Conor Kelly and The Fenian King | An Excerpt

So sorry if anyone just received a blank post notification from me… somehow in the seconds between finishing this post and hitting the publish button, wordpress managed to lose my entire content. There have been some weird things going on at wordpress lately,,, gremlins in the machine?

Ali Isaac - Conor Kelly and the Fenian King

Hugh from Hugh’s Views and News has very kindly featured my book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King as his Book of the Month… cue sparkly lights and glitter! Yaaay! Thanks, Hugh! In tandem with this, you can find the book at only 99c/ 99p on Amazon, and completely FREE on Smashwords and associated retailers. And now, here is an excerpt…


Chapter Forty Two – The Disappeared

the present day…

 

Conor coughed and spluttered as the dust rose in clouds around him, then admonished himself; his body and lungs were safe in his aunt’s little Micra at the bottom of the hill. As a free roaming spirit, he couldn’t be harmed by clouds of dust, or collapsing masonry, or landslides, or whatever it was that had caused Sidhe Finn to cave in.

But Ciara could. What if she was killed, crushed beneath a fallen orthostat? What if…

Conor felt waves of panic swell inexorably through him like the tides of the sea. He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t see her. Even with his spirit eyes and his supernatural senses, he couldn’t detect any sign of her presence. It was as if she had simply vanished.

But that was impossible. Maybe she had got up and wandered outside, dazed and confused. Maybe she had a head injury, and didn’t know where she was. She could be out there, floundering about in a state of bewilderment.

Oh my God! She could fall off the cliff and plunge to an untimely death in the quarry…

He had to get out, had to find her. He took another quick look around. Many of the orthostats had fallen inward, held up from the floor only by the central pedestal which supported the coffin. A couple of the ancient stones had cracked in two. The coffin had been smashed into matchwood, but Conor saw no evidence of bones. Fortunately, much of the loose rubble which traditionally comprised the infill between the chamber ceiling and the mound had been removed by Aylmer’s builders, and replaced with blocks and mortar, thus forming a secure foundation for the tower. The old mortar had cracked and crumbled in places, releasing some of its bricks, but had mostly held firm. The devastation was not as terrible as he had expected.

But his heart jumped into his mouth when he realised that one huge, carved orthostat had collapsed directly onto the spot where Ciara had crouched the last time he had seen her. Its fall had not been halted by the softness of a body beneath it; no pool of blood lay spreading on the ground around it. The relief Conor felt on observing that was short-lived. Where was she?

Beside the stone, the flagstone with the Ogham symbol lay smashed into several pieces. It had been lifted from its resting place, and placed beside a small pit. Which, Conor noted with disappointment, was completely empty. Had Ciara found the missing mouthpiece and removed it? Or had she lifted the flagstone to find only an empty space and a sense of despair? He had to find her. Where was she?

Convinced at last that the chamber was completely empty, Conor allowed himself to drift up through the ceiling and into the circular chamber above. The stairs leading down from the entrance had collapsed into nothing more than an unstable pile of rock. He floated over it and out through the devastated doorway.

It was dark. The weak wash of moon and stars showed Conor that the hillside was deserted. After the explosions and collapse of the tower, it was eerily silent, almost as if nature itself was shocked at this traumatic turn of events.

He wandered around the remains of the tower, dejected and overwhelmed with guilt. There was no sign of Ciara.

Am I to blame? Did I cause this with the ferocity of my lightning attack on the tower? Or was it the quarry? I’m surprised the hill didn’t collapse years ago after such extensive mining. Surely it was an accident just waiting to happen; we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…weren’t we?

Pushing his way carefully between the yellow gorse bushes, Conor stood on the edge of the cliff and contemplated the drop. Was Ciara down there, broken and battered and bleeding? Far beneath him, a tear trailed down his face as, in the car, his inert body responded to his desolation.

The only way to find out was to leap down after her. Even knowing that he could not fall or be hurt, it took Conor a good few moments to find the courage to jump over the edge. He found it much easier to control his descent this time around. As the ground rushed up to meet him, he saw that the quarry men were running about in a panic. Alarms were sounding, people were shouting, but the drills were silent, and the trucks which transported rock and rubble lay abandoned.

