Of Words and Water #2: The Healing Power of Water

Lough RamorI have always lived near water. In Co Cavan, where I now live, it is said there is a lake for every day of the year…that’s a lot of water! If Wicklow is the Garden of Ireland, then Cavan must surely be Ireland’s Lake District.

I come from a much more well known lake District; Cumbria, in England. There, the lakes thread their way like silver ribbons along the narrow valley floors between cloud-skimming, rocky mountain peaks. Here, the landscape is gentler, the lakes varying in size and shape, reflecting softer, round-shouldered hills to the sky, along with an abundance of trees, and an unfaltering vista of vibrant green.

In ancient Ireland, people believed these lakes were the gateway to the Other World, perhaps because they saw a world reflected therein which looked much like their own, yet vanished with the merest touch of the surface.

They also believed in the healing power of these waters. Just as in later times, the Romans established towns, such as Bath, where they believed the water was beneficial to their health. Perhaps the most famous of all healing water is to be found at Lourdes. But whether the healing comes from the chemical properties of the water, or divine intervention, is open to interpretation.

The ancient Irish had their own way of doing things. At times of conflict, for example, their armies’ physicians would select a suitable lake, establishing it as a Well of Healing by casting into it a mixture of medicinal herbs, and weaving incantations and magic between the waters’ molecules. Battle weary warriors would then bathe in the water.

Cavan lakes are cold…very cold! That water would have chilled them to the bone, stealing all sensation, washing away the blood and dust and sweat of battle, the ebb and flow supporting their tired, aching limbs, numbing the pain of their hurts. They would emerge enlivened, re-energised, refreshed. Healed.


These legends live on, and there are still lakes in Ireland with memories of their healing power attached to them, today. I, personally, have been healed by my nearest lake, Lough Ramor, on many occasions, but in a more subtle way. A walk along the shores of Lough Ramor never fails to ease my mind in times of stress, find a solution to a problem, or even dissolve a writer’s block.

We are the lucky ones, that water is so freely available and abundant to us, we can attribute more uses to it than merely drinking it.

Imagine living in such a dry, dusty country, that you can’t grow food because you have no water; you can’t sustain livestock, because you can’t grow the food to nourish them, because you don’t have water. The only water you do have, is dirty and brown, but you save it as if it was precious, giving it to your children who are most precious of all, knowing that if you don’t give it they will die, yet if you do give it, you risk passing on disease.

Wateraid works with such people around the world to provide access to clean, healthy water. Water which is safe to drink. Water which enables them to grow food and keep livestock. This simple provision of water enables these people to have a decent quality of life, and to live healthily and independently. That’s all they want. It’s not much to ask. So lets help.

Of Words and Water are a group of independent authors who have donated their writing to an anthology of the same name, with the aim of raising money to support Wateraid’s vital work. You can download a copy on Smashwords (available July 1st); it’s free! All we ask is that you visit our Just Giving page here, and make a donation to Wateraid in return.

Thanks, and hope you enjoy the stories!

MacCool by Name, and Cool by Nature

Ok, I promised it, so here it is; the second part of my retelling of the Fionn mac Cumhall story.


Fiacha’s Gift


In the cold light of morning, when the bravado of too much wine had worn off, leaving a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and a nagging ache in his head, Fionn mac Cumhall sat contemplating his rash actions with some regret.

“Fourteen summers are all that I have seen of this life,” he muttered bitterly. “What have I done?”

Fiacha’s voice was brisk and cheerful in reply. “You must live by your actions, young Fionn. Fourteen years or forty, you must make them count. Act only in the way which makes men speak of you with love and admiration. And above all, learn by your mistakes.”

Fionn’s sombre grey eyes met Fiacha’s. “I hear you, Uncle.”

They were sitting outside the entrance of their tent, a small camp fire blazing merrily before them. A serving woman was cooking porridge for them, and water was boiling for tea.

