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Last week, I listened to one of my lecturers read aloud a poem in Old Irish, and I learned a few things:
The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir is a romantic tragedy, and a story I had not yet come across. It is told, as many old Irish stories are told, in both poetry and prose, with the poetry normally being reserved for speech, or to emphasize a particularly important point, or exchange. And because February is the month of love (just look at all the people born in November and tell me it isn’t!), I thought I’d share it with you.
Linguistically, the story dates to the ninth century, but is set back in the seventh century. It concerns two poets, and the love which grew between them, and how it ended in tragedy.
Líadain of Corco Duibne was a lady poet (see… women could be poets in ancient Ireland!) who was touring the province of Connacht, where she met Cuirithir mac Doborchu, a local poet. Well, it was love at first sight, and being lusty Irish, they spent the night together.
Cuirithir wanted more than a one night stand; “Why do we not make a union, o Líadain? Brilliant would be our son whom you would beget,” he entreated her, no doubt alluding to their combined skills as poets.
Líadain had fallen even more deeply in love, but something held her back… her love for God (you might know he’d poke his nose in at some point, if St. Patrick wasn’t available).
She told him to come for her at her home when she has completed her tour as a poetess. This he does, and the couple then approached Bishop Cummine for guidance.
He was not kind. He instructed Cuirithir to renounce his love and banished him to a monastery far away over the sea. Líadain takes the veil, but never forgets her passion for her lost love.
As he crossed the sea in his coracle, she mourned the cruel loss of her lover from a vantage point on a boulder overlooking the bay, and died of a broken heart.
The Bishop then placed the stone over her grave. What became of Cuirithir, if he ever learned of his lover’s death, we don’t know.
This is part of the poem Líadian composes about Cuirithrir:
I am Líadain,
I loved Cuirithir.
It is as true as they tell it.
It was a short time that I was
in the company of Cuirithir.
Towards him, my companionship was good.
The music of the wood
used to sing around me when I was with Cuirithir
with the sound of the blood-red ocean.
I would have thought
that nothing of whatever things I might do
would bring Cuirithir against me.
One shouldn’t hide it:
he was my heart’s desire,
even if I loved everyone besides him.
A roar of fire
has broke my heart.
It is known that it will not live without him.
I think these words are so poignant, so sad and heartfelt. The passing of centuries has not diminished them. She clearly regrets having turned him down, having let her fear of God come between them. It is a lament that she hurt the man she loves so dearly… look how often she repeats his name: she is obsessed. I really feel for her.
There does seem to be some confusion in the story; the delay to their getting together is attributed to both her desire to become a nun, and her desire to continue her tour as a travelling poetess. Clearly, it can’t be both, so which is it?
If she becomes a nun first and then sleeps with Cuirithir, then clearly they have both sinned, which explains the Bishop’s harsh decision. But if she becomes a nun after Cuirithir leaves her, then clearly her decision to put her career as a travelling poetess first offended him deeply, in which case she should forget about the selfish arse!
If the former is true, then the story is one of chastity, punishment, love of God, and that most heinous of crimes, female lust. But if the latter is true, more than likely the story has an older source, and is a tale of love and tragic misunderstanding which has been tampered with by Christians to suit their moral code.
Was Líadian a historical figure? It’s hard to say. Her name means the ‘Grey One’, or the ‘Grey Lady’, perhaps in reference to the nun’s habit she wore. Her name does crop up elsewhere in the company of three other female poets, but there is no actual evidence that she really existed.
However, medieval writers were wont to put their stories in the mouths of historical personae as speakers of history. It may even be that her story is true, but she did not write it, at least, not in the version which currently exists. Linguistically, some of the rhyme in the text has been found to date specifically to the ninth century.
So, till next time, Myth Lovers…
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Last spring, I was interviewed by film maker, Peter McGee, for a new project he was working on, entitled ‘The Search for the Seanachaí‘. Here is the trailer for the film, see if you can spot me! 😁
When I first visited the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, I was stunned by the sheer amount, and quality, of ancient gold artifacts on display… there is a whole floor of the stuff.
