Original image Philipp Reichmuth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

They are dragged up the hill like beads on a rosary, their guide droning, words buzzing in one ear, dripping from the other like honey, to make room for the three other sites they will visit today.

They want to look through glass, sit in comfort, with information shouted through a mike, like on the bus in Dublin.

Instead, they trudge with shiny shoes over springy grass, bespeckled with sheep droppings, to gaze at bumps on a hill.

They want interpretive centres, toilets, cafés and shops. They want a monument reconstructed, like Newgrange, something physical created for them which their own minds cannot build.

Stop; let the breeze which has blown over this grassy knoll for a thousand years lift your hair and whisper in your ear. Listen; it is rich with the voices of people past. They are glad you are here. Look; they lived lives great and humble here, your very feet tread where did theirs.

Open your heart; feel their joy, their sorrow, their courage. Open your mind; fear not and let them in, for they are fierce and true, and their land we borrow is more than old stones and leprechauns.

On Sunday morning, I visited Loughcrew (in Irish Loch Craobh) to greet the dawn of the autumn equinox. It was still pitch black when I left the house, and I was glad to see the stars shining bright and clear. It meant there would be a good chance of seeing the sun rise.

There was just enough tremulous starlight to guide my way up the hill. I couldn’t help feeling that by following in the footsteps of our distant ancestors I was enacting some kind of ancient ritual, winding my way through the still velvety darkness as they would have done, perhaps earning the right to be there by participating in that steep, breathless climb at such an early hour of the day. Read More

I call Knowth the Forbidden Mound because no one is allowed inside. I’m not sure why this is. From my image below, you can see how safe and unrestricted the passage is. According to the archaeologist, George Eogan, who excavated the site in the 1960s, the passages and inner chambers were accessed with relative ease on the days they were discovered. I can’t help but wonder, what could be in there that no one wants us to see?

Of the Bru na Boinne complex, Knowth holds for me the most mystique and allure. Roughly on a size and scale with the more famous Newgrange, Knowth contains not one but two long passages opposite each other alighned east/ west. The eastern passage is forty metres long, while the western passage is thirty four metres long. Surrounding this large central mound are eighteen smaller ones, all facing inward.

In Irish mythology, Knowth (sounds like mouth), from the Irish Cnoc Bui, meaning ‘Hill of Bui’ is said to be the final resting place of Bui, or Buach. a wife of the God of Lightning, and High King of the Danann, Lugh Lamfhada.

I have had to piece her story together from several legends, as sadly, it seems to have been lost in time. She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead. In terms of time periods, the latter fits far better.

She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.

If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.

Knowth and the rest of the Newgrange complex are known collectively as Brú na Bóinne, which means ‘the bend in the River Boyne’; you can see this quite clearly in the map, the Boyne cradling the ancient sites like the curve of an arm.

In Irish mythology, the river Boyne is named after the Danann goddess, Boann. Her name, from the Old Irish Bo Find, means ‘white cow’. According to an ancient text named the Lebor Gabála Érenn she was the daughter of Delbáeth of the Tuatha De Danann, and she was married to Elcmar.

She had an affair with the Dagda, and thus conceived her son, Óengus Óg. In order to conceal their infidelity from Elcmar, the Dagda made the sun stand still in the sky for nine months; therefore, Óengus was conceived, gestated and born in one day, and sent to be fostered with Midir all before Elcmar came home.

Boann was killed when she went against her husband’s wishes seeking knowledge from Connla’s Well, where the nine enchanted hazel trees dropped their nuts into the water for the salmon to eat. The water rose up at her defiance and carried her out to sea where she perished, and that was how the River Boyne was formed.

The River Boyne is thought to be linked to the Milky Way; in old Irish, it was known as Bealach na Bó Finne, meaning the ‘Path of the Bright/ White Cow’. Interestingly, it was also known as ‘Lugh’s Chain’, or Slabhbra Lugh.

Could it perhaps be then, that Knowth with its many satellite mounds represents planets going around a sun? Or a constellation of stars? Perhaps it is simply the burial site of an ancient beloved Queen.