There were many other tents pitched within Tara’s palisade walls, and also beyond them. The festival of Samhain was not just a feast and celebration. It was also an occasion for trading, forming alliances and political treaties, for brokering marriages and fostering, and for men to compete at sports, showing off their prowess. Lesser Kings, their ladies, servants, warriors and children milled in and around the tents, all going about their daily business. Dogs scavenged for scraps, fighting amongst themselves; chickens wandered freely, horses neighed. For a moment, Fionn felt overwhelmed by it all. He closed his eyes, and rested his head in his hands, giving in to the dull throb which pounded in his skull.

leaf bladed celtic spear

“Here, drink this.” Fiacha thrust a beaker of hot tea into his hands. “The wine has sucked the fluid from you. This will settle your stomach, and take the thunder from your head.”

Fionn sipped it gratefully, although it tasted foul. “How can I face Aillen like this? How can I fight magic with a sword and spear? What was I thinking?”

“You weren’t thinking, lad. That’s the problem. Luckily for you, your skill with sword and spear far outweigh that of any human, in spite of your youth. You have been trained in the arts of combat by none other than the mighty warrior-woman, Liath Luachra. Not many can say that. What she can’t teach you is not worth learning. Your strength and skills surpass even her own. Why do you think that is?”

Fionn shrugged.

Fiacha sighed. “Think, boy! It comes through the line of your mother’s people. Nuada was your great grandfather. From him, you have inherited great might in battle.”

“But he had the Sword of Light,” Fionn protested, unwilling to believe that his battle skills alone could save him.

“So he did.” Fiacha’s voice dropped to a whisper, and he glanced about hurriedly, as if ensuring there was no-one nearby to overhear. “You may not have the Sword, but you have inherited something equally as valuable from your mother’s people. I think now is the time for you to receive it.” He stood, and stooped through the entrance into the tent.

Forgetting his sore head and rebellious belly, Fionn followed, sudden excitement coursing through him.

Fiacha was holding a long, thin package. “This belongs to you.”

Fionn took the package and carefully stripped away the leather and sheepskin wrappings. They were quite stiff; clearly they had not been removed for a very long time.

Fenian warrior and spear

“It’s a spear.”

“A very old, and very special spear,” breathed Fiacha, his eyes full of awe as he gazed at it.

It was a beautiful weapon. The head was made from dark bronze, tapering gracefully into a fine, fearfully sharp point. The edges glittered in the tent’s half-light. It was fastened to the haft by thirty rivets of gold. The haft was made of rowan, darkened with age, worn smooth and polished by the grip of many hands through the years. Fionn hefted the spear, testing its weight. It was perfectly balanced, as if made specifically for him.

“Where did you get it?”

“It belonged to you father. It was given him by your mother, Muirne, but he was just a mortal, and never learned how to use it. It came to Muirne from her brother, when he died.”

“This is Lugh’s spear? The one with which he slew Balor?”

Fiacha smiled. “The very same. And now it belongs to you, Fionn mac Cumhall. Take it, and use it well. I have a feeling that with it, you will make history.”

“How can this be? It has a bronze head and gold rivets. Iron would be so much stronger. This cannot be Lugh’s Spear,” he protested.

“Bronze was used in ancient times, before the way with iron was learned. The Tuatha de Denann brought that knowledge to Ireland. But they also brought that spear with them. Perhaps it was already ancient, even then. One thing is for certain, its point and edges have not dulled with time, and its magic is famous still. If it was strong enough to defeat Balor, it must certainly be capable of killing Aillen.”

Fionn grasped the spear firmly, naturally adopting throwing stance, and with a sudden leap felt its power travel through his hand, into his arm, and surge through his body.

“There is magic in this spear,” he said. “I can feel it. But how do I master it?”

Fiacha’s smile faded. “That, I’m afraid, is something I cannot tell you. The blood of mere mortals flows in my veins, but yours, Fionn, is mingled with that of the Sidhe. It is up to you to find the way of it, for I know not. I suggest you go somewhere distant and quiet, and learn it quickly, for there are only a few hours of the day left before you meet Aillen.”


Hope you enjoyed it! Part Three will follow soon. Ali x

I just love a strong, handsome hero…especially if he’s Irish!