Hmmm…looks like there’s been a bit of a disaster down here.

Conor levelled out a couple of metres from the ground and glided slowly along the base of the cliff, searching for Ciara. Eventually, elated, he had to conclude she had not fallen. His only other option was to search the path on his way back to the car. Perhaps she was already waiting there for him. With his spirits lifting, Conor retraced his journey. But Ciara was not there.

For what felt like the hundredth time, he wondered where on earth she was.

The car was waiting on the far side of the car park, just as they’d left it. Conor felt anxious now; for Ciara, and also for himself. His body was lying in wait for him on the back seat, but what if he couldn’t get back into it? He hadn’t stopped to contemplate how that part of the process was achieved. He might not be able to do it. What then? He had been outside of his body for quite a long time. He might not be able to readjust to its rhythms and limitations.

He went first to the front of the car, half expecting to see Ciara sitting there, impatiently waiting for him. She wasn’t.

What do I do now? Do I re-join my body, and wait? Or do I go out looking for her again? I’m really tied by my mobility if I re-enter my body at this stage. But the longer I leave it, the harder it’s going to get.

Conor wavered between his choices. Then the decision was snatched from him. When he looked in at the rear window, his body was gone.

smashwords-button  kindle-button


allen-collageAylmer’s Folly and Sidhe Fionn are real places. I visited them when I was researching for this book. You can read about them in my post, Almu | Home of Irish Legendary Hero Fionn mac Cumhall.


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The Crow and the Phantom Queen

I am busy working on two book projects at the moment, and it’s very exciting to see them both approaching publication. As a result, I haven’t had much time for blogging this week, so I thought I’d dust off an older post, for the newer followers who might not have seen it. For those of you who have, walk on by this week, and I promise I’ll have some newness for you next time. Bye for now!


In the gathering of huge trees in the churchyard opposite my house lives a colony of crows. They are noisy and gregarious, and I enjoy their hoarse, wild calls and feathery antics immensely.

Apparently, though, they might not be crows at all. Crows are said to be solitary creatures, but my neighbours certainly aren’t. They belong to the Corvus family of birds, ranging from the small jackdaw to the much larger raven.

Perhaps surprisingly, they are considered one of the world’s most intelligent creatures, right up there with the dolphin and the ape. If you don’t believe me, watch this short video… it’s amazing!

 

In tests, they have been found able to count up to 5, use tools to obtain food, and are even thought to be able to recognise humans by their facial features.

They are omnivorous, and will eat anything. They are  most well known for the damage they cause in fields of crops, hence the ‘scare-crow’, and also for eating carrion. In fact, they have been seen to harass foxes and birds of prey in attempts to steal from them their fresh kills.

It is perhaps for this desire to feast on the flesh of the freshly deceased that the crow and the other members of the Corvus family have been so reviled in the past. Undoubtedly, in ancient times, when our ancestors were more war-like than we are today, the crows would have gathered over the battlefield to take advantage of the dead bodies laid out for their delectation, and this would been observed with dread and abhorrence by survivors.


In Mythology

Around the world, the crow has been associated with war, death, the Otherworld, or as a cunning trickster not to be trusted. Despite this, there has also been a grudging acknowledgement of its intelligence.

In Irish mythology, the crow is seen as a manifestation of the Morrigan (in Irish, Mór-ríoghain), meaning phantom/great Queen. She was seen as a deity signifying ‘battle, strife and sovereignty’, a harbinger of war and death, who spoke of the battlefield as ‘her garden’. It was said that she would often fly above a battle, her cry bringing courage and encouragement to her warriors, whilst simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. Sometimes she would join in the battle in her human form.

There seems to be much confusion surrounding this particular deity. For a start, she has many names; the Morrigan,  Badbh (meaning crow), Macha, and Nemain are those most commonly used. Sometimes, the names Anann and Fea appear in conjunction with the others, too.