My youngest son, who was about 8 years old at the time, scrounged my phone and busied himself taking photos of it all… he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, either!
Now put Ireland and gold together in the same sentence, and most people immediately think of pots of gold at the end of a rainbow guarded by a little red-bearded man dressed in green. *shudders* Ugh! How I loathe that little creature.
But here you go. The word ‘leprechaun’ is derived from the Old Irish luchorpán. The leprechaun first makes its apearance in an ancient medieval tale known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). Fergus, King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three tiny lúchorpáin. He captures them, who grant him the ability to swim under water in exchange for their freedom.
Over time, the leprachaun, clearly originally a sea-creature, became distorted into the drunken little shoemaker fond of causing mischief and mayhem, who hides his gold in that famous pot of gold. Of course, you can see how that happened… its a natural progression.
Anyway, back to the gold. The ancient Irish adored the stuff, particularly during the Bronze Age (c.2500-500 BC). More Bronze Age gold hoards have been found in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe.
One of the most famous discoveries is the Mooghaun North Hoard found in County Clare. It is considered one of the greatest Bronze Age hoards of gold ever found north of the Alps. Sadly, much of it was sold off and melted down, but 150 items were rescued, and some of them can now be seen in the National Museum.
The earliest evidence of metal mining in Ireland is provided by Bronze Age copper workings at Ross Island, Co. Kerry in southwest Ireland. These workings, dated at between 2,400 – 2,000 BC constitute the oldest recognised in northwest Europe.
However, evidence of ancient gold mining and smelting materials and equipment has been found in a bog near Limerick. Scholars are unsure though, where the majority of Ireland’s gold has come from.
Scientists measured the chemical composition of some of the oldest known gold artifacts in Ireland to find that they were actually imported from Cornwall in Britain. It seems the English were not quite so fond of their gold bling at the time, and readily traded with the Irish in exchange for… you’ll never guess… tin.
The National Museum of Archeology in Dublin houses over 500 pieces of gold work, including golden collars, torcs and bracelets, mostly from the Bronze Age. It’s quite incredible, glass case after glass case of it.
But what of the mythology? Yes, gold makes an appearance in the old tales of Ireland too, as well as in the land’s archaeology.
This is how Niamh of the Golden hair is described, when she comes to confess her love for Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, and carries him away with her into the Otherworld…
She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse’s hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head.
And this is how Queen Medb was described by Cethern to Cúchulainn, when he was wounded by her in battle…
A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me … She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands’ breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head – a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.
No shame there, it seems, to have been beaten in battle by a woman. Just sayin’.
Criomthan Nianair was a King of Ireland, and the son of Lugaidh Sriabhdearg ‘of the Red Stripes’, who was famously Cuchulainn’s foster son. Criomthan was said to have brought back a golden chariot and a cloak woven with golden threads as plunder from his adventures in Gaul.
Lugaidh was an interesting character. He was said to have been born of a night of incest between Clothra and her three brothers, Breas, Nar, and Lothola, and was described as ‘beautiful to behold, and stronger in bodily strength in infancy than was usual for a child of his age’. It was said that Clothra feared her family’s line would be wiped out in battle, so she seduced all of her brothers in the hope of producing an heir. When her son was born, he was divided in three by red wavy lines, and each third of him resembled that portion of one of his three fathers.
Clothra need not have worried. Far from being punished for their incestuous behaviour, one hundred and seven of their descendants went on to rule as Kings.
In Ireland today, there are many places which bear the Irish word for gold, óir, in their names: Slieve Anore (Mountain of Gold), in Co Clare; Tullynore (Little Hill of Gold), in Co Down; Coomanore (Hollow of Gold), near Bantry in Co Cork, and Glenanore (Glen of Gold), also in Co Cork. Does that mean gold was found or worked there in ancient times? Who can say? I’d like to think so.