Happy Valentine’s Day – The Persuit of Diarmuid and Grainne

💖Happy Valentine’s Day to you all💘

I hope you’re all getting some lovin’ today! In the spirit of all things #Grámochroí and true everlasting love, I thought I’d bring you something special.

In Grá mo Chroí, one of the stories I tell is about the fated love of Diarmuid and Grainne.

Grainne was destined to marry Fionn mac Cumhall, but he was old and grey. Instead, she fell in love with the young, darkly handsome and dashing Diarmuid.

Their story is full of great passion, love which lasts beyond the grave, hate and jealousy which leads a friend to kill, tragedy and deep sorrow.

It is a love story unlike any other love story as we know them, and told as only the Irish fili can tell. Please enjoy the lovely little film I have found telling this story.

If you follow this blog, you know how passionate I am about connecting with our ancient ancestors whom we hear so much about in Irish mythology. One of the ways I love to do this is by visiting the places associated with them.

Sheebeg, the mound of Grainne and Diarmuid's Grave

Sheebeg, the mound of Grainne and Diarmuid’s Grave

Diarmuid and Grainne went on the run so they could escape Fionn’s wrath and be together, never sleeping more than a night in one place.

Today, there are still so many places around Ireland named for their brief sojourn there. Their presence seems so ingrained into the landscape and the Irish psyche thousands of years later, it’s quite impossible to believe it’s just a story.

I think the foundations are rooted as deeply in truth as their final resting place is in Ireland’s soil.

Here is one of the places where they were said to have laid their heads.

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If you follow this blog, you will know how I like to visit the old places I learn about whilst researching Irish mythology; how I like to tread in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors, lay my eyes on the horizons they saw, feel what they felt when they looked out over their homeland. It helps me get a sense of who they were, and who we have become.

Certain places last year had a really powerful effect on me. Shee Mor was one of them. Another was Magh Slecht, which means ‘Plain of Prostrations’.

Sandwiched between the Woodford and Blackwater rivers lies an area of Co Cavan known as Magh Slecht (pronounced Moy Shlokht). Overlooked by the scenic Cuilcagh Mountain and distant rounded shoulders of Sliabh an Iarainn, this panoramic vista of gentle rolling countryside is packed with an unusually dense concentration of megalithic monuments, including cairns, stone rows and circles, standing stones, fort enclosures and burial sites.

I had long known about the legacy of Magh Slecht, but it was a chance discovery reading through a translation of an old document, looking for something else entirely, which claimed that this iconic site was located in my very own county. Read More

Irish Mythology | Death of a Hero

Hero... I'm holding out for a hero till the end of the night...

Hero… I’m holding out for a hero till the end of the night…

The old stories of Ireland tell of many heroes, and many deaths, but none quite so grand, or mysterious as that of Fionn mac Cumhall.

Fionn was born to Cumall, chieftain of the Baiscne Clan and head of the Fianna, and Muirne ‘of the White Neck’, who was a woman of the Sidhe, and half-sister to the mighty Lugh Lamfhadha. With such an illustrious lineage, this boy  could only be destined for great things. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he was named Deimne, which means ‘certainty’. He was later given the epithet Fionn, which means ‘blonde/ fair/ bright’ or white’, and that is the name by which he is remembered.

As a young man, Fionn was skilled in the arts of hunting and battle. He caught Fintan, the salmon of Knowledge, which the Druid Finegas had been after for years, and accidentally cheated the old man out of acquiring Fintan’s knowledge. He defeated the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, thus saving Tara, seat of the High King, from burning and so winning the leadership of the Fianna, which he considered his birth-right. And he rescued Sadbh of the Sidhe from the Dark Druid, who had captured her and transformed her into a deer. In her womanly form, they fell in love, and had a son, Oisin.

You can read more about the life of Fionn in my re-telling. You can also read why I suspect the stories of King Arthur were based on the legend of Fionn mac Cumhall. And here you can read about Fionn’s love affair with Sadbh.

Fionn fought many battles with his war-band, the Fianna, and lived to quite a ripe old age for a warrior of the times.

