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Mythology and Folklore | What’s the Difference?

This was something which confused the hell out of me when I first got into Irish mythology; what’s the difference between mythology and folklore, does it matter, and who cares anyway? They’re just a bunch of old stories, right?

Ancient text
Ancient text

The Oxford Dictionary defines mythology as…

“A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious. “

It describes folklore as…

“The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

Still confused? So much for the Oxford Dictionary. Clear as mud! I think the best way to do this is by giving you some examples.

But first, a bit of background; in Irish mythology, there are four collections of stories known as the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These can be found in three 11th century and 12th century manuscripts called  Lebor na hUidre, the Book of Leinster, and the rather un-romantically named Rawlinson B 502. There are also many other ancient texts, but these are considered the most important.

Despite their relatively late date, the content of these documents has been identified via linguistics studies to originate as far back as the 8th century and the 6th century. Christian monks assembled these stories from the oral tradition of the Irish storytellers they were listening to at the time, to try to provide a history for Ireland, and so the tales were finally committed to writing.

Whilst we should be very grateful for their efforts, we must also be mindful that in so doing, many of the stories were ‘Christianised’ in line with their own beliefs, as they tried to stamp out pagan culture.

The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.
The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.

And so to my first example: the Dagda. According to mythology, he was a Druid and a High King of the Tuatha de Danann. He was the father of Bodb Dearg, Cermait, Midir, Áine, Óengus Óg, and Brigit. Bres and Ogma were his half-brothers, and his father was Elatha of the Fomori, his mother was Eithne of the Danann.

He had a staff called the lorg mór, a cauldron known as the coire ansic (one of the Four Treasures of Eirean), and a harp named uaithne. Of course, these were all magical items:  the staff was said to be capable of killing nine men with one swing, whilst with the handle he could restore life to the dead; the cauldron was said to leave no one unsatisfied, and the harp possessed the power to rearrange the seasons, and control the order of battle.

Replica of the Dagda's Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre
Replica of the Dagda’s Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre

In Irish, the Dagda means ‘the Good God’, because it was believed he protected the crops. He was also known as Eochaid Ollathair ‘All Father’, and Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. You can see from all this that he was considered powerful, wise and knowledgeable, and that he was looked up to, admired and revered.

In fact, according to a text known as Cóir Anmann, or ‘the Fitness of Names’, translated by Mary Jones, the Dagda is described as…

“He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”

And then we come across this story; in preparation for the Second Battle of Moytura with the Fomori, the Dagda is sent by King Nuada to parlay with them.

“He was not a pleasant sight to behold: A cape which hung only to the hollow of his elbows; a brown tunic around him which only went as far as the swelling of his rump; a ragged hole in that tunic; two shoes on him of horse-hide, with the hair turned outside, and his private parts dangling in the air.

“He saw a fine-looking woman and of good shape, with tresses of beautiful hair on her head. The Dagda lusted after her but he was impotent because of his heavy belly. The girl began to mock him and to tussle with him. She hurled him so hard that he sank to his rump in the mud.”

Huh?

When I first read this, I did a bit of a double take. It just did not fit with any of the other things I had read about him. I realised that this piece could be a bit of ancient propaganda, designed to belittle and discredit the Dagda, and in fact all of the Danann.

But why? And by whom?

Well, the Christians were doing everything within their power to convert the masses to Christianity, and destroy the pagan Gods. This is a tale of greed, lust, slovenliness, weakness, certainly not a portrayal of a noble Danann god, and may have served some moral purpose, as well as mocking the Dagda.

Equally, it could have been an ancient folk tale. The Fomori were beaten in that battle by the Danann, and practically annihilated. The Dagda was High King at that time. Perhaps when the Fomori went home, it was a story they told themselves to feel better over their defeat… it would be quite a natural thing to do, to ridicule your hated enemy’s chieftain.

But of course, that’s speculation.

Let’s look at the Fenian Cycle; here we have a collection of tales concerning one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, Fionn mac Cumhall. He was a mortal, a noble hunter-warrior, leader of the Fianna, and close friend of High King Cormac mac Art.

He was famous for catching the Salmon of Knowledge and cheating the Druid, Finegas, out of achieving all that knowledge and wisdom. As a boy, he single-handedly saved Tara from being burned by the fire-fairy Aillen mac Midhna, when no-one else could, and thus he was awarded his birth-right to lead the Fianna by Cormac.

There are many, many stories of his adventures with the Fianna, of his battles and heroic exploits.