Finally, I just thought you might like to know that the letter ‘O’ in the Ogham alphabet, the Beith-Luis-Nin, is called Onn, or Oir, which is also the Old Irish word for ‘gold’. (Learn how to pronounce it here.)
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The Sacred Tree – na Bílí – is where I made my home, called by a voice unknown, challenged but in the end found worthy. The heart knows when it is home. I pay my respects from a distance, content to wait.
And trees have time to kill.
My life has been filled with trees, from the day as a teen when I missed my train to work because I was so busy writing a poem (Winter Trees) about the trees which bordered the platform, to the day only a few months ago, when I planted the first trees in my garden.
I love them. I admire them. I respect them. I cry when I see one cut down. I feel pain when I see the naked wound of pale, fresh wood.
Trees are tactile. They invite touch. Against my skin, the trunk is cold, hard, unyielding. The tree is not like me: I am soft, warm, weak flesh. Silent and strong he stands, old long before I was thrust into existence; he will remain long after I am gone.
The tree is not like me. He reaches for the stars, blossoms for the sun, always standing tall and proud, bowing to none, resisting. When the storm rages, he dances and sings, but he is resolute.
I am not like the tree. I drift where life’s breeze blows me. I shy from sun and storm. I am human, enslaved to my weak, warm flesh.
The broad path leads me through the forest, and I am dazzled by the myriad shades of green, by the capricious filter of sunbeams, by the golden fall of last years leaves, shed like autumn tears. Above me, branches interlace, shaping the vault of nature’s cathedral. Protecting. Embracing. Forming me into the precious relic contained within their shrine. I breathe, and the burden of life’s woes is lifted.
Beneath my feet, deep in the dark, damp earth, roots search out kin, binding, weaving together, supporting one another, connecting. They are all different – the oak, the scots pine, the rowan, the willow. And yet, they are all the same.
Just like us.
I was inspired to write this by the #BloggersBash Blog Post Competition, which this year is all about ‘Connections‘.
No, it’s not what you think… my, you all have such dirty minds!
Curadmír comes from the old Irish word curad which means ‘of a hero/ champion/ warrior’, and also from the word mir which means ‘morsel/ ration/ portion’.
In Irish mythology, the champion’s portion was all about honour amongst warriors. We already know that in ancient Ireland people lived by a defined code of honour and this was certainly true amongst the warrior class.
The curadmir consisted of the choicest cut of meat, usually the thigh, and was awarded to the bravest and most accomplished of a king’s warriors during a feast. It was considered a sign of great honour and privilege.
In fact, so highly regarded was the curadmír, that warriors would fight to the death over it. Not just in stories and myths, either: Althenaeus, a Greek scholar of the late 2nd/ early 3rd century quoted an earlier Greek historian, Posidonius, when he claimed that the Celts gave a hindquarter of pork to their bravest man, which would be settled by single combat to the death.
Diodorus Sicculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century also claimed that the Celts gave joints of meat to their most distinguished warriors.
Yeah, the ancient Greeks had a bit of a fascination with the Celtic peoples, but sadly, they are not reliable. Historians have not been able to identify a people who called themselves Celts, but there is much similarity between their accounts and the people of the Hallstatt and La Tene periods in Central Europe.
And then there are the Irish myths, which seem to confirm this strange custom. Why are you not surprised, huh?
The Tale of Mac da Thó’s Pig, or Scéla Muicce Meicc Da Thó, as it is known in Irish, comes from the Ulster Cycle, and survives in six manuscripts dating between the 12th and 18th centuries, but has been dated linguistically to the 8th century. It tells of a dispute which arose between the men of Connacht, and the men of Ulster.
So, Mac da Thó, King of Leinster, owns a hound named Ailbe which is famed throughout the land for its fierce guarding skills. Queen Medb of Connacht (yes, she of Táin bo Cúailnge fame, who goes to war over possession of a bull) decides she wants this mutt… surprise, surprise. However, her old arch enemy, Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, also wants to get his hands on Ailbe. I think you can see where this is going, right?