But it is his last battle which is so intriguing, for no one actually saw him killed, and his body was never found. As a result, a legend arose, which some call a prophecy, claiming that he lies sleeping beneath the green hills of Ireland, waiting to ride to the aid of the people of Ireland once more in their hour of greatest need.

A nice thought, one which has probably sustained people through dark times down the years, I’ve no doubt. But of course, it’s not true. Although the Sidhe were long-lived, immortal even, providing no one stabbed them with a sword or infected them with a disease, Fionn was only half Sidhe, what the Greeks would have called a demi-God.

So, me being me, I thought it would be fun to try to identify Fionn’s resting place, and perhaps visit it, maybe even dig him up… no, that last bit’s just a joke! Let him snore in peace, I don’t think the people of Ireland would appreciate me waking him before their hour of greatest need.

Of course, I knew it wasn’t going to be simple; nothing to do with Irish mythology ever is, but I got a bit more than I bargained for, and discovered some very peculiar local legends too.

Hill of Allen, taken from the quarry side. Tower is built on top of Fionn's grave.

Hill of Allen, taken from the quarry side. Tower is built on top of Fionn’s grave.

The Hill of Allen used to be known as Almu, or Cnoc Almaine, and is a volcanic hill rising out of the flatlands of the Bog of Allen. It is where Fionn is reputed to have had his home, where the Fianna resided when they were not out hunting or fighting, and where Sadbh sought and received sanctuary.

There is a tower on the top built as a folly by local landowner Sir Gerard George Aylmer in 1859. The story goes that the tower was constructed on top of a burial mound, in which was found a coffin containing a very large male skeleton. Apparently, the bones were re-interred, and the tower finally completed in 1863.

Of course, the bones were claimed to be those of Fionn. There is no evidence now of Fionn’s fortress at Almu, or of the burial mound, and I wonder too at the fate of the tower itself, as half the hill has completely been mined away in recent years, amid much controversy. You can read more about Almu, and see pictures from my visit there last year.

Ballyfin,  Baile Fionn in Irish, meaning ‘town/dwelling place of Fionn’, is a small village in Co Laois, located in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It has been suggested that Fionn may have been raised here. According to legend, Fionn was given as a baby to his Druid aunt Bodhmall and the warrior woman Liath Luachra to raise in secret in the forest of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, to keep him safe from his father’s enemies. There is a grand house, now a hotel, built on the site of an old castle, at Ballyfin; perhaps the castle was located on the site of an even older building, perhaps even the settlement which once housed the child Deimne.

Castleknock College. Set in the beautifully landscaped grounds of this private school is a hill known as Windmill Hill. It turns out that the burial mound located here is not associated with Fionn, but rather with his father Cumhall. He was said to have been buried here following the Battle of Cnucha, in which he lost his life at the hands of Goll mac Morna, who then assumed his role as leader of the Fianna.

In June 2007, an archaeological excavation of the mound was carried out, and the remains of four skeletons were found, although they were believed to be dated to the Early Medieval period, which would have been several hundred years later than Cumhall’s death. It is interesting to note that they were buried in the old pagan tradition inside a mound. I can’t help wondering, was it created for them, or had it been originally built several centuries earlier to commemorate the death of a leader of a war-band?

On a neighbouring hill lie the remains of a Norman castle. In 1861, workmen digging graves discovered a cromlech with an almost perfect skeleton lying beneath it. They broke up the stones, filled it in and carried on with their work. It was only later that the true significance of the discovery was understood, but by then it was too late, the damage had already been done.

Clearly, this was a very important site in ancient times.

Sheebeg, Grainne's Grave

Sheebeg, Grainne’s Grave

Sheebeg and Sheemor are two burial mounds in close proximity in Co Leitrim. You can see pictures and read about them in more detail in my post from my visit last year.

Sheemor is an awesome site that has never been excavated. It boasts three burial mounds along with an exciting array of other archaeological features. In the 1950’s, a giant concrete cross was erected on top of the central mound… not so much consecration as desecration in my opinion. The site is still stunning for all that.