Giant's Causeway By Chmee2 - Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
Giant’s Causeway By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972

And then we have the story of Fionn as a giant; he creates the Isle of Man by throwing a clod of earth into the sea, and builds a pathway across the sea to Scotland, which we know as the Giant’s Causeway. He is married to a woman named Oonagh, and dresses up as a baby and hides in a cradle to avoid an even bigger giant named Benandonner, who charges over the newly made pathway from Scotland to fight him.

Hmmm… again, we have here a story which clearly does not fit with the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. Finn is portrayed as a coward who would rather masquerade as a baby than face up to his enemy, even though he is inflated to the size of a giant.

What’s interesting, though, is that this story is attached to a particular location, and can be seen as an attempt to explain something the people could not understand, the creation of local landmarks, ie the strange columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the Isle of Man.

And this is a typical feature of Ireland’s folklore stories; that a famous character would be taken out of context in a particular community and used to explain the unexplainable, or to highlight desirable/ undesirable behaviours and traits in a society, perhaps as a way of teaching moral conduct to children, for example.

Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew
Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew

My final example concerns a location closer to home, for me: Loughcrew, also known in Irish as  Sliabh na Caillaigh, meaning ‘the hag’s mountain’. At it’s highest point is the largest mound of the complex, known rather poetically (not!) as cairn T. At its base is a huge throne -shaped kerbstone called ‘the hag’s chair’, and it was from here that the ‘hag’ was said to have sat and surveyed her landscape.

Local folklore claims that the cairns of Loughcrew were formed when the hag, a giant witch, was carrying stones in her apron. As she leaped from one hilltop to another, she slipped and fell, the stones tumbling from her apron and scattering across the three hills to form the complex of monuments we can still see today.

Again, we see the same pattern repeated here; a community borrows a well known figure from mythology, in this case a Goddess of Winter, in an attempt to explain a prominent local feature in their landscape, and community. Note that she has also been elevated to the size of a giant, whilst at the same time, denigrated from Goddess to old hag.

Charming.

So… crystal, or still mud?


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Sally’s Cafe and Bookstore – Book of the Week – Grá mo Chroí: Love Stories from Irish Myths by Ali Isaac and Jane Dougherty

Just in case anyone may have missed it, Jane and I collaborated on a little book some time ago in which we retold in our own styles, the stories of some of the women from Irish myth. These are the forgotten love stories, and we fell in love with them as we wrote them. 😍. Sally has very kindly featured it on her blog, if you’d like to find out more. Oh, and it’s FREE on Smashwords, and always will be, so help yourself.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

sally's cafe and bookstore

Today a book about love.. Ancient Irish style with passion and more than a little magic.  Grá mo Chroí: Love Stories from Irish Myths is a collaboration between two authors Ali Isaac and Jane Dougherty, each bringing their own writing magic to the collection.

51z5skuc3xl-_uy250_About the Book

Long ago in a green island surrounded by protective mists, a people lived among the relics of a bygone age of which they knew nothing, not being archaeologists, but around whom they created a mythology. They were a volatile people, easily moved to love or war, and motivated by a strict sense of honour. They had women warriors and handsome lovers, wicked queens and cruel kings, precious heroines and flawed heroes. Magic was in the air, beneath the ground, and in the waves of the sea, and hyperbole was the stuff of stories. They were the Irish, and these are a few…

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Maynooth | Plain of Nuada and Seat of Learning

Lectures start today. That’s right, at nearly fifty, I’m going back to school. Maynooth University, to be precise, for a BA in Irish Medieval and Celtic Studies, History and English. I must be mad.

First up, it’s Celtic Civilisations at 11am, followed by English Prose and Fiction at 12pm, and finally History; Vikings and Normans at 1pm. If you know me at all, I think you’ll guess that I’m as happy as a muc in muck! That’s ‘pig’ in mud, for the non-Irish among you! 😃😂😜

After my interview back in May, I walked out the door straight into this…

… and my heart started to flutter; I was falling in love, and knew instantly how much I really wanted to study there.