It is well known that the number 3 was held sacred to the ancient people, and so often she is depicted as three sisters, representing the three different aspects of the Goddess as mentioned above, but also perhaps the maiden, the mother and the crone. In that case, the term ‘the Morrigan’ is likely a title or epithet which could be applied to the threesome collectively.

In the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the tale of the first cycle of Ireland’s mythology, the Morrigan is said to be the daughter of Ernmas, and grand-daughter of King Nuada, who led the Tuatha de Danann into Ireland.

This is interesting, because one of the names given her is Macha, and Macha was actually Nuada’s wife, and mother of his four sons. She fought beside him in the Battles of Moytura, and was slain by Balor of the Fomori, whilst the Morrigan flew overhead in crow form, casting spells which bought forth strange poisonous fog and rains of fire and blood upon the heads of the enemy. She is also credited with various prophecies.

The Morrigan is also mentioned in the Tain Bó Cuailnge, Queen Medb’s famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, where she shape-shifts into the form of an eel, a wolf and a cow, as well as her more habitual crow. She has various interactions with hero Cúchullain, finally showing him an omen of his own death. Mortally wounded, he ties himself to a standing stone so that he can die on his feet,  whereupon she alights on his shoulder in her crow form to show his enemies he is dead.

The Morrigan is remembered in sites around Ireland which are named after her. In Co Tipperary, there is a fullachta fiadh called Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna ( the cooking pit of the Morrigan), and in Co Meath there are two hills known as Dá Chich na Mórrigna (the breasts of the Morrigan).

Finally, here is a poem I wrote about crows; it’s called Carrion.

Carrion

Cold crow,
black crow
sits in the tree.
I’m not afraid of him,
he’s not afraid of me.

He flaps and
he watches
with dark beady eye.
He knows things about me
as I stumble by.

Bold crow,
black crow
feeds on death.
He knows it won’t be long
till I draw my last breath.

Patiently,
he waited,
while the action in the field
overwhelmed me.
Thus my fate was sealed.

Cold crow,
black crow
cares not for human strife.
Our woes and battles
are just the stuff of life.

His voice is hoarse,
his cry sounds
triumphant intent.
I look back with regret
and sorrowful lament.

Bold crow,
black crow,
my soul will be renewed.
For I go now to meet my maker,
my flesh will be your food.


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I have been featured in Blackheath Dawn Magazine!

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I am the Guest Author featured in Blackheath Dawn Magazine today, and my Tir na Nog Trilogy is also represented in their Book Feature. So if you haven’t had enough Paddy’s Day fever yet, here is the link.

Irish Mythology | The Retreat of the Tuatha de Denann

Tree and reflection

For this week’s Monday Mythology, I have decided to give you a sneak peak into the opening of the third and final book of my Tir na Nog Trilogy, working title Conor Kelly and The Three Waves of Eirean.

This (unedited) extract is my telling of what happened after the Tuatha de Denann were defeated by the Milesians at the battle of Tailten, and were forced by trickery to retreat into their hollow hills. Although they still interacted with the mortal world well into Fionn mac Cumhall’s time (c C3rd AD), their time as Ireland’s rulers and Gods was over. For them, this was the beginning of the end, and the slippery slope of their decline into legend as the Sidhe.


Prologue – Denann’s Doom

four thousand years ago…

It was a wretched day. In the dark, blue-grey sky above, a shrieking wind tore water-sodden clouds apart, limb from limb. A long queue of people pressed slowly and dejectedly forward into the shadowy maw of a fissure in the mountain, clutching their few rescued possessions and the hands of their children. They consisted mostly of the very old and the very young, punctuated with the presence of the odd, injured warrior. The strong and able bodied were conspicuous by their absence. These were the pitiful remains of a people ravaged by war, defeated both in battle and in spirit. Recovery from such annihilation looked bleak.

Manannán stood and watched, his mouth pressed into a grim line of displeasure.

“I warned you mortals could not be trusted,” he muttered.

