On Friday, I visited the ancient sites of Shee Beag and Shee Mor in Co. Leitrim. What I found just blew me away!
Shee Beag and Shee More, (in Irish, an Sí Bheag an Sí Mhor, meaning little and big fairy mounds, respectively), were immortalised by the blind Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1738) in his composition of the same name. O’Carolan was an interesting character, one of the last wandering harpers of old, making a living by travelling the land with his horse and his harp, composing songs (in Irish…he didn’t speak English) and music in honour of his patrons.
When I arrived at the object of this particular song, I understood why he had felt so moved to compose word and music about them. We (Conor, my husband and I) went first to Shee Beag, and I’m glad we did it this way around.
In mythology, this site is the resting place of Grainne, daughter of High King Cormac mac Airt, wife of Fionn mac Cumhall, and most famously, lover of Diarmuid. The story goes that she did not wish to marry Fionn, whom she considered an old man like her father. On the night of their wedding, her eyes fell on Diarmuid, warrior of the Fianna and Fionn’s right hand man. They eloped, and enraged, Fionn chased them the length and breadth of Ireland. In the end, he left them be, and they went on to have four sons together. However in time, a reconciliation was sought, and Diarmuid joined the Fianna in a boar hunt. Diarmuid was grievously wounded by the boar, and Fionn, who had the power to heal him, came to his aid too late. Thus Diarmuid died, and Graine returned to Fionn as his wife.
Shee Beag is an average sized mound covered with stunted trees and gorse bushes. There is a large depression in the top where the site was excavated in 1931 and never filled in. During the excavation, two skeletons were said to have been found, buried standing up and facing east. One was female, the other large and male. These were claimed to have been the remains of Grainne and Fionn mac Cumhall. What became of them, I have yet to find out.
Shee Mor can clearly be seen from here; Sliabh an Iarainn, also known as the Iron Mountain, a big, dark brooding mass on the horizon, which has a history of iron mining is dominant on the horizon. In mythology, one version of the Tuatha de Denann invasion story claims that the Denann arrived on dark clouds in the sky, which set them down on the summit of the mountain, from which they extracted their iron and forged the weapons for their attack.
The guardians of Shee Beag were very curious about our arrival; a small herd of cattle greeted us at the stile as we climbed over. They had no respect for personal space, in my opinion; Conor had to wave them away, as I have been unable to get over my fear of cattle after being chased by a whole herd as a youngster. They were after my mum’s small dog, not my mum and I, but I’m sure they would have trampled her to death if she had not managed to escape through a small gap in the hedge. Cattle are not as docile and placid as one would assume, and as with all animals, must be respected. This particular group would not be deterred, however; they followed us the whole time, and escorted us back to the stile after. It was a nerve-racking experience for me!
We then headed for Shee Mor. I began to feel very excited at this point. Sidhe Mor is located on top of a large hill, much the same size and shape as Almu. The summit is very distinctive, and dominates the local landscape.
Shee Mor is one of the most impressive ancient monuments that I have ever seen, and totally exceeded all my expectations. The large central mound was accompanied by two smaller mounds which had both either collapsed or been raided at some point in history. The remains of what appeared to be a stone walkway led in a straight line between the mounds, so connecting them. The whole hilltop is encircled and criss-crossed by what looks like the stone foundations of many walls or boundaries of some sort.
As you will have realised by now, Shee More has not avoided suffering the effects of Christianity. A HUGE, ugly concrete monstrosity of a cross,which lights up at night, has been erected on top of the main, central mound. Not only is this an eyesore and an affront to nature’s beauty, but it speaks volumes about Catholic attitudes. The existence of this cross smacks not of religion or faith, but dominance, control and power. It is not a thing of beauty or grace; it is not in harmony with its surroundings; no finer thought or workmanship has gone into its creation. Its positioning is completely disrespectful of the historical, mythological and archaeological remains of this site.
Despite this, I found my visit to Shee Mor to be the most extraordinarily peaceful experience. I have rarely felt such a deep feeling of serenity and contentment. I sat on a rock (with my back to the cross), and just absorbed it all for ages. All I could hear was the sounds of nature; birds, sheep, a cuckoo and the sigh of a light breeze. I could happily have stayed there all day. I took a video to try and capture some of that for you, but unfortunately, my filming techniques are not great, and it sounded far windier than it actually was.
This was obviously a site of great significance to our ancient ancestors. Who might have been buried here? Well, only someone very important could possibly have been laid to rest in such a place. Given the proximity of Grainne’s grave, could it be someone linked with her? Perhaps her father, the High King Cormac mac Airt… such a site would certainly be worthy of a High King. Dare I even suggest Fionn mac Cumhall himself? The two lesser mounds could have been raised over the bodies of his two noble hounds, Bran and Sceolán, whom he loved so well.
Of course, all this is just speculation. If future research yields anything interesting, you can be sure I’ll let you know.