The university is split into two campuses; north and south. South side is the old part, north is more modern, and where I will probably spend most of my study time. On Thursdays, however, I will have five hours of free time spread between three lectures, and some of that I will use to explore; the south campus has an old church, a museum, and Maynooth Castle stands guard at the entrance. Also, there are rumours of mysterious tunnels beneath the old buildings…

It also boasts the oldest yew tree in Ireland standing in its grounds; it’s said to be 700 years old, and I can well believe it. I mean, just look at it! Yes, something else which I think you will realise makes me very happy. I think this university and me were made for each other. 😃

Of course, being such an old institution, Maynooth University has its own set of resident ghosts. Room 2, located in a building called Rhetoric House (now the History building), is where two students in C19th, took their lives 19 years apart from each other. It’s claimed that a ‘diabolical presence’ made itself known to them, and caused them to jump out of the window to their deaths in terror.  Dark stains on the floor of Room 2 are said to be human blood (allegedly confirmed by the college’s chemistry department) which can’t be removed or covered up. Creepy, huh?

In 1860, as a result of all this, Room 2 was converted into an oratory of St Joseph, and the window sealed. The room has since become a waiting area between offices.

Maynooth actually means ‘Nuada’s Plain’ in Irish, and if you have read any of my books or early blog posts, then you will understand why this thrills me; Nuada was the King of the Tuatha de Danann, and it was he who was responsible for leading the Danann into Ireland.

Nuada lost his sword arm in the First Battle of Moytura against the Fir Bolg, who ruled at the time. It was cut from his body in single combat with Sreng, the enemy’s champion. Nuada was carried from the battle ground and tended by his skilled physicians, Dian-Cecht and his son Miach, a surgeon, and daughter Airmid, a herbalist.

He survived, and the next day when Sreng saw him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He challenged Nuada to another armed combat, and cunningly, Nuada agreed, on the condition that Sreng tie his sword arm behind his back and fight with only his left hand. Sreng refused, and relinquished power to the Danann.

Unfortunately, though, despite how well-loved Nuada was as a King, he was unable to continue in that role, as the King was required to be whole and unblemished if the land and the people were to prosper.

Nuada and his Sword of Light
Nuada and his Sword of Light

In the years to come, as Nuada healed, Dian-Cecht worked with Creidne, one of the Danann’s leading craftsmen, and fashioned a fully functioning  ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. Perhaps this was the world’s first bionic arm, or at least a prosthetic one, created over four thousand years ago.

Miach somehow managed to grow skin and blood over it, and thus in due course, when Bres was deposed for being a bad King, Nuada, now considered whole again, was elected as High King. He ruled for another twenty years, until his death at the hands of Balor in the Second Battle of Moytura.

Nuada also carried the Sword of Light, known in Irish as Cliamh Solais in Irish (pronounced Klee-uv Shull-ish), and is considered to be one of the  lost Four Treasures of Eirean. It was made in the northern city of Findias (or Gorias, depending on which version you read) by a powerful fílí and magician named Uiscas.

Undoubtedly, the High King’s great sword came to have symbolic meaning for the people; it represented strength, power, unity, physical prowess and identity. But what did its title mean? Did it refer to the illumination of knowledge, justice, truth? Or was it something more obvious, like a laser, for example, or a flame thrower. You can find out more about this magical, mystical sword in my post The Sword of Light.

Reading about Nuada all those years ago began my fascination with Irish mythology. I never thought then that he would spark the idea for a book series, a blog, and all the other things which have grown from it; storytelling, tour guiding, vlogging (my newest venture that I’m working on, coming soon!), even the Bloggers Bash, which I would never have been a part of if I hadn’t met Sacha through blogging.

uni9

The coincidence is not lost on me; going to Maynooth to learn more about ancient Ireland and its mythology kind of feels like a full circle has been completed. Well, almost. And it’s fitting that it should take place here, where Nuada’s legacy remains.


Ps. I spotted a whole row of beautiful mature rowan trees nearby, so I’ll get some pictures this week and post them on Instagram, for those who love them as much as I do. 😊


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Peculiar Pregnancies in Irish Mythology

Peculiar Pregnancies in Irish Mythology http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Being a woman of a certain age, and a mother, I was wondering what it must have been like to be pregnant in ancient Ireland, so I decided to do some digging, and guess what? There’s hardly anything out there on the subject. For a society that was all about the fertility of the land, of the people and animals, that struck me as a little strange.

Then I got to thinking; all the stories of ancient Ireland we have were written down by Christian male monk scribes. Not only was the business of birthing children considered a female only ‘thing’ they might not have known much about, but they bumped women a few notches down the hierarchy scale whilst they were at it. Women were pretty much considered as lustful, evil creatures that had to be kept in their rightful place… a subservient place, that is.

