, it was the first plant which grew on the hillsides after the gorse had been burnt back, which is why it was named Lus na Tine in Irish, meaning ‘fireweed’. This has become its popular name. Medicinally, its root was powdered and thought to stop internal bleeding, whilst an infusion brewed of its leaves was used to treat asthma.
Fireweed growing in the garden and in the roofspace of this derelict cottage
Fireweed growing in the garden of this abandoned old home
Despite its proliferation, however, I could find no mention of it in Ireland’s myths, even though it is a native plant. Hopefully, someone out there with more knowledge will enlighten us in the comments.
Other wild flowers I am loving right now, and which are prolifically and delightfully in full bloom are Montbretia, Fealeastram Dearg in Irish, and Fuschia, Fiúise or Deora dé in Irish, although neither of these are native to Ireland.
In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn suffered from alternating bouts of malaise and rage. It was quite possibly drug induced, perhaps through use of Amanita, but according to the stories, he was treated by being bathed in infusions of Meadowsweet.
Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt’… perhaps he always carried it with him in a little pouch attached to his belt in case of emergency; this was how physicians of the time carried their medicines.
Interestingly, it is from this plant that aspirin is derived; meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is a disinfectant, pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. Right now, the hedges are a-froth with its downy creamy flowers, and insects love its heady sweet scent.
In Irish, the Bluebell is known as Coinnle Corra. Of course, these delicate spring-blossoming wild flowers are long gone, but they have their place in Irish mythology: on her wedding night to Fionn mac Cumhall, Grainne was said to have mixed bluebell with tormentil and secreted it into the wedding guests’ wine, thus sending them all to sleep so she could elope with her beloved Diarmuid.
Although it was traditionally used to stop bleeding, and also as a diuretic, I can’t find any reference to it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, in ancient times, the bluebell’s sticky sap was used as a glue to bind books, and to stick feathers to the ends of arrows.
Tormentil is a little yellow flower which looks similar to a buttercup, and which commonly grows all over Ireland between May and September. It was used for pain relief and to treat digestive problems.
In Irish, its name is Néalfartach; neal meaning ‘depression/ gloom’, and fartach meaning ‘hurt/ injury’. In Co Cork, however, it was known as Lus an Chodlata, meaning ‘herb for sleep’, suggesting that it may well have been used for promoting sleep.
Bluebells? I’m not sure
According to mythology, the warrior Nera disappeared into the Otherworld at Samhain, the beginning of winter, yet returned bearing summer flowers: wild garlic, golden fern and primroses, Sabhaircín in Irish.
This is a strange and convoluted story in which Nera receives a violent vision from the Sidhe showing the awful fate of his people if they don’t destroy the Hill of Cruachan. He warns Queen Medb and convinces her that he speaks the truth by giving her the summer flowers he brought back from Tir na Nog.
Honeysuckle, known as Féithleann in Irish, is associated with the tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn. These two lovers both died unnecessarily from grief, believing the other already dead. An apple tree grew from Aillinn’s grave mound, and a yew from Baile’s. These were eventually cut down, and tablets made from them, engraved with their stories. When these tablets were brought to King Cormac’s house in Tara, they sprang together and cleaved to each other as tightly as honeysuckle around a branch and could not be parted.
Finally, the foxglove, known as Lus Mór in Irish, meaning the ‘great herb’, is used to describe the beautiful blush of the pure cheeks of Étain, Deirdre, and warrior Conall Cernach.
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ancient Ireland, an exclusive free gift to all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE??? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
I am delighted to have made the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016 Long-List in two categories; Arts and Culture, and Books and Literature. If the judges consider me worthy of short-listing, the winners will be chosen by public vote, so I may be enlisting your help in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, congratulations to all my fellow nominees, particularly lovely Blogger-Friend Tara Sparling, who I am up against in one of the categories, and she is a former winner… gulp! Exciting times! Wish me luck!
My post on the Hill of Tara a couple of weeks back somehow managed to really offended someone, much to my surprise, who proceeded to respond in rather unpleasant troll-like tones on Facebook. Well, I thought to myself, all the more reason to do it again.
Not with the intention of causing offence, but because my blog is my own little patch where I can have freedom of speech; where I can express my thoughts and feelings on the ancient places of Ireland, their stories and characters that I love and admire and respect so much, and hopefully share it all with like-minded folk.
I understand there are people out there who know more about these special places than I ever will. I don’t claim to be an expert. As I state in my ‘About Ali’ page, the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.
I’m on a journey. I am drawn to these places. I want to know them. I want to learn. When you read my blog, I hope I bring you on that voyage of discovery with me.
So who was the Wolf King of Tara? He’s someone who intrigues me very much. According to legend, Cormac mac Art was the High King of Ireland at the same time as Fionn mac Cumhall was the leader of the Fianna, c. the third century AD. He ruled from Tara for forty years, and during his reign, all of Ireland flourished.
View of the Lia Fail from the Mound of Hostages
The Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny.
Cormac was born of a one night stand between Achtan, daughter of a Druid/ Smith named Olc Acha, and High King Art mac Cuinn. The day after their liaison, Art was killed in battle by his nephew Lugaid mac Con, who took his place upon the throne.
After giving birth, Achtan decided to take her son to Fiachrae Cassán, Art’s foster-father, where he would be safe from Lugaid’s reach. One night, however, as Achtan slept, exhausted from her day’s travelling. the infant was stolen by a she-wolf and raised alongside her cubs.
Mound of hostages
Mound of hostages
Hobbit house restoration
Decorated stone inside the passage of the mound of hostages
Eventually, he was found by a hunter, healthy and well, and duly returned to his mother. He grew to manhood in the home of Fiachrae Cassán, and it was not until the age of thirty that he decided to challenge Lugaid for the Kingship.
When he arrived at Tara, he came across a man consoling a weeping woman. The man told him that the High King had confiscated her sheep because they had strayed into the Queen’s garden and eaten her herbs. Apparently, Cormac claimed “More fitting would be one shearing for the other,” meaning the sheep’s fleeces should be forfeit in payment for the ruined crops, as both the plants and the wool would grow again.
There are various different versions of what happened next; some say that Lugaid abdicated the throne, declaring Cormac to be wiser than himself; some say he was driven out by Cormac in battle, and still others say he was warned by his druids if he did not leave Tara within six months he would die. In any case, Cormac became the next High King.
The formidable St Patrick
St Patrick gazing across the valley to the tower at Skryne
This is one of my favourite stories. I love the wisdom and the fairness of it. It demonstrates perfectly why Cormac was so beloved of the people, and why they flourished under his rule. In fact, he was said to be so wise and just, that he is often credited with creating the Brehon Laws.
Cormac led many battles during his reign, and many strange things happened to him, some of which seem reminiscent of the Arthurian story to me, leading up to his tragic and mysterious death. I will tell you more in future posts.
The church is now a visitor centre.
Inside the church.
Rescued stone carving.
And finally, look what the local bookshop was selling… I have an article published in that magazine!