Sheebeg is a more humble monument, and was unofficially excavated by amateurs in January 1931. In the chamber, two skeletons were found lying on a stone slab and facing east. They were never properly examined, so we don’t know how big they were, what state they were in, or even if they were male or female.

Legend claims that Sheebeg is the burial mound of Grainne, (she who makes lots of tea according to the children’s textbook featured in my previous post!) who was the daughter of High King Cormac mac Airt, wife of Fionn mac Cumhall, and lover of Diarmuid. However, as she was only married to Fionn for a matter of hours before eloping with Diarmuid, and as she stayed true to him until the day he died, I personally think it is more likely that if she was buried with anyone, it would be her life’s love, Diarmuid.

Flaskagh Mor. This legend intrigued me. Flaskagh Mor lies along the Co Roscommon and Co Galway border.  The land is forested and managed by Caoillte, allowing public access for walking, and contains a megalithic tomb. Fionn is said to be buried in a cave at Flaskagh Mor which opens only once every three hundred years. I suspect, however, that the cave is more likely to be the entrance to the tomb, rather than a natural feature. Why Fionn would be buried here is a mystery to me; although the Fianna roved far and wide, I cannot pin the area to any particular adventure associated with him. Perhaps there is someone out there who knows the answer. Flaskagh Mor is still on my To Visit list.

Lyracrompane, In Irish, Ladhar an Crompáin, meaning ‘the space between converging rivers’, is located in the Stacks Mountains, Co Kerry, between the Smearlagh and Crumpane Rivers. This legend is quite bizarre!

After the Battle of Ventry Harbour, Fionn and the Fianna camped in the Stack’s Mountains, while they hunted deer and fished for salmon in the River Smearlagh. One day, Fionn jumped across a ravine in pursuit of a stag. On his return, for some strange reason, he decided to jump the ravine backwards, and (not surprisingly) fell to his death. He is said to buried near by.

There is a walk around the area named after him. Definitely one for the To Visit list, next time I am in Kerry, which will hopefully be this summer!

Seefin, The Sheep’s Head Peninsula, Co Cork. Seefin is the highest peak on the ridge, which has a cairn on the top named after Fionn. Local legend says he joined with the King of Bantry for a while, during which time he demonstrated his excellent hunting skills, with which none could compete. There is another site nearby called Finn Mac Cool’s Seat. Still on my To Visit list, not just for the archaeology, but because I like the high lonely places, and for the stunning views.

Fincairn Hill, Co Monaghan

Fincairn Hill, Co Monaghan

Finncairn Hill, Monaghan. Fionn’s grave is said to be located on the side of the hill, overlooking the Owenbeg River. There is also said to be a standing stone there. I visited the hill last year, but was unable to gain access from the local landowner… maybe another time.

This was the site I chose to be the final resting place for Fionn in my book, Conor Kelly and The Fenian King. Why? The Fianna roamed far and wide, hunting the length and breadth of the land. As a result, here are many sites named for Fionn in Cavan and Monaghan, some natural, eg rivers, and some man-made, ie cairns and stone rows, with their associated stories.

As I stood there, looking up at the hilltop, it felt like such an unlikely place for a hero to be buried. Somehow, that felt right. This place had been overlooked, ignored, left in peace. If he is resting somewhere, awaiting that call, I doubt it would be somewhere obvious, or busy with tourists. It would be somewhere quiet, peaceful, that he could hear the call when it comes; somewhere he would not be disturbed before the appointed time.

Loughanleagh | Co Cavan’s Well of Healing

The stone circle at Loughanleagh.

The stone circle at Loughanleagh.

On New Year’s Day, my lovely friend Jenni and I braved the howling wind and downpour for what has become our traditional annual exploration of what Co Cavan has to offer… and there’s a whole lot more than you might think. I can’t understand why this beautiful historic county is so undervalued in terms of tourism. But that is a post for another day.

Loughanleagh lies a touch beyond Bailieborough on it’s Kingscourt side. Its name comes from the Irish Lough an Leighiswhich means ‘Lake of Cures’. This lake was renowned for the curative effect of its mud on skin complaints, and in days gone by, during the last two Sundays of July, people used to come in their thousands, seeking healing in the water.