Beside him, Bodb Dearg, eldest son of the Dagda and newly elected High King, stirred from his silent reverie of sorrow and regret. “Aye, well that was long ago. Bridges were built and relationships formed since those dark days, connections strong and true that all thought unbreakable. None of us could have envisioned this.”

“You became complacent,” Manannán snapped, his eyes whorling alternately dark and light with anger, like the foamy-topped stormy seas of which he was Lord. “Humans have always envied and feared the Denann for their long life, their powers, their military prowess and grace, strength and beauty. It was a friendship doomed from the start.”

His companion bit back his own furious retort and shrugged, allowing his anger to dissipate up into the ether. What was the point of arguing? What was the point of anything, anymore? Their druids, their poets, their warriors, all their skilled crafts folk, every man and woman capable of fighting, yes even the children big enough to lift a weapon had been pressed into action. Their desperation had failed them. They were all gone. What chance had they of rebuilding? The mysterious knowledge which had once nurtured and sustained them was lost, had died along with those who had protected its secrets so well.

As a young man, Bodb Dearg had dreamed of one day wearing the King’s torc. Now, here he was, High King of the Denann, or what was left of them; a king without a land, his people once again homeless and displaced.

Generations ago, Nuada had led the Denann into Eire. Now he, Bodb Dearg, was fated to lead them away from the only home many of them had had ever known, tricked by the sons of Mil into a life of darkness below the gentle green hills of Ireland. It was not how he wished to be remembered by posterity.

“It’s still not too late.” The words encroached softly upon him, like the whisper of warm wavelets lapping on a soft, sandy shore.

He squared his shoulders and lifted his head proudly. “The Denann have chosen,” he said. His expression belied the trembling and uncertainty which fired within him, his voice sounding resolute as the great grey stones which guarded the Underworld’s entrance. “Many of us have kin here among the mortals. This land has become our home. We have given our bravest warriors to its defence. Our blood has watered its soil, our sacrifice has nourished its soul, our anguish floats in its air like breath. We can no more abandon it than we can our precious children. We have no choice, can’t you see that?”

The Sea-God cursed, his vehemence whipped up by his frustration, crashing down around them with the turbulent power of the three waves of Eirean. “Then there is only one thing left I can do for you,” he roared. “After that, I wash my hands of the stubborn children of Danu! Those of your people that wish it, I will take with me to my lands west beyond the ninth wave. As for the rest of you, you have chosen your fate, and I warn you, your persistence will not go well with mankind. They will fear and persecute you. They will defame you, and slander you. You will not like what they do to your memory, or your beloved land.”

With that, Manannán shook out his Cloak of Concealment and whirled it through the air. Bodb Dearg felt the leap and rush of powerful magic so ancient, even the Denann did not know the way of it. On the edges of his vision, a fluttering of mist began to creep forward, slowly obliterating the lie of the land beneath its white flimsy velvet.

Bodb Dearg caught his breath, choking back deep sorrow as he took his last hungry view of these sacred hills and vales. Who knew when it would be safe to venture forth in the future?

Manannán had done so much for them already. He it was, who had come to them in the depths of their despair, rallying and calling them to action, urging them to choose a leader and decide their fate, when their existence lay in tatters on the battlefield at Tailten. When the conquering Milesian leaders had mocked Denann integrity by choosing to rule that half of Ireland which lay above ground, dooming the defeated to what remained, he had found for them all the wildest, the most secret hills and valleys, where they could be shielded from human interference. There, they had built their palaces beneath the domed hills, their entrances to the forbidden land that Manannán had given them, the place to which mortals in time would attribute the label of ‘Otherworld’.

Now, as his final parting gift, he shrouded them in the Faeth Fiadha, the Master of Mist which would form the border between the mortal world and the magical realm, a boundary through which mortals would stray at their peril.

Bodh Dearg knew this new home of his, Sidhe Femen, with its lake at the summit, was only one of a number of sites around Ireland sinking into the fog of obscurity as the chosen Duns of his people, a network of fairy forts lost to human vision but connected by magic threads invisible and unfelt by dull mortal senses.