Mac da Thó holds a feast and invites both parties. When they arrive, they are not happy to be seated in the same hall as their enemies. Mac da Thó also owns a mighty pig, which had been fed for seven years by sixty milch cows, and was as wide across as forty oxen. Said beast was now roasting merrily, and the warriors were instantly attracted to it, and began discussing how best to carve it up, and who would get the Caradmír.
As you can imagine, a whole lot of boasting takes place, and many heroic deeds and victories are recounted. Eventually, Cet mac Mágach of the Connacht warriors declares himself the champion, but as he draws his knife to carve the pig, Conall Cernach of the Ulster men leaps to his feet and challenges him, much to the roars of delight from his fellows.
Cet concedes that of the two, Conall is the better warrior, but adds that if his brother, Anlúan, was there, he would whoop his hide in combat. He says to Conall…
‘It is our misfortune that he [Anlúin] is not in the house.’
‘Oh but he is,’ said Conall, and taking Anlúan’s head from his wallet he threw it at Cet’s breast so that a mouthful of blood spattered over the lips.’
Quoted from Wikipedia
Conall claims the pig’s belly as his curadmír, enough to feed nine men, and after the rest of the meat has been shared out amongs his fellow warriors, only the trotters are left for the Connacht men.
Naturally, a fight breaks out. Mac da Thó unleashes Ailbe to see which side the hound will choose. It fights for the Ulster men, but is beheaded by Fer Loga, a charioteer of Connacht. He mounts Ailbe’s head on top of a spear, and thus the place of her death is known as Mag nAilbi, or ‘Ailbe’s Plain’ (a real place, the valley plain bordering the River Barrow from County Laois and County Carlow to County Kildare).
If you thought that was weird, wait till you read the next bit! 😛
Clearly fearing the wrath of his King and Queen, Aillil and Medb, for killing the dog, Fer Loga hides in the heather. When King Conchobar rides by in his chariot, Fer Loga leaps up behind him and seizes the King’s head in a mighty grip.
Conchobar promises Fer Loga anything he wants, obviously thinking the man is about to kill him, and this is what Fer Loga demands: that he be taken to Emain Macha, capital of Ulster, where the women of Ulster and their nubile daughters are to sing to him each evening, ‘Fer Loga is my darling.’
Told you, didn’t I? Weird!
The story ends a year later with Fer Loga riding away from Ulster towards Ath Luain with the gift of two of Conchobar’s horses decked in fine golden bridles.
Nora Chadwick believes this tale was created for men, and was designed to be told orally, which is interesting to me personally. What is also interesting is that, even thought this story draws on many of the characters of the Táin bo Cuailnge, it never mentions Cuchulainn, who was said to be Ulster’s greatest hero.
In another story also from the Ulster Cycle, Fled Bricrenn, or the Feast of Bricriu, the allotting of the curadmir also causes much havoc. Bricriu holds a feast for the men of Ulster, and offers the champion’s portion to three of them: Cuchulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach. They are obliged then to compete against each other in order to decide who is most worthy.
Many challenges are set, with Cuchulainn emerging as the winner each time, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire accept this. In the end, Cú Roí, a magician from Munster, transforms himself into a giant and challenges each of the three warriors to behead him, on the condition that they then allow him to behead them in return the next night. Only Cúchulainn is brave and honest enough to show up on the second night, so he is deemed as the winner, and judged worthy of the curadmír.
Bricriu was a bit of a troublemaker who appears in several other stories of the Ulster Cycle. In the end, he is trampled to death by the two bulls fighting in the Táin bo Cuailnge. Loughbrickland, a village near Banbridge in County Down, is thought to derive from the Irish Loch Briccrend, meaning ‘Bricriu’s Lake’. He is supposed to have built his home there overlooking the lake, a ring fort named the ‘Watery Fort’.
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It’s taken a long time, quite a few very late nights… by that I really mean early mornings 😂,
a few a lot of glasses of wine, much foul language sweet blessings, blood, sweat and tears, but finally, my latest book, ‘Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places‘ is here!