The names of women in the old stories were forgotten or not considered important enough to remember (ie. the mother of Etain; the wife of Lugh wrongfully accused of an affair); or they were repainted as an insipid virtuous Christian ideal of femininity (ie Cuchulainn’s wife, Emer was said to possess the six gifts of womanhood: beauty, a gentle voice, sweet words, wisdom, skill at needlework and chastity. Hmmm… now does she sound much like a spirited Celtic Irish woman to you?); or they were branded as a lewd and crude, sex-crazed, egotistical harlot (ie Queen Medb).

So perhaps it’s not quite so surprising after all to find such a black hole of information. However, women were good enough for one thing, and that is for birthing heroes and kings. In fact, according to the ancient stories, they were quite good at that, although often, conception did not come about through the act of sex at all, but from swallowing something they shouldn’t.

Ok… settle down. I know, far too many puns for one paragraph. But someone really should have explained the birds and bees to those poor misinformed monks! 😂😝😉

Anyway, onward: here are some stories from Irish mythology about unusual conceptions, pregnancies and births.

nessa, mother of king conchobar

Nessa was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did.

Nessa goes into labour on the banks of the River Conchobar whilst she and her husband are travelling to visit friends. Cathbad tells her if she can hold on till the following day (Huh? Really???), her son will be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ. So Ness dutifully sits on a flat stone like a good little woman, and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. Maybe she crossed her legs, or something. The next morning, she pops out a son she names Conchobar, after the river he was born beside.

Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!

macha, mother of twins fir and fial

Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith, was the wife of a farmer in Ulster named Cruinniuc. One day, while watching a chariot race, Cruinniuc bragged that his wife was so fleet of foot, she could outrun any of the King’s horses.

The King was not happy to hear this, and called Cruinniuc’s bluff. A race was set up. Despite being heavily pregnant at the time, Macha duly raced the horses and won. Well, of course she wouldn’t have wanted to make a show of her husband in front of the King over a trivial little thing like pregnancy, now, would she? It is a natural state, after all. Like a good wife, she did as she was told.

However during the race, she went into labour and collapsed on the finish line, giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, whom she named  Fir and Fial, meaning ‘True’ and ‘Modest’. Sadly, she died soon after, but not before cursing all the men of Ulster to suffer with her labour pains in the future… I like her style! This was later to have dire consequences when it came to the battle of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

dechtire, mother of cuchulainn

Cuchulainn was the champion of the afore-mentioned cattle raid, but the tale of his conception and birth is a curious one. Dechtire, half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.

One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).

She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn.

the nameless mother of etain

Dechtire wasn’t the only woman to become impregnated after swallowing something; Irish mythology is rife with it. When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann falls in love with Etain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transforms her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Etain falls into a cup of wine in the hand of  the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drinks the wine and swallows the butterfly. She then becomes pregnant, and Étain is reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.

findchoem, mother of conall cernach

Findchoem was barren for many years, until finally she sought help from the Druids. The Druids raised their magic and sang spells over a well. Findchoem then bathed in the well and drank from its enchanted waters. With the water, she accidentally swallowed a worm, and thus Conall was conceived.

shapeshifting and birth

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, around whom the Cattle Raid of Cooley was fought.

So there you have it… weird and wonderful pregnancy tales from Irish myth! Which was your favourite?


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Tree Lore | The Rowan

Right now, I am loving the Rowan trees. They’re always pretty, slender and delicate with beautiful soft fluffy-looking creamy blooms in spring, but at this time of year they really are the star of the show with their frond-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.

I have two in my garden; they’re thin and lithe, like gawky teenagers, but they bring me great joy.

In Irish, they are known as Caorthann, but other names are ‘Quicken tree’ and ‘Witches tree’. They are a native tree to Ireland, can grow up to 18m tall, and live for over a hundred years. They produce their flowers in May and June, whilst the fruits appear in September and are ripe by October.

The wood of the rowan is hard and pale, and in times past was used to make bows, tools, plates and bowls.

The rowan also had a great many medicinal applications. A tea was made from the berries to treat urinary problems, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea. Berry juice made a great mild laxative, and soothed inflamed mucous membranes as a gargle. As they contained high levels of Vitamin C, the berries were also used to cure scurvy. Today, one of the sugars in the fruit is apparently sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma. A decoction of the bark was thought to cleanse the blood, and was given as a treatment for diarrhoea, nausea, and upset stomach.