The dominion of the Denann was over, but Bodb Dearg knew that in their own way, the magical folk would always prevail.

 

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.

The Forge of Seamus Dubh | An Excerpt from Conor Kelly and The Fenian King

Image courtesy of Jeff Kubina, Wikipedia.
Image courtesy of Jeff Kubina, Wikipedia.

Chapter Fifty Two – The Forge of Seamus Dubh

in the void of fairy time…

 

Conor leaned over the edge of his chariot and stared. He had never seen anything quite like it. Standing beside him, Ciara was equally entranced. Conor stifled a grin; she had been walking around in a daze with eyes as wide as dinner plates, and a mouth as big as a train tunnel ever since they had stepped through the portal.

“This is Tir na Nog,” she had told him at one point, as if he hadn’t yet worked it out, her voice wonky with wonder. “We really are here.”

His own feelings about the magical realm were rather more complex; he knew, as she did not, that Tir na Nog was every bit as dangerous as it was beautiful and enchanting.

After parting with Finegas in Ballyfin, they had gone in search of food to satisfy his body’s ravenous hunger. The only place open at that time of the morning was a roadside garage, but they had all devoured the stale sandwiches and chocolate as if they were a fine feast. They had then driven into the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, abandoned the car, and Conor had opened a portal directly into the clearing in Gori where Annalee’s cottage was located.

The hounds had gone hunting, anxious to renew their old skills and stretch their muscles in ways they had long been unable in the mortal world. Conor suspected they would all be eating wild boar that night for dinner.

A telepathic message to his friend Darra soon had a group of excited Sidhe milling about in the clearing, all delighted at his return.

Darra had hugged him like a long lost brother. “You have returned to us, and just in time,” he exclaimed. “During the weeks you have been away, Faolan has been in secret  negotiations with the City of Fal, and we ride to their aid within the week.” The young man’s cheeks were flushed with excitement.

“Weeks?” exclaimed Conor in dismay. “It’s only been a couple of days, surely?”

Darra gave him a puzzled look. “Your time-keeping is poor, to say the least. You want to get your body clock checked out, friend. Don’t you feel the passage of time in your blood?”

“Never mind that. We need to get to the forge, at once. We found the missing piece of the Borabu, and we need to join them back together.”

Darra gave a long, low whistle. “That is great news. I will send for a chariot.” He gestured to a boy hovering nearby. “Hey, Tiernan, fetch a chariot for the Treasure Seeker, will you?” As the boy skipped off, he turned back to Conor. “But the forge is very busy, I’m afraid. Seamus is in his element, I can tell you, preparing weapons and armour for war. He will not take kindly to interruptions of any kind, particularly to repair something as trivial as a musical instrument.”

Conor shivered. He was not looking forward to dealing with the angry Seamus Dubh again. “What is it with blacksmiths?” he complained. “I hear Goibniu was bad tempered, too. Is it something to do with the heat of the forge? I don’t know how I’m going to cope with the two of them on my case.”

“Ah, well rather you than me, my friend,” replied Darra sympathetically.

Conor eyed his new chariot with distaste.

“Try not to destroy this one, Treasure Seeker. We need it for the war,” Darra said with a wink at Ciara, as he bundled Conor unceremoniously into the vehicle.

“Destroy it? I think it’s more likely to destroy me; the suspension on these things is rubbish. I think it will be more than just my legs which are disconnected by the time we get there. I’ll be lucky if I have any teeth left in my head. Is it far?”

“Not far,” promised Darra, taking hold of the pony by its mane and leading it forward. Ciara walked beside the chariot. Conor had never heard her so silent.

He didn’t know quite what he had expected to find at the forge, but it certainly wasn’t anything on so grand a scale. In a vast clearing on the edge of the Sidhe village, the forge was a hive of activity. In the centre, a workshop stood open on all sides, containing not one furnace, but many.

As they drew closer, Conor saw that each furnace consisted of three low clay walls built around a fire in which the ore was smelting. The fourth wall of each furnace was pierced by a set of clay tubes attached to large bellows made from bags of leather.