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????And if the legends which shroud him go back thousands of years, so much the better. How exciting it is, to put flesh on the bones of the enigmatic heroes of mythology, to breathe life into their memory, and bring them back to the land of the living. I’m co-habiting with Fionn, now. He’s part of the furniture. I’m getting to know him. And one thing I’ve learned, is that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, that they have all the same flaws and weaknesses as the rest of us, but that they somehow learn to rise above them when necessary. No-one is born a hero; it is something one has to work hard for. Neither does it come easy. The Irish legendary hero endures much in order to achieve his status. He has to work twice as hard to maintain it.


So, let me introduce you to Fionn mac Cumhall. I’m sure you’ve all heard of him. he started out as just a boy who applied himself to his battle training and education. Here is my retelling of how he came to win his place at the head of the Fianna.




Part One

Deimne the Fair

 one thousand eight hundred years ago…


“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.

It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. Now they crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.

When he was sure he had their full attention, the Filidh continued, his voice rising, throbbing with the emotion and power of the words he brought to life before his audience. He stared round at them all, as if daring someone to disagree, his eyes boring into the soul of every one of them, or so it seemed.

Cormac mac Art

“Samhain is the night when all good people stay indoors, for on this night, the Sidhe will rise up and cause their mischief, as it has always been since the days they were banished by the race of mankind to their lands beneath the hills.


“And on this night, just to show he still wields power enough that we should fear him, and remain beholden to him, the Fairy-Prince, Aillen mac Midhna, will come from his fairy-halls at Finnechaidh, playing soft sweet music on his magic harp, lifting his beautiful voice in song, that all who hear it will fall entranced within his spell.

“While they sleep their magic sleep, he will demonstrate his strength with fire, and wipe the court of Tara from this hill with flame, which he claims belongs not to man but to the Sidhe, who were here before us, when they were known as the Tuatha de Denann. Yet just to show his benevolence, not a man, woman or child will be harmed, but wake at cock-crow from the most wondrous, soothing sleep, to find their fair city ruined, charred, blackened in smoke, and the shining palace of Tara reduced once more to ash.

“So it has been for nine years past, and so henceforth will it always be.”

He glared at them, defiant, angry, sad. Glancing round, the boy Deimne saw that the audience had caught on to the bard’s sombre mood. Firelight flickered on distraught faces, hands remained curled around beakers or drinking horns, but did not raise them to thirsty lips, food remained untouched on plates as those devastating words sank in.

Fionn, Bran and Sceolan“Is this true?” he whispered in his foster-father’s ear. Fiacha mac Conga, who was also his uncle, nodded curtly. He looked troubled.

“Aye, lad. And it seems there is nothing anyone can do about it, though many have tried.”

“But Tara was won fair and square from the Sidhe when the sons of Mil defeated them in battle. Why does Aillen cause trouble, after so many years of peace?”

Fiacha sighed, and shrugged. “Who can explain the workings of the minds of the Sidhe? Their logic is not like ours, and they cannot be reasoned with. Some bear more resentment against us than others, I guess. That has always been the way of it, even amongst our own kind.”

Deimne sat back on his stool, thinking. Fiacha placed a hand on his shoulder. “This is not your battle, boy. You are young, with much to prove, but do not do it this way.”

“Of course it’s my battle! Through my father, Cumhall, I have inherited my place among mankind. But my mother, Muirne, was born of Eithniu and of Tadgh, son of Nuada Argetlam. That means I am also descended from the Sidhe. This makes it more my battle than anyone else here.”

swordfightFiacha noted the stubborn set of Deimne’s jaw, and the determination in his eye, and knew he could not dissuade him. “I saw that look in your father’s face after he abducted your mother from Tadgh and refused to give her up. He went to war against the High King to defend his love for her, and lost his life in so doing. A man of principle is to be admired, but do not let principle cloud your better judgement.”


The young man stared at his foster father. “Wise words as ever, Uncle. I will always heed your counsel,” he said with a grin.

“Aye, heed and ignore it,” Fiacha answered, with a smile of his own. “But hush now, the High King himself is about to speak.”

ll eyes were turned now upon the throne, where Cormac the Wise and Just, Ard Ri of all Ireland lifted his shaggy, dark head and addressed his people. His face was sorrowful, his voice mournful.

