For the love of GOLD

When I first visited the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, I was stunned by the sheer amount, and quality, of ancient gold artifacts on display… there is a whole floor  of the stuff.

My youngest son, who was about 8 years old at the time, scrounged my phone and busied himself taking photos of it all… he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, either!

Now put Ireland and gold together in the same sentence, and most people immediately think of pots of gold at the end of a rainbow guarded by a little red-bearded man dressed in green. *shudders* Ugh! How I loathe that little creature.

But here you go. The word ‘leprechaun’ is derived from the Old Irish luchorpán. The leprechaun first makes its apearance in an ancient medieval tale known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). Fergus, King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three tiny lúchorpáin. He captures them, who grant him the ability to swim under water in exchange for their freedom.

Over time, the leprachaun, clearly originally a sea-creature, became distorted into the drunken little shoemaker fond of causing mischief and mayhem, who hides his gold in that famous pot of gold. Of course, you can see how that happened… its a natural progression.


Anyway, back to the gold. The ancient Irish adored the stuff, particularly during the Bronze Age (c.2500-500 BC). More Bronze Age gold hoards have been found in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe.

By Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

One of the most famous discoveries is the Mooghaun North Hoard found in County Clare. It is considered one of the greatest Bronze Age hoards of gold ever found north of the Alps. Sadly, much of it was sold off and melted down, but 150 items were rescued, and some of them can now be seen in the National Museum.

The earliest evidence of metal mining in Ireland is provided by Bronze Age copper workings at Ross Island, Co. Kerry in southwest Ireland. These workings, dated at between 2,400 – 2,000 BC constitute the oldest recognised in northwest Europe.

However, evidence of ancient gold mining and smelting materials and equipment has been found in a bog near Limerick. Scholars are unsure though, where the majority of Ireland’s gold has come from.

Scientists measured the chemical composition of some of the oldest known gold artifacts in Ireland to find that they were actually imported from Cornwall in Britain. It seems the English were not quite so fond of their gold bling at the time, and readily traded with the Irish in exchange for… you’ll never guess… tin.

The National Museum of Archeology in Dublin houses over 500 pieces of gold work, including golden collars, torcs and bracelets, mostly from the Bronze Age. It’s quite incredible, glass case after glass case of it.

But what of the mythology? Yes, gold makes an appearance in the old tales of Ireland too, as well as in the land’s archaeology.

This is how Niamh of the Golden hair is described, when she comes to confess her love for Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, and carries him away with her into the Otherworld…

She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse’s hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head.

And this is how Queen Medb was described by Cethern to Cúchulainn, when he was wounded by her in battle…

A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me … She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands’ breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head – a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.

No shame there, it seems, to have been beaten in battle by a woman. Just sayin’.

Criomthan Nianair was a King of Ireland, and the son of Lugaidh Sriabhdearg ‘of the Red Stripes’, who was famously Cuchulainn’s foster son. Criomthan was said to have brought back a golden chariot and a cloak woven with golden threads as plunder from his adventures in Gaul.

Lugaidh was an interesting character. He was said to have been born of a night of incest between Clothra and her three brothers, Breas, Nar, and Lothola, and was described as ‘beautiful to behold, and stronger in bodily strength in infancy than was usual for a child of his age’. It was said that Clothra feared her family’s line would be wiped out in battle, so she seduced all of her brothers in the hope of producing an heir. When her son was born, he was divided in three by red wavy lines, and each third of him resembled that portion of one of his three fathers.

Clothra need not have worried. Far from being punished for their incestuous behaviour,  one hundred and seven of their descendants went on to rule as Kings.

In Ireland today, there are many places which bear the Irish word for gold, óir, in their names: Slieve Anore (Mountain of Gold), in Co Clare; Tullynore (Little Hill of Gold), in Co Down; Coomanore (Hollow of Gold), near Bantry in Co Cork, and Glenanore (Glen of  Gold), also in Co Cork. Does that mean gold was found or worked there in ancient times? Who can say? I’d like to think so.

Finally, I just thought you might like to know that the letter ‘O’ in the Ogham alphabet, the Beith-Luis-Nin, is called Onn, or Oir, which is also the Old Irish word for ‘gold’. (Learn how to pronounce it here.)


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Dindsenchas | Ireland’s Lore of Places

Dublin - Baile atha Cliath
Dublin – Baile atha Cliath

Following on from Monday’s post, there is an ancient Irish text called the Dindsendchas, meaning ‘lore of places’, which contains over 176 poems, some of them dating back as far as C11th, concerning how various locations in Ireland got their names.

Some of these tales are quite fanciful, and clearly not true, but many of them derive from much earlier texts, which in turn describe long mnemonic poems and prose obviously devised to be recited from memory, as in the ancient bardic oral tradition.

In ancient times, there were very few large towns or settlements, so places were often named after distinctive features in the landscape, such as hills, lakes, islands, valleys, rivers, rocks, and so on.  Continue reading

Do you remember this? The Original Riverdance.