“We call them ‘builg’,” explained Darra as he led them through. “See, some furnaces have two bellows being worked by two people alternately to keep up a steady flow of air; some have only one person working a double bellows with his feet. Thus are the furnaces enabled to reach the high temperatures needed to melt the ore.”

“Listen,” exclaimed Ciara in delight. “They’re singing.” The bellows workers sang as they pumped the bags, their complex harmonies twisting together and drifting with the smoke up into the sky.

Darra smiled at her pleasure. “Yes, it is how they keep their efforts in sync.”

The third member of each team, the smith, kept the furnace loaded with ore and fuel. Baskets of ore surrounded each furnace, along with piles of charcoal. These were constantly being replenished by workers who were producing the charcoal in fires beyond the forge, whilst others sat at large flat stones and broke the ore into small pieces with chisels.

“The ‘goba’, or smith, takes many years to learn his skills,” continued Darra. “Not only does he know how to obtain all the different metals from the rocks in which it is found, but he can tell just by the colour of the heated metal whether it is ready or not.”

They stopped to watch a particular team of goba at work.

“See here, as the metal melts out of the ore, the clinker that’s left is scraped out of the furnace. Watch now, as the goba lifts the glowing metal from the flames. That giant set of pincers he is using is called a ‘tennchair’.”

The smith set the lump of metal on a nearby anvil, where a team of three people stood ready and waiting with sledgehammers to beat it into shape.

“We call the great hammers ‘ords’. Shaping the metal involves much reheating in the furnace, and much cooling of the pincers in the ‘umar’, the water trough. The metal is turned, folded and refolded many times during the process, to strengthen it. It’s back breaking work,” explained Darra.

“And deafening,” added Conor.

Darra nodded. “Surely. Come, in the next cerdcha you can see how the metal is worked into tools and weapons.” He led them a short distance to the next workshop.

 “Here, molten metal is poured into clay or stone casts.” Darra indicated the smiths ladling liquid metal into prepared moulds. “You can see over there, some workers are heating and beating the raw cast products into their desired shapes, while beyond, still others give these objects their final polish and decoration. It can take many, many days, weeks even, to produce a single sword.”

“But it’s not just metal workers here, is it?” asked Ciara, taking in the hustle and bustle out in the clearing. “The whole village is involved.”

Darra laughed. “It seems like it now, because we are so busy preparing for the war.”

Conor noticed woodworkers scattered about the glade, carving, whittling and sanding, producing handles and spear poles and arrow shafts. Women and children were treading clay, mixing it with straw until it was the perfect consistency for building new furnaces. Men were chopping wood for making charcoal, and tending smoking fires where the charcoal was being formed. A chain of people were involved in fetching water from the nearby Silverstream. Conor supposed they got through quite a lot of water in the forge.

The heat was intense. Conor could feel the sweat trickling down his back and neck, just watching.

“The workers toil in short shifts, and are relieved by colleagues regularly,” said Darra. “They need to rest and refresh themselves often, for the work is so hot, thirsty and physically demanding.”

“Yes, I can see that,” agreed Ciara. “But, where does all your wood come from?”

Darra indicated the environs of the vast clearing. “Initially, we cleared the wood from this space to build the forge, and used the wood it provided. The forests of Tir na Nog are not fond of the use of fire, but it is permitted in times of war. In our current situation, the forest is dying off at a phenomenal rate, so we are using the dead trees to fuel our forges. When the war is resolved, we must plant many more to replace them.”

One figure stood out from all the rest; that of Seamus Dubh. He danced between furnaces like a whirlwind, shouting out orders, lending a hand here, offering advice there, inspecting the quality of the product, and praising a team when he was pleased with their handiwork. Judging by their reactions, praise was less easily come by than criticism, Conor thought.

“Father,” Darra called, leading them through the clearing. The old smith shaded his eyes and stared at them, frowning.

“So. You came back, then,” he said grudgingly to Conor as they approached.

Conor held up the horn. “The Borabu needs reforging.”

Seamus threw out his arm, impatiently indicating the flurry of activity in the clearing.