It was said that the lake had magical properties, for its water level never rose or fell; that the water was deep but that there was no evident source; that there was no stream which drained from it; that the sun never danced on its surface; that it’s temperature never fluctuated, even in the most extreme weather conditions, and that it had never frozen.

Unfortunately, the lake no longer exists; years of sustained turf cutting has drained the water from its bed, but the memory of its power, and the associated legends linger on.

Adrian's Way, Loughanleagh

Adrian’s Way, Loughanleagh

We walked the path known as Adrian’s Way. This route is 7km long, ascends and descends quite steeply in places, takes in exposed tops and woodland, passes the sites of three ancient cairns, and affords fine views over thirteen counties… during finer weather.

According to folklore, the cairns were formed when an old woman known as the Cailleagh was carrying stones in her apron. She dropped some at Loughanleagh and also at Loughcrew, thus the ancient burial mounds were formed.

This character is thought to be a representation of the Morrigan. Like many female Irish deities, she was said to have had three aspects which corresponded with the cycle of her life; the maiden, the mother and the crone, or Cailleagh.

She was said to have once had a battle with St Patrick at Loughanleagh whilst he was preaching mass there. She approached in the form of a beautiful woman riding in a carriage. As she neared the congregation, she snatched a handful of berries from a roadside shrub (they were possibly bilberries, as they grow in abundance at Loughanleagh).

On eating them, she was transformed into a horrible monster, whereupon she immediately set about devouring people. St Patrick dropped to one knee and whacked her with his staff. She immediately exploded in a shower of tiny pieces.

There is a very well defined cup mark in a rock in the centre of a stone circle (more of a horse-shoe, really) near the spot where St Patrick vanquished this monstrosity. This is said to be the imprint of his saintly knee, as he knelt to deal the deadly deed.

It is well known in Irish mythology that through water lies the way to the Otherworld, also known as Manannán’s Land. This was also true of Loughanleagh, for according to legend, it was used as a gateway between worlds by a large fairy hare with one red eye in the middle of its forehead.

You can find out more about Loughanleagh on this website, and if you are ever heading in this direction, I highly recommend a visit… you’ll be glad that you did.

Answer: Not Kells!

Sadly, you have to go all the way to Dublin to see this famous manuscript, which now resides in the library at Trinity College.

The famous Book Of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament written in Latin and highly decorated, it really is a work of art. It is believed to have been written around 800BC by Columban monks from Iona, and is named after the town of Kells because it was kept at the abbey there for many centuries.

Despair not, my friends, because you don’t have to go all the way to Dublin to view this masterpiece, oh no! For through the wonders of modern technology you can view it in its entirety right here on aliisaacstoryteller… I give you… The Book of Kells!  Read More

The Hill of Tara, also known as Teamhair na Ri in Irish, is located on the River Boyne near Navan in County Meath.

Along with Newgrange, Tara is probably one of the most famous and most visited ancient sites in Ireland, and for good reason; it is believed to have once been a sacred site associated with ancient kingship rituals. Now, there is not much left to see but for the raised mounds, banks and ditches which stretch over this vast and historic site.

The summit is crowned with the Fort of Kings, or Royal Enclosure (Rath na Rí in Irish). It measures 318m by 264m, and is surrounded by a ditch and bank. The most prominent earthworks on the site are the two linked enclosures within it known as Cormac’s House (Teach Chormaic), and the Forradh, or Royal Seat. You can just make out the standing stone, the Lia Fail, in the centre of the Forradh (the left hand enclosure).  Read More

Teltown | Legendary Home of Tailtiu, Last Queen of the Fir Bolg

This picture shows my son Cai watching the fish jump in the River Blackwater at Tailteann.

The Teltown complex is vast, and rather elusive. Despite following signs and maps, the various monuments are hard to find and easy to miss. Teltown (Tailteann, in Irish) is an area located between Navan and Kells on the River Blackwater in Co Meath. Today, there is not much left of this once massive and important ancient site.

