aliisaacstoryteller

Ali’s Blog

According to legend, there were five great roads which led to the Hill of Tara. One of them runs between the north and south campuses of my university at Maynooth, and I’ve been crossing it almost every day for the last two years. Of course, it looks a bit different today; it’s tarmacked for a start, cars drive along it instead of carts, and it has rather a lot of traffic lights. You can read more about the five great roads in my post, The Ancient Origins of the Irish Road, but since then I’ve learned a whole lot more about them which I’d like to share.

It has always been believed that the Hill of Tara was the royal residence of the High Kings of Ireland; after all, we have inherited a vast wealth of early Medieval literature which tells us so. However, since the 1980s, a new school of thought began to emerge which interpreted these medieval tales as a reflection of the times they were written rather than the Iron Age which they claim to portray.


Mound of hostages, black and white images, people standing on top of it.

Mound of hostages at Tara. (c) Ali Isaac


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Following my recent posts on Macha and the site of Emain Macha, it occurred to me that I have referenced, but never really elaborated, on the concept or function of the sovereignty goddess in Irish myth.

To be honest, she’s quite a hard character to pin down. She is thought to represent the land, and sovereignty over the land. A would-be king was expected to unite with her in order to legitimise his right to the kingship. Feasting would be involved, and sex. Another important feature was the offering of an alcoholic drink by the goddess to the king.

According to Muireann ní Bhrolcháin, the sovereignty could manifest in three ways, and an element of transformation was always involved;

  1. She appears to the king as an ugly old hag, who becomes young and beautiful when he completes the challenge she sets him, usually sex or a full-on kiss, at least.
  2. She appears as a woman who loses her mind and then regains it.
  3. She appears as a woman who loses her status, but regains it.

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Last week, I told you the legends of Macha; today we look at the monuments in the Irish landscape she is said to have inspired. EMAIN MACHA, also known by the name of Navan Fort, is real and still standing today, and like the Hill of Tara, and Cruachan, is open to the general public to access, free of charge.

The Hill of Tara gets all the glory and the visitors, but much as I love it, I think this is a bit of a shame. There is as much a wealth of heritage, in terms of archaeology, history, and mythology at our other provincial ritual sites as there is at Tara, and they are well worth experiencing.

The early literature of Ireland has identified a number of ‘Royal Sites’: Tara, in Co. Meath as the seat of Ireland’s high kings; Dún Ailinne in Co. Kildare, which is associated with the kings of Leinster; Cruachain, Co. Roscommon, as the fort of Queen Medb, and Emain Macha, said to be the palace of King Conchobar of Ulster.


Approach to Emain Macha through a metal 'kissing gate'. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com


These sites are all depicted in the literature as the royal residences of pre-historic provincial kings and queens. What the medieval writers saw in the landscape was pretty much the same as what we see there today, and they would have noted that these sites all share similar characteristics. What else could they be but the remains of the palaces of mighty pagan kings?


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Returning to the raison d’etre of this blog, and to Incredible Irish Women in particular (most apt in light of recent happenings in this country), I’d like to introduce you to MACHA.

There are several women by the name of Macha in Irish mythology, and with the exception of King Nuada’s wife, they are all associated with the ancient ceremonial site of Emain Macha, also known today as Navan Fort (even though it is nowhere near Navan).

Emain Macha (Listen here for pronunciation) is a site much like the Hill of Tara, and shares many of its characteristics, but I’ll tell you more about that next week. According to legend, it was once the site of the provincial palace belonging to King Conchobar of Ulster, and thus associated with the tales of the Táin and the Ulster Cycle. However, archaeology has shown that, contrary to popular belief, Emain Macha was never a site of habitation, just like Tara and Cruachan and Dun Ailine.

What has this to do with Macha? Read More

Hypocrisy, Truth and Lies #repealthe8th

It is a beautiful, sunny day, and today the people of Ireland are making history yet again by voting on changes to the constitution. Times change, society changes, people change, the world changes, and sometimes the legislation which governs us must change to accommodate that. The people of Ireland are not afraid; they’ve done it before, and I hope they will do it again.

What does it mean? Very simply, it means abortion could be legalised in Ireland. Most people would agree that abortion is a double-edged sword; no one wants to kill an unborn child. In Ireland, there will be strict controls so that the system cannot be abused, and abortions will only take place during the first twelve weeks.

The debate still rages over whether life starts at conception, or later. And until now, the right to life of the unborn child has been prioritised over the health of the mother, to the extent that women have been allowed to die rather than provide medical intervention which might compromise the life of the baby. Read More

I am sitting on the edge of Carys’s bed. She sprawls across my lap, fuzzy head tucked into the hollow of my neck, small arms clutching me tight. It is incredible how much strength there is in her under-developed muscles. I wait for her sobs to subside. It is three am. I am exhausted. We have not had a single solid night’s sleep in a month.

Carys has made great progress with her walking, so much so, that her PT feels that she no longer needs her AFO’s. How I rejoiced to hear that! But this particular silver lining, like so many, comes with its own dark cloud attatched.