“You think I am going to stop all this for the sake of a horn?” he barked. “We go to war inside of a week. Come to me when the battle is over, and then we’ll see.”

Conor felt his anger rising, and struggled to hold it at bay. The old smith’s reaction was exactly what he had been expecting.

“Your war effort is as good as useless, if the Borabu is not repaired. You cannot hope to defeat the Morrigan. She is too powerful, and for all your magnificent weapons, you are not.”

Seamus Dubh snarled. “The magic I work here is of the highest order. I take the bones of the earth and transform them into shining metal through the application of fire. There is no greater magic than that.”

“Your magic is mighty indeed,” agreed Conor. “But I hear the Morrigan’s smiths are equally gifted. Your weapons may destroy your physical enemies, but the Morrigan works with magic more stealthy and ethereal than that. How will your blades of iron perform then?”

“We will kill her with them before she has a chance.”

“Don’t be a fool. You won’t get anywhere near her.”

The old smith and the disabled boy glared at each other. Around them, the activity slowed, as the Sidhe watched the stand-off with bated breath. Few came out victorious from a brawl with Seamus Dubh.

Conor played his trump card. “Do you want to be the one future generations will talk of as responsible for losing the war, simply because you were too full of your own importance to pay attention to a centuries old prophecy?”

Seamus snatched the Borabu from Conor’s hand. “This is delicate work. It calls for the services of a brazier, not a smith.” He thrust the horn back at Conor, and turned to his son. “Darra, take them to the brazier’s workshop. You may do the repair yourself; I have no one to spare, and your hand is suited to such work.”

Darra gulped. “But father, this work calls for a master, not an apprentice.”

The old smith rested his fists on his hips, and contemplated his son from beneath heavy lidded eyes. “True enough, but as you have reminded me often enough, we have no Master Smith here, so you will have to do.” Turning to survey his forge, he raised his voice. “The rest of you, back to work. The show’s over.” He strode off, yelling angrily, his voice soon lost in the clamour of hammer on metal and roar of fire.

“What now?” asked Ciara, looking worried. “Can you fix it?”

“Well, I can physically make the repair to the best of my ability, but whether that is good enough, I don’t know. Besides, there is more to this repair than just metal and rivets, and in that respect, I am sadly lacking,” replied Darra nervously.

“Leave that to me,” said Conor, rather more confidently than he felt. “That’s why we need this Tri de Dana. At least we now have a forge in which to work, and that’s a good enough place to start.”

They passed through the clearing to the far workshop where Darra commandeered a newly built furnace in the furthest corner of the building. “You two will have to work the bellows,” he said. Ciara helped Conor into position, then sat opposite.

“We don’t have to sing as well, do we?” she asked, her face a mask of horror.

“No, but it does help the time pass quicker,” replied Darra with a grin, as he showed her how to work the leather bag in a rhythmic manner.

“No it won’t. You haven’t heard her singing,” retorted Conor. “Anyway, I need to concentrate.”

“Why? What are you going to do?” Ciara looked suspicious.

“Imbas Forosnai,” announced Darra, before Conor could answer.

“Imbas for-what?” Ciara had replaced her look of suspicion with one of alarm.

“It’s something the Druids do, to contact the spirit world for advice or prophecy. ‘Imbas’ means ‘inspiration’, or ‘knowledge’, and Forosnai means ‘that which illuminates’.”

Ciara shook her head, her eyes pleading. “No, Conor, please don’t. Every time you try something like this, it all goes pear shaped.”

“It’s Ok. I’m not leaving my body, this time. It’s a kind of trance, that’s all. It’s just…”

“What?”

“I’m just not sure how to get started.”

“I hear they use sensory deprivation, and chew the raw flesh of a hound,” said Darra with gruesome enjoyment, to which Conor pulled a face of disgust. “But if you’re not willing to do that, we can always go and call on your best friend, old mad Orla Mor.”

“No way,” declared Conor emphatically. “I’ll work it out myself.”

He closed his eyes. Trance inducement. How hard can it be?