I was listening to my local radio this morning, and they played this piece of music. I love my local radio station; it’s mostly country and western, or folk, of which I am not a fan, but occasionally they mix in a bit of contemporary pop and the odd gem, like Derek Ryan’s brilliant version of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies, and today, Riverdance. Only on Irish radio can they broadcast dancing!

Riverdance was first introduced to the general public during Eurovision 1994…do you remember? I’ll never forget it! I am ashamed to say that previously, I had viewed Irish dancing as something vaguely comical, with their stiff arms and upper bodies, and frenzied leg movements. But Michael Flatley and the beautiful, graceful, dignified Jean Butler changed all that…they made Irish dancing sexy, not just for me, but for a whole lot of other people out there, too.

The choir sends a tingle down my spine, to start with. Then Jean starts to dance, and immediately I’m whisked away to another world. When Michael leaps across the stage, I genuinely expect to see sparks and flames licking around his feet! But it’s during the latter part of the dance where everything truly comes alive for me. As the other dancers join the stage, the music loses its formality and becomes something with a life of its own, something wild, stirring and joyful… it just makes me shiver! The dancers respond; the tapping of their feet becomes a mighty roar, their movements unite to become something powerful and all embracing, and as the line of dancers move toward the camera, I am mesmerised, my senses overwhelmed, until the final, rousing crescendo releases me, and I can breathe again.

I was aware then, in a way I couldn’t put into words, that something special and unique was taking place. Even the commentator, Terry Wogan was speechless, something I thought could never happen, lol! And watching it again this morning, it still has the same effect on me.

Many years later, I was fortunate enough to watch a performance of Riverdance in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. This tiny, old-fashioned and very beautiful atmospheric theatre proved the perfect venue. Although the cast involved newer, younger dancers, they proved themselves more than worthy, it was a fantastic show, and the effect was still the same.

Long live Irish dancing, and long live Riverdance! If you haven’t yet seen it, I hope you get the chance some day soon.

Love Ireland!

The Irish 1 – The Vikings 0; Was Brian Boru a Benevolent High King or Terrible Tyrant?

Battle of Clontarf, Wikipedia

Well, it’s Good Friday, and I couldn’t let the day go by without mentioning the Battle of Clontarf, now, could I? The chances are, if you live in Ireland, you’ll be sick of hearing about it by now. But for all those of you who live beyond these vibrant shores, pin back your lugs and listen up, for this is no fanciful fairytale, you know; Brian Boru was a bone fide historical High King of Ireland, and the tale of the Battle of Clontarf is all about power struggle, the cut and thrust of sword and politics, betrayal and treachery, love and lust… oh yes, in bucket-loads!

Contrary to popular belief, Brian did not drive the marauding Vikings from Ireland. The Norsemen and Danes had been arriving in Ireland since the late 8th century, long before Brian Boru was born, at first raiding and pillaging, as was their wont. But by the mid 9th century, their temporary encampments had become more permanent fortresses, which in the future would grow  into the cities we know today as Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork. So the Vikings, who were great craftsmen, established their towns, set up trade, inter-married, adopted Irish customs, speech and dress, and were to all intents and purposes, assimilated into Irish culture.

Brian Boru

So who was Brian Boru?

Brian was one of twelve sons of Cennétig mac Lorcáin, who was a minor King in the north of Munster province. When he died in 951, power passed to Mathgamain, Brian’s older brother. Not content with his small kingdom, Mathgamain set his sights further afield, finally capturing the Rock of Cashel in 964, thus seizing power over the whole of Munster (yep, definitely a bit of a tyrant in there, somewhere!). Unfortunately, he was killed soon after by Máel Muad mac Briain, whereupon Brian Boru assumed his brother’s place.

When Brian eventually gained control of Leinster province in 996, the then High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnall seemed to recognise that this upstart might just be unstoppable. He made a treaty with Brian, allowing him to keep the south, whilst he himself retained the North.

Me looking at a model of Viking Dublin at the National Museum of Archaeology, Dublin.

Meanwhile, the Leinstermen were planning a rebellion against Brian, led by Máel Morda mac Murchada, whom they declared as their new King. They soon joined forces with Sitric Silkenbeard, who was Morda’s cousin and Viking King of the city of Dublin. The Battle of Gleann Máma in 999 was a fierce and bloody skirmish, in which Brian was victorious. Perhaps surprisingly for a man who had his eyes firmly fixed on the bigger picture, he attempted to ally himself with Silkenbeard, allowing him to keep his Kingship of Dublin, and marrying him to one of his daughters (what happened to the terrible tyrant? At this point, he seems more like a benevolent and wise King to me.).  At the same time, he took Gormflaith, who was Silkenbeard’s mother and Morda’s sister, to be his wife. Gormflaith had also been married to Sechnaill, the previous High King. She obviously had a bit of a thing for all-powerful husbands… It should be noted at this point, that Brian himself had four wives during his life time (well, there’s the lust and power, then.).