It's the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me... gorgeous!
It’s the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me… gorgeous!

Once revered by the Druids, it is hardly surprising that it later became associated with witchcraft, paganism and the supernatural. It was used in rituals associated with empowerment and protection, especially from fire and lightning. To increase virility and male strength, a small piece of rowan inscribed with ogham would be carried. Hung around the necks of hounds, it was believed to increase their speed, and it also possessed the power to protect from evil spirits and the prevent the dead from rising.

In the Celtic Tree Alphabet, the rowan is represented by the Ogham symbol luis. rowan6

Of course, it is not surprising that the rowan features quite a lot in tales of Irish mythology.

In the tale of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, Fionn mac Cumhail and his men of the Fianna are invited to dine in the beautiful hostelry of the same name, described thus…

“It was a fair and beautiful building, with bright intricate carvings on the wood of its uprights and a fresh thatch that shone in the sun like gold, and all around it grew quicken trees with berries full and red on them. “

No sooner had they entered, then the walls became rough planks with gaps which the wind howled through, and all the finery disappeared. Most alarmingly, the one door was firmly locked. They were trapped. Fionn put his thumb of wisdom to his mouth, and activated his second sight. He divined that Midac Mac Lochlan had raised the enchantment against them, and was bringing a huge army to kill them. Pity he didn’t think to try that trick before he led his men inside the hostel. Anyway, there were many battles, but in the end Fionn was freed when Diarmuid (who later eloped with Fionn’s pretty young wife, the Princess Grainne) cut off the heads of their enemy and sprinkled their blood around the hostel. Yuk! 😝

Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri
Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri

According to Lady Gregory, when Grainne was brought to her wedding feast with Fionn, she was disappointed to fin him older than her father. But then her eyes fell on Diarmuid…

“Who is that sweet-worded man,” she said then, “with the dark hair, and cheeks like the rowan berry, on the left side of Oisin, son of Finn?” “That is Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne,” said the Druid, “that is the best lover of women in the whole world.”

Hmmm… with a recommendation like that, it’s hardly any wonder that she jilted Fionn at the alter and ran off with Diarmuid. In all fairness, though, she wasn’t fickle. She and Diarmuid stayed together for twenty years until he was gored to death by the great boar of Benbulben, and they had a daughter and four sons together.

During their flight from the jealous Fionn, who was bent on vengeance, Grainne, who was by this time heavy with child, took a fancy for the rowan berries of a particular enchanted tree which was guarded by a giant.

You know how pregnant women with a craving get; poor Diarmuid had no choice but to challenge the giant. Such was his strength and valour, he outwitted the giant and killed him. Grainne was now free to gorge on the bright red shiny fruit. Despite her condition, she and Diarmuid climbed high into the rowan tree, where the berries were sweetest.

Meanwhile, Fionn agreed  to a truce with his enemies, the Mac Mornas, if they brought him either Diarmuid’s head, or a handful of the magical quicken berries. Yeah, I think you can see where this is going, right?

When the mac Mornas reported finding the dead giant, and half the rowan berries eaten, Fionn knew at once who was responsible. He went straight to the tree, believing Diarmuid was hiding in it, where he challenged his son Oisin to a game of chess. Each time Fionn was about to make a move which would defeat Oisin, a red berry fell out of the tree onto the square Oisin should move to. In this way, Oisin beat Fionn at chess for the very first time, and Fionn knew with certainty that it was Diarmuid who had helped Oisin, for only Diarmuid could ever beat him at chess.

Diarmuid leaped over the heads and weapons of the Fianna and escaped to safety. Poor pregnant Grainne was abandoned in the tree, but fortunately for her, Óengus Óg, the God of Love, took pity on herplight, and like the true gallant gent that he was, he came to her rescue.


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The Hill of Slane | Faces in Strange Places

The Hill of Slane is famous for its role as the place from which St Patrick first defied the pagan Kings. The story goes that one day in AD433, possibly in spring around the time of the festival of Bealtaine, as darkness fell across the land, King Laoighaire prepared his Druids to light the sacred bonfires at the royal site of Tara.

However, before they could do so, a golden bud of flame burst forth on the distant hill of Slane. Furious that such a sacred rite could be so flagrantly disregarded, the King sent his warriors and a number of Druids to extinguish the fire and bring the culprit to him.

The fire was not put out, however. The Druids claimed that Patrick’s power was mightier than theirs, and they were unable to extinguish it. They warned the King that if St Patrick’s fire was not put out, it would burn forevermore in Ireland.