Fianna and Hounds“My Royal Bard speaks truly. The tale he tells is exactly so, as many of you know. Tomorrow night, on the eve of Samhain, Aillen will lay waste to Tara with fire. As your Ard Ri, I have sought to resolve this matter in any way I can, but the truth is, I have failed you. Aillen will not be reasoned with, dissuaded or bought. He will not fight, he will not agree to single combat, hostages, fosterlings, or inter-marriage. Many have tried to stop him to no avail. There is no telling when the music will start, yet once it does one cannot avoid its spell. So I tell you now, go away from this place in the morning, if you would not be part of it, and I will not think the less of you. If you have the stomach for it, stay and help us rebuild, for I will not let Aillen have Tara. This is the seat of the High King, and I solemnly declare that in the hands of mankind it will remain.”

Cormac glared into the fire, as if he could see Aillen dancing in its flames.

Before anyone could even raise so much as a cheer, Deimne sprang from his seat, and threw himself onto his knees before the King.

Aillen mac Midhna“My Lord, I will rid you of this Aillen,” he declared boldly.

Cormac stared at him in astonishment. “You? You are not much more than a boy. Who are you?”

Deimne stood proudly before his King. “My name is Deimne the Fair, son of Cumhall of Clan Baiscne. Most just call me Fionn mac Cumhall.”


There was a gasp at this announcement, and a wave of muttering. The crowd leaned forward, agog. Everyone knew that Cumhall had been the leader of Cormac’s Fianna, and that he had defied Cormac over his love for the bride he had been denied. They also knew that he had lost his life at the hands of Goll mac Morna, and that this had started a blood feud between the two clans.

Cormac smiled. “I knew your father well, young man. He was my good friend, someone I trusted, before he fell for your mother’s beauty. That changed everything, yet I still cannot but think of him fondly. Fionn mac Cumhall, you are welcome in my court, and this is the name by which I will call you.”Goll mac Morna

“Thank you, my Lord. This is my first time to Tara. I came to offer you my services as a warrior in your Fianna. Furthermore, I would serve you by ridding you of this fiery curse.”

Cormac sighed. “Ah, the hot-headed fervour of youth. Why is it that all young men think they are invincible? Many have tried before you, and all of them lost their lives. Do not go the way of your father.”

Fionn was resolute. “Still, I would try.”

“Then try you must. If you succeed, you will win your place in my Fianna, and my eternal gratitude. But if you fail, know that you will burn to dust, and your name will be forgotten before you have had the chance to make it.” Cormac raised his goblet and sipped at his wine.  Fionn hesitated.

“There is more?” inquired the King in some surprise, seeing that Fionn had not moved.

Aillen with harpFionn held his ground, although he was fair trembling inside. “Well, Sire, yes there is. If I succeed, I would have you uphold my birth-right to the leadership of the Fianna.”

At these bold words, the silence was immediately replaced with uproar. A large, well-muscled warrior leapt to his feet, sword in hand, from his place at table beside the King. His face was dark with anger.

“Sire, I am leader of the Fianna! I won my place fairly and would not have it stolen from me by this young upstart,” he snarled.

“Put away your sword, Goll,” exclaimed the King, irritably. “No-one is disputing your position. Do you really think this young man, brave as he is, can defeat Aillen when so many, more experienced than he, failed?”

“I know who you are, Goll. You killed my father. When I have defeated Aillen, I will come looking for you, and then I will kill you, too,” said Fionn quietly, and all who heard him or saw him did not doubt him.

Goll slammed his sword back into its sheath. “Empty threat. You will not live to fulfil it,” he growled.

The summit of the Hill of Tara“Enough!” snapped Cormac. “I will not have such talk in my court. Take your differences outside and settle them in any way you wish, but here and now is not the place or time. Young pup, if by any chance you do manage to defeat Aillen, I would gladly surrender the leadership of the Fianna to you, for such a man would indeed be worthy. Fortunately for Goll, that outcome is unlikely, and he has nothing to fear. Fionn, I tell you this honestly, for it seems you are as stubborn as your father, and will not be dissuaded.”