This has been, without a doubt, the hardest book I have written and produced so far. Formatting images is hard, hard, HARD, I’m telling you! And you can’t have a guide book without images. Let’s just say I unexpectedly learned a lot. And I sincerely hope you will think it was worth it.
So, what’s it all about?
Well, you could be mistaken for assuming that all the locations in my books are pure fantasy. After all, we are used to the sophisticated world-building of today’s brilliant fantasy and science-fiction authors.
But that’s not what you get with my books; all the magical locations are REAL, and I have visited every one, most of them many times over. (Except for the Otherworld, I’ve only ever been there in my dreams! 😜)
This book features images and information on some of the ancient sites – Tara, Uisneach, Newgrange, Knowth and several others – as featured in my Conor Kelly series, The Tir na Nog Trilogy.
But it’s not just a bunch of dry facts on archaeology, oh no! In it, I tell you some of the myths attached to each site, why each site is so special to me, what I love about them, as well as essential info like how to get there, should you decide to tour Ireland yourself one day. I also connect each site to the relevant chapter in my books, so you can see how I built the story around them.
But before you all rush off to Amazon… hehe, I should be so lucky!… I should tell you that this book is NOT FOR SALE.
This book is exclusively a gift for my email subscribers.
It’s a thank you for supporting my blog and other writing endeavours. I do appreciate you all immensely.
If you have not yet signed up to my mailing list, but would like to, and get your free copy of ‘Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places’, all you have to do is click the button below, and you will receive a download link direct to your email. Simple!
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I hope my books bring a little Irish magic into the lives of people for whom these legends are new and unheard of. I hope I do that in a way which is fun, and in language that can be easily understood. I hope I transport you to Ireland’s ancient places, even though you live on the other side of this multi-faceted global community we are lucky to be a part of.
I hope in your mind’s eye you can see them as you read, feel the stone, cold and damp under your hand; feel the mist caress your face, hear the rustle of the hawthorn trees in the breeze, feel the beat of Eriu’s heart in the earth deep beneath your feet.
I hope you can see the bustling splendour of Newgrange and Almu as they once were, witness the victory and defeat of battle, hear the soft murmur of lovers’ words, exult in the stirring speeches of High Kings, weep at the tragedy of a hero’s death, delight in the strains of a harper’s song. I hope all this, and much, much more.
May Ireland be always in your heart.
And so, let us begin this journey…
The wild boar was hunted into extinction in Ireland back in the C17th, although it seems likely that it was probably not truly ‘wild’ at all, but introduced by man in early prehistoric times. Ireland’s rich forest land provided a perfect habitat, where it foraged and fed on acorns and nuts, roaming in large herds watched over by semi-nomadic swine-herds, often credited with mysterious magical abilities. Wild boar meat was highly prized, and even today in Ireland, big events such as fairs and festivals feed the crowds with a whole hog roast.
Not surprisingly, the wild boar features significantly in Irish mythology. Although it is a shy, placid creature, in mythology it came to be associated with ferocity, courage and the warrior. Perhaps this is because it defended itself so fiercely when hunted, thus earning so much admiration and its place in legend and song.
This association with battle prowess can be seen in the popular design of the boar’s head on the carnyx, or Celtic war horn. According to Wikipedia,
“The carnyx was a wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts, used between c. 200 BC and c. AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape, held so that the long straight central portion was vertical and the short mouthpiece end section and the much wider bell were horizontal in opposed directions. The bell was styled in the shape of an open-mouthed boar’s, or other animal’s, head. It was used in warfare, probably to incite troops to battle and intimidate opponents.”