Impressed with the stranger’s magic, and the strength of his religious conviction, Laoighaire allowed Patrick to continue his mission. Even stranger, Erc, the King’s chief Druid and adviser was so enamoured of Patrick’s might, that he converted to Christianity at once, and became the first Bishop of Slane.

Surprisingly, Erc was said to have been buried under a dolmen, the remains of which can still be seen in the graveyard at Slane today. This is a decidedly un-Christian burial more in line with his pagan roots. Which begs the question, why? If the remaining stones really are what is left of a dolmen, of course, and I’m not convinced that they are. I’ll let you decide.

Wherever there is a Christian church, there was once a pagan sacred site before it, and Slane is no exception. In amongst the trees to the west of the hill lies a motte of Norman origin upon which once stood a castle. Beneath this motte there is a burial mound believed to be that of Sláine, a king of the FirBolg.

It was Sláine who was responsible for clearing the land so that the mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth could be built. Quite a legacy.

Sláine, son of Dela, was said to be the first High King of Ireland. He landed at Wexford Harbour at the mouth of the River Slaney with his four brothers and 5000 men. They carved Ireland into five provinces and ruled one each, with Sláine ruling over them all. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long: he died at Dind Ríg in Co Carlow and was carried back to Slane to be buried. He was succeeded by his brother Rudraige.

Newgrange and Knowth can be seen from Slane, and the Hill of Tara is only shrouded from view by a belt of woodland. Clearly, this area was once a very significant one.

According to legend, a holy well is located near Sláine’s mound, which was used as a well of healing by the Tuatha de Danann for their warriors during battle, much like that of Heapstown Cairn at Moytura.

Sadly, the mound and well lie beyond sight on private land, and cannot be accessed by the public.  I have heard that there are some large trees growing through the motte and mound, and that their roots are causing terrible damage. There does not seem to be any plan in place to repair the damage in the near future, so once again, a precious site of enormous value to Irish heritage is being allowed to crumble into obscurity.

A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange, Knowth, Tara environs, the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea...
A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange (red arrow), Knowth, Tara environs (yellow arrow), the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea…

Despite this, a visit to Slane is well worth it. The remains of the church, its tower, and the monastic college are impressive, and the uninterrupted views of the spreading landscape under a big sky just make you want to soar! The atmosphere is serene, and the light and energy of the site is compelling.


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The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

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…

Fairy tree at Loughcrew
Fairy tree at Loughcrew

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.

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.

This tree in the centre of a field has had boulders piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.
This tree in the centre of a field has had stones piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.

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).

But how did the hawthorn come to be regarded as a fairy tree? Well, because it flowers in the Spring, it was associated with the festival of Bealtaine, a sacred time to the ancient Irish and to the Sidhe (the fairy folk, but don’t ever let them hear you call them by the F-word, they’d be most insulted, and I’m sure you’d rather live out your days as a human rather than something… else! 😂).

As a tree sacred to the fairies, the hawthorn was never to be messed with, damaged, or cut. Ill fortune would surely befall the fool who took such a chance, and offended the tree’s owners. Poised thus between the Otherworld and the physical world, the hawthorn eventually came to be regarded with fear, and it was said that witches made their brooms from its branches.

The fairy tree at St Co
The fairy tree at St Co

According to Druidry.org, this is what can happen when one destroys a fairy tree…

“Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a fairy thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice – supposed to be the faeries themselves – ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.

“Even as recently as 1982,workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony!”

Consider yourself warned!

Did you know: Wands made of hawthorn are said to be extremely powerful. The blossoms are said to be highly erotic to men… which perhaps explains why Ireland did such a roaring trade in exporting hawthorn flowers in the past. May poles were originally made of hawthorn.

The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.

Be careful if you are ever out walking in the countryside and think you may take a nice little nap under that inviting shady hawthorn tree… you may wake to find yourself whisked off to the Otherworld, and it’s highly likely you won’t find your way back…


Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for my blog in the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards last week. I was overwhelmed and humbled by your support, good wishes, and sharing on social media… this WordPress author community is a great thing to be part of. Oh, and if you haven’t voted, but might like to, there’s still time: you can vote by hitting this button…

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Also, finally, after 4 weeks, my weekly blog email notifications have returned as mysteriously as they disappeared! Hooray! So if I haven’t visited your blog recently, you now know why, and can expect to see me around real soon.