The King called for more wine, and Fionn knew his audience was at an end. He slipped back into his seat, glowing with pride and satisfaction. Only to receive a cuff to the head from an angry Fiacha. There was a ripple of laughter from those seated nearby.

“What did you do that for?” he demanded, his pride hurt more than his head.

Fiacha’s eyes blazed. “How dare you challenge the High King like that? How dare you bring such shame down upon your family?”

“Shame? What do you mean?”

English: Bran & Sceolan In Kildare Village, Nu...“Well, what is your plan? How does the mighty Fionn mac Cumhall propose to defeat Aillen, when so many others have failed?”

“I haven’t exactly worked that part out, yet,” Fionn admitted, rubbing his head.

Fiacha shook his head despairingly, but his expression relaxed into fondness. “That is what I mean by shame. You are so exactly like your father; you act without first thinking. Well, heed this wisdom, boy; never promise something you can’t achieve. Luckily, I have a plan which may help you.”


Hope you enjoyed Part One. The next instalment will be posted in the next few days. Ali.




The Dord Fiann ConfusionV1

English: Celtic museum in Hallein ( Salzburg )...

In my research of all things Fianna, I have come across numerous references to the mysterious war-cry of the Fenian war band as the ‘Dord Fiann’.


Don’t get me wrong; undoubtedly the Fianna did have their own unique battle chant as they charged into the fight.


But a Dord is an ancient Irish war horn, very similar to the Celtic carnyx. It looked like a huge S-shaped trumpet which the player held to his lips, and it loomed over the heads of the ranks of the army like a giant up-raised elephant’s trunk. I’m sure its ghostly, wailing cry would have stirred the blood of the Fenians, and struck terror into the hearts of their enemies.


But more than that, it also had a practical use. In the tumult of battle, it would have been difficult to communicate with large ranks of war-frenzied men and direct them. Different sounds and notes blown on the Dord were used to issue commands, ie go forward, retreat and regroup, mount up, etc. and would have been instantly recognisable to the Fianna.


To see images of how the Dord may have looked, and hear how it may have sounded and been used in battle, click this link.


Now for the science bit; The Dord dates back to approximately 1000BC, in bronze age Ireland. It is very similar to the Celtic Carnyx, the name deriving from the Gaulish word ‘carn’ or ‘cern’, meaning ‘antler’, or ‘horn’. it was typically about 6ft in length, and made of bronze, with no mouthpiece as such, just a rim, and the bell being made in the image of some fierce wild animal, such as a boar. It has a range of about 5 octaves, which is much greater than most current brass instruments.


The Dord Fiann itself is called the ‘Borabu’, and was said to have been found under a stone by Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, Oisin. It is said that only three blasts of the Borabu will wake Fionn from his sleep under the green hills of Ireland.


There are some fine examples of the Dord in the Museum of Archaeology in Dublin; I wonder if anyone has ever tried sounding them…


I just love researching for my books!

I do, I really do! Sometimes it’s even more fun than the actual writing! Why do I say this?

FionnBecause today I discovered something wonderful. I was looking up Fionn mac Cumhall’s family tree. His father was Cumhall (obviously!), and his mother was Muirna, ‘of the white neck’.

Muirna’s father was Tadgh, son of King Nuada who brought the Tuatha de Denann to Ireland. So she is descended from the Denann. I knew that already.

Here’s where it get’s exciting.

Muirna’s mother was Eithniu, daughter of the Fomori Giant-King, Balor. Balor was killed at the Second Battle of Moytura…by his grandson, BalorLugh.

Are you with me?

Eithniu was Muirna’s mother. She was also Lugh’s mother. That means Muirna is Lugh’s half-sister!

Wow, what an unexpected connection! Lugh is a key figure in ‘The Tir na Nog Trilogy’. Fionn mac Cumhall features in my new book, ‘The Fenian King’, but when I started writing it, I had no idea that these two characters were related.

LughIt makes no difference to the story, unless somewhere along the line it sparks off a new sub-plot. (Hmmm…thinking about that possibility now. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?!)

But just knowing it adds a whole new dimension to my pleasure and enthusiasm for writing this story, as I sit here at my red desk, typing it all into FoxyRoxy.