In Irish mythology, Torc Triath was the King of Boars, an Otherworldly creature who belonged to the Goddess Brigid. It is thought that he could be cognate with the boar of Welsh legend, Twrch Trwyth, the son of Tared Wledig, a prince of Wales, who had been cursed and transformed into a wild boar. He was hunted by King Arthur and his hound, Cabal, and driven into the sea off the Cornish coast, where he perished. Perhaps he swam to Ireland instead, and took refuge with our kindly Brigid! 😁
The motif of men being transformed into wild boars reappears often in mythological tales. The Great Boar of Ben Bulben was once a boy; he was the half-brother of Diarmuid O’Duibhne.
Diarmuid’s father, Donn, never liked the child, as he was the product of his wife’s infidelity with another man. One night, when a fight broke out in his hall between two hounds, in the confusion, Donn seized the boy, crushed him to death, then tossed his body into the melee, hoping everyone would assume he had been killed by the dogs.
The boy’s father, Roc, was not so easily fooled. He quickly realised what had happened, and distraught and angered, he performed a magical rite which brought his son back to life in the form of a boar.
He did this to seek his revenge against Donn; he knew of the prophecy which foretold that Diarmuid would one day be killed by a boar.
After betraying Fionn mac Cumhall by running off with his beautiful young bride, Grainne, Diarmuid settles in Sligo where he and Grainne live a long life together and have four sons and a daughter. When Fionn seeks a reconciliation, Diarmuid jumps at the chance, and recklessly agrees to join the Fianna on a boar hunt.
Sure enough, Diarmuid comes face to face with the enchanted boar, his half-brother, on the slopes of Ben Bulben. In a mighty battle, Diarmuid slays the beast, but is himself badly gored in the process by the creatures tusks. By the time the Fianna finds him, he is bleeding to death.
Fionn has the power to heal his old friend by offering him a drink of water from his healing hands. Twice, he lets their enmity come between them, and allows the water to drain from his hands. On the third attempt, he finally finds forgiveness for Diarmuid, but he is too late: Diarmuid is dead.
It is interesting that there are places in Ireland’s landscape which still bear reference to the importance of the wild boar: Kanturk in West Cork comes from the Irish Ceann Toirca, meaning ‘boar’s head’, and Ros Muc in West Connacht comes from the Irish word muc for ‘pig’. Mag Triathairne, on the other hand, is a place legend claims was named after Torc Triath himself, but I’m afraid I have no idea where this is.
The wonderfully intriguing Black Pig’s Dyke, or Claí na Muice Duibhe as it is known in Irish, is a series of huge earthworks running through counties Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan, where I live. Archaeology has revealed the remains of wooden palisades dating to 390–370 BC upon a bank measuring 9m (30ft wide), with an external ditch and in inner ditch both approximately 6m (20ft) deep. All sorts of theories abound as to the purpose of this structure, such as that it once marked the boundaries of ancient Ulster, or that it was constructed in an attempt to halt cattle raiding. However, no one really knows.
Local folklore claims it was created by the tusks of a HUGE black boar, rooting in the earth for food. The story goes that a wicked schoolmaster was transforming his pupils into animals using a big black book of spells. When challenged by a student’s father, the schoolmaster demonstrated his skills by shapeshifting into the form of a big black pig. The father immediately snatched up the book and tossed it into the fire, and thus without the source of his magic, the schoolmaster was doomed to live the rest of his life as a pig. In a blind rage he rampaged across Ireland, gouging out the ditch and churning up the earth into the rampart we see today with his great snout.
There are other stories of wild boars in Irish myth, too. The Tale of Mac Da Thó’s Pig forms part of the saga of the Tain bó Cuailnge, and centres on disputes which arise over the champion’s share of meat, known as curadmír, a matter of great honour amongst warriors.
Also part of the Tain bó Cuailnge, is the Quarrel of the Two Swineherds: Friuch (who is named rather amusingly after a boar’s bristle) and Rucht (who is named after a boar’s grunt) are two swineherds minding their masters’ herds, 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.
Also, the Dagda, who was a much-loved and well-respected High King of the Tuatha de Danann, was said to have possessed two magical pigs, one of which was always growing whilst the other was always roasting.
Sounds like a metaphor for typical Irish hospitality, if you ask me…
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