In 1002, Sechnaill finally backed down and surrendered to Brian, who then became High King. It took another ten years of battle campaigns, however, before the Ulstermen recognised and accepted his claim to the throne.

Clontarf Castle

But what about the Battle of Clontarf?

Hold on, I’m getting to that.

In 1012, that pesky trouble-maker, Morda, rebelled against Brian for the second time. He gained support from one of the lesser Kings of Ulster, but whilst the rest did not fully support Brian, they weren’t keen to bear arms against him, either. They’d been there before, remember, and where did it get them? Poor Morda was forced to hire mercenaries from amongst his Viking brethren settled on Orkney and the Isle of Man. But they weren’t joining the war for love, loyalty or politics, oh no! They were after loot, plain and simple. They landed in Ireland a few days before Easter in the year 1014.

As his great army rode to meet them, Brian confidently sent out contingents of warriors under the command of his sons to raid, plunder and burn all Viking settlements along the way (seems like that tyrant thing must be in the blood!). Battle commenced outside the city at Clontarf, which is now a Dublin suburb. It is said the battle raged fiercely all day and half the night, that the men were unable to throw their spears because the air was so dense with the flying hair of those cut down; that no man recognised even his own son except by his voice, for they were so covered in blood.

Although the Viking horde were fierce and brave, they were no match for the Irishmen. Despite his great victory, Brian Boru was tragically killed that very night. It is unlikely that he went into battle himself, as he would have been very old by this time; the Annals, Ireland’s ancient records, explain that he was somewhere between 76 and 88 years old. One legend claims he was murdered in his tent while he prayed, by one of the escaping Viking renegades named Bródar.

The truth cannot now be known. But it’s that little breath of mystery and intrigue which lends just a touch of legendary Sidhe magic to even Ireland’s known historical leaders; which keeps the story alive, and has people all over Ireland celebrating Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf a thousand years later.

St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh - Wikipedia.
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh – Wikipedia.

Brian Boru’s body was carried to the city of Armagh, where he is said to have been interred in a tomb which lies beneath the walls of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Love history. Love mythology. LOVE Ireland!

And by the way, Happy Easter everybody!

Seanchai – The Irish Storyteller

LiffeyDublinOn my first ever trip to Ireland, I remember strolling along the banks of the River Liffey with my now husband, when we encountered a group of skateboarders harassing an old man sitting on a bench. At least, I thought they were harassing him, but as we drew closer, I realised that he was talking, and they were listening. His voice rose and fell in melodic, hypnotic waves, and the teenagers milled about, their growing bodies restless, but their faces rapt. We passed by, on a mission of places to be and things to see, but to this day, I have always wondered about the story he was telling them.

skateboardingAs the recently departed Seamus Heaney could arguably be called Ireland’s most famous and best loved poet, so his equal in terms of storytelling must be Eddie Lennihan, an Irishman famous for his tales of Ireland’s folklore and mythology.

You can see him in action here.

The Seanchai ( pronounced ‘shawnshee’) was a traditional Irish storyteller. They memorised and recited epic stories and poems from Irish mythology for the enjoyment of their audiences. You have to remember, in those days, there were no movies, tv, radio, computer games. Few had access to books, or could read.

seamus heaneyIn pre-Christian Ireland, there were two types of poet; the elite class of the Fili, and the lesser caste of the Bard. They normally served a clan chieftain, keeping all their clan’s lore and history, and were highly respected. Some belonged to a community, and served at community ceremonies and events, while others belonged to no particular area or lord, but travelled, offering their skills in return for board and lodging.

Fili meant ‘seer’, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility that part of their role revolved around the foretelling of the future. In fact, originally the Fili may have served many functions, such as sorcerer, judge, keeper of law, chieftain’s advisor as well as poet and storyteller. At some point, these responsibilities seem to have been divided, with the Brehons specialising in the legal aspects, the Druids taking on the religion and ritual, and the Fili concentrating on history and poetry.

eddie lenihanThe chief Fili in each province was known as the Ollamh (pronounced Ollav), which means ‘most great’, and would have been equal in status to the provincial King. Over all, presided the Ollamh Eirean, who was ranked equal to the Ard Ri, or High King of Ireland, so there was plenty of scope for promotion.

The advent of Christianity, however, put quite a strain on the Kings’ resources, as not only did they have to provide lands, titles and funding to the Fili, but also to the bishops. In the 6th century, the decision was taken to limit the number of Fili purely to those families where the position of the poet was seen as a birth right. This was the beginning of the end for this role in Irish society, and much lore was lost. Fortunately, however, the Christian monks did their best to conserve as much as they could, and so what was left of the ancient Irish oral tradition was finally put into writing.

I would like to think I am contributing to this effort in my own small way, by bringing Irelands fascinating mythology to life for a whole new audience out there.


Long live Irish Mythology!

You can find out more about Eddie Lenihan on his website. You can read some of Seamus Heaney’s work here. As for me, well, you know where to find me!