And just in case you’re interested, I am now approximately 10% into writing ‘The Fenian King’.

England’s most famous historical hero is arguably that mystical, mythical, most noble of Kings, Arthur Pendragon. He and his Knights of the Round Table were renowned for their chivalry, and their unerring search for the Holy Grail.

I grew up on these stories. Not only did I read the legends, but also all the modern research to try to get to the truth about this elusive character.

Arthur ruled circa fifth century AD. Yet there is no hard evidence to prove it. Some say he was never actually a king at all, but rather a clan chieftain, and leader of an army, or mercenary war band which fought off invading Saxons. Read More

What’s in a Name?

Well, in Ireland, quite a lot! Most of us don’t really think too much about what a name means, except perhaps when naming a new born child. Even then, there may be other more pressing factors affecting our choice, such as naming the child after a dearly departed loved one, for example. But Irish names all have meaning, and therefore, they have power. And it’s one of the many reasons why I love Ireland and its language so much.

Take for example the name ‘Conor’; it’s one of the more familiar Irish names, short, strong-sounding, easy to spell and say, a very popular choice amongst parents all around the world, not just in Ireland. It’s also the name of the hero of my book, The Four Treasures of Eirean, as many of you will know, and I chose it for those very reasons. But did you know that in its Irish form, it would be spelled ‘Conchobhar’? Not quite so easy to spell or say! It comes from the legendary High King of Ireland, Conaire Mor, who was reputed to have lived at the time of Christ, and actually means ‘lover of hounds’.

The name ‘Rory’ is an anglicised version of ‘Ruairi’, or ‘Ruaidhri’, which also features in my book, and means ‘Red King’. Red-haired, or red with the blood of his enemies he spilled? We don’t know, but we do know that Ireland’s history and mythology is full of kings named ‘Ruairi’. Quite possibly, these names were titles or epithets, just as England’s King Arthur was called ‘the Bear’. (Incidentally, ‘Art’ or ‘Artur’ is also an old Irish name meaning ‘bear’.)

And this doesn’t just apply to people, but places, too. I live near a small town in Co Cavan called Virginia, but in Irish, its name is ‘Achadh an Iuir’. This is believed to mean ‘the field at the fork of the river’, some say ‘the field of the yew’, but ‘luir’ is a similar word which derives from an old Irish word meaning ‘water’. As the town is built on the shores of the vast Lough Ramor, to me ‘field of water’ makes more sense. The Irish language seems to be as complex, and ambiguous, and open to interpretation as its mythology!

The Four Treasures of Eirean is based on this land, this language, this mythology, and readers have often commented to me on their confusion over characters names and pronunciation. If you have read the book, you will know it comes with a guide. If you haven’t, you will find the guide on this site. I say, don’t get hung up on correct pronunciation, or you will allow it to get in the way of the story. Just say the names how they most feel comfortable to you.

I have never heard anyone criticise Tolkien for the strange names of his characters, of which there were many, most just as indecipherable as my Irish ones! He based them on his own made-up languages; the language mine are taken from is real. The same can be said of Eddings, and practically all other fantasy writers. It’s a fact; fantasy novels are full of weird, unpronounceable names, and no-one bats an eyelid. Why should the names of my characters be treated any differently?

Someone once suggested that I get rid of all these ‘ugly names’ (true!) and swap them for nice, easy ones like ‘Eric’ and ‘John’ (also true!). I nearly choked on my cappuccino!(I know, I should have been drinking Barry’s Tea, but I wasn’t!). He was so missing the point.

This is IRISH mythology. Whether these characters actually existed in reality is irrelevant; the fact remains, they are solid and epic and larger than life in mythology, and those are the names they were given. Could you imagine Cuchullain becoming ‘Eric’? Or Fionn Mac Cool becoming ‘John’?

No. Neither can I.

So I’ll stick with my Irish names, and hope that you learn to love them as much as I do. Or at least find a way to pronounce them, at any rate!

Happy Crimbo Reading, everybody! Hope Santa brings you all the books you are dreaming of! Ali xxx