We have always been grateful that Carys loves her sleep. She is a good sleeper, and if she wakes at night, usually she manages to drift off again. That is partly down to the ‘rituals’ we have adopted with all our children from day one: the soft blanket, the cuddly toy, the musical toy, the fun songs and stories, the hugs and kisses. She loves her bed, and she loves bed-time.

That’s so important to us parents; we can’t function well without good sleep, either. I turn into Godzilla if I don’t get my eight hour quota of zeds, and even then my family know not to speak to me until I’ve had my first coffee of the day! Read More

You may remember these two young ladies:


Incredible Irish Women. The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma


And you may remember also the block I had when it came to writing the next post in my Incredible Irish Women series, and how I was given to believe that I had ‘unfinished business’ to complete before I could move onto my next subject.

I decided to go to the site where Eithne and Fedelma had been baptised by Patrick, and where they were said to have to have immediately ascended to heaven afterwards. Let’s just say it was not at all what I expected. Read More

You may have noticed there was no blog post from me last week. I try really hard to keep the blog updated as often as I can, but sometimes things happen which change that, and this was one of those times.

I had been planning to introduce you to a particular lady from Ireland’s history, and indeed, the post is actually half written. I thought it would be an easy post to write, because I already know something about her. However, so many obstacles popped up during the writing of it, that I gave up; I felt it wasn’t meant for me to write, or at least not yet.

It wasn’t writer’s block, but that all my research seemed to contradict itself, no matter what angle I approached it from. I was frustrated and puzzled.

I was driving home from uni on Thursday, wondering about this, when the following thought came into my head: “You have unfinished business.” Those were the exact words, and here’s where you might think me slightly mad… Read More

Eithne and Fidelma were sisters who lived in the time of St Patrick. Their story is incredible, although it may be argued that the two young women themselves were not. They were pagan princesses, daughters of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland in 432AD, when Patrick is said to have lit his paschal fire in defiance of the King, pagan custom and ritual.

When Patrick first approached the King, the sisters, known as Eithne the Fair, and Fidelma the Red, were not at court. Following tradition, they were fostered out at Cruachan, also known as Rath Croghan, in the province of Connacht, made famous as the royal residence of Queen Medb.

There, the two girls were in the process of being educated by two Druids, Maol and Caplait, who were said to be the wisest men in all of Ireland at that time. Clearly, then, they were being trained as Druids, an education which is believed to have spanned over twenty years. Read More

I haven’t posted about Carys for a long time, not because there was nothing to tell, but because progress has been a long slow plod of repetitiveness and, I know it sounds awful, but yes, monotony; not particularly interesting to read, and achievements which might seem minor and trivial to the outsider, although spectacular to us.

This week, though, we had some great news: Carys will be AFO free! At least, during the day-time. What does this mean? No more clunky, heavy plastic leg braces strapped to her lower legs. Carys needed AFO’s for several reasons: for support, as the muscles around her ankles were very weak; to stretch her calf muscles, as they are very tight, and she cant’ make a 90 degree angle at her ankle like we can; also to correct her pronation. Read More

Today I visited the shrine of Saint Dympna in a tiny little place called Lavey in Co. Cavan. Although Dympma is quite a well-known seventh century saint in Ireland, her association with Lavey is a relatively unknown local tradition.

Dympna is one of Ireland’s tragic heroines. According to legend, she was just fifteen years old when she came to her untimely end at the hands of her very own father. Her life may have been short, but she inspired the birth of something wonderful which still goes on to this day.


 

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Back in Lavey this afternoon, I came to where I thought the shrine was located, but which appeared to be a farm-house and dead end. I knocked on the door, and explained that I was looking for Dympna’s shrine, and the man who answered said, “I’ll just get my coat and take you down there. Have you a bottle for the holy water?”

When I gaped at him blankly, he went inside and fetched a small, bright orange, plastic Ribena bottle, surely the most humble receptacle that has ever collected holy water. Ever. Read More

I could only answer one question on the history exam paper. It said something like, ‘Describe a day in the life of…’ I don’t remember the rest of the question. But the first seven words inspired my creative juices, and a story began to build.

I was only eleven. I had joined my new school six weeks before the end of first year, right in the middle of their exams. I wasn’t expected to be able to answer any of the questions, but I was told to have a go anyway. I guess they didn’t know what else to do with me.

I have been both a writer, and a student of history, probably from as long ago as when I learned to read and to write. To this day, I can’t figure out why I am so drawn to the peoples of the past.

My father loved reading and history, but he played such a small part in my life, that I don’t feel I can credit him as my inspiration. I lived on the island of Cyprus for a while during my childhood, where I was surrounded by crumbling ancient sites in the process of being lovingly restored by archaeologists, but my interest was already formed long before we moved there; I remember asking for history books one Christmas when we still lived in Kuwait, and that was before I had ever set foot in a Greek burial chamber or Roman amphitheatre. I would have been about seven or eight at the time.

So what did I write about? Read More