The Yellow Book of Lecan (in Irish Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin) written in C15th records over fifty monuments, including several artificial loughs and an ancient roadway. Only the partial remains of two mounds and an earthwork embankment are all that have survived the irrepressible advance of farming on the landscape. Read More

 I had very few expectations of The Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach in Irish) when I went there for the first time, but as with Shee Mor, it turned out to be one of those ancient places of Ireland which just blew me away.

It’s hard to get an exact meaning for the name Uisneach. It derives from the Irish word for water, uisce (pronounced ish-ka) and a god of the Tuatha de Danann named Nechtan. Not a great deal is known about Nechtan; the name is possibly a variant of Nuada Argetlam, or some say another name for the Dagda. The Hill of Uisneach is said to be located near Nechtan’s well, which also happens to be the source of the River Boyne.

The interesting thing about Nechtan’s Well, is that it might also be the same pool where Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge (more about him later) ate the nuts which fell from the nine enchanted hazel trees into the water, and thus acquired his knowledge. I would so love this to be true! Read More

I first came to Moytura in Co Sligo in search of the places linked with the tales of Irish mythology upon which I was basing my books. Moytura, or Moytirra as it is still called today, is reputedly the site of the Second Battle of Moytura between the Tuatha de Danann and their long-time enemies, the Fomori.

Located between Geevagh and Riverstown in the townland of Ballinphuill, Lough na Suil (which means ‘Lake of the Eye’) lies on the edge of the battle site, not far from Heapstown Cairn.

It is said that once in every hundred years the lake mysteriously empties overnight and refills itself. Records show that this did indeed occur in 1833, 1933, and then at intervals of twenty years or so, until most recently in 2006 and 2012.

But is this due to magic and myth, or is there some other, more realistic explanation?

The most popular reason given for this sudden mysterious draining of the lake lies in the structure of the ground beneath it. The basin of the Lough rests in a karst limestone layer which is full of underground caverns and rivers. As water seeps through cracks and fissures in the limestone, they eventually widen over time to become sink holes. These holes often become blocked with mud, silt and other debris which on occasion collapses, causing the Lough to appear to empty almost overnight.

There is another reason, though. Some believe that the lake empties once in every hundred years to ensure people never forget the atrocities of the Battle of Moytura which took place there. Needless to say, I like this idea!

In mythology, Lough na Súil is where Danann High King and Master of All Arts, Lugh Lámfhada defeated his grandfather, the Fomori Giant-King, Balor of the Evil Eye.

He killed him by famously throwing his spear (although some versions of the story claim it was a sling-stone) an incredibly long distance into Balor’s eye, thus earning himself the epithet ‘Long Arm’, or in Irish Lámfhada (pronounced La-wa-tha). Balor fell face down into the ground, his evil eye burning a great crater in the earth which filled up with water, and so the Lough was formed.

After the battle, Lugh cut off Balor’s head and hung it in a nearby hazel tree. Over the course of many years, the poison from his evil eye dripped down into the tree’s roots. Finally, the tree was overcome by the poison and split apart.

Seeing this, the sea god Manannán decided to harness the powerful properties of the wood and make a shield from it. Unfortunately, in the felling of the tree, eighteen men were killed by its poison, and a further nine killed as they fashioned the wood into the shield.

Manannán covered it with the skin of a sacred bull and marked it with druidic symbols, probably Ogham. Eventually, he gave the shield as a gift to Fionn mac Cumhall.

There is a Neolithic court tomb with a U-shaped court leading to a gallery of four chambers located on the battle site, known as The Giant’s Grave. The cairn infill material is long since gone, but the stone outline can still be seen. As Balor is the only giant mentioned in the mythology of the battle, it is quite possible that his body was carried here by his men and the cairn raised over him.

In 1929, Fr Sharkey, a local parish priest marked the 3000th anniversary of the Battle of Moytura by predicting the emptying of the Lough, and organised a huge festival in celebration of the event.

Unfortunately, the waters failed to recede to order, and the Lough did not drain until 1933, four years later. Apparently, a huge number of fish were found wedged in a muddy hole in the lake bed some fourteen feet deep, and consequently shared out amongst the astonished local population.

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