The Wild Boar in Irish Mythology

The wild boar was hunted into extinction in Ireland back in the C17th, although it seems likely that it was probably not truly ‘wild’ at all, but introduced by man in early prehistoric times. Ireland’s rich forest land  provided a perfect habitat, where it foraged and fed on acorns and nuts, roaming in large herds watched over by semi-nomadic swine-herds, often credited with mysterious magical abilities. Wild boar meat was highly prized, and even today in Ireland, big events such as fairs and festivals feed the crowds with a whole hog roast.

Not surprisingly, the wild boar features significantly in Irish mythology. Although it is a shy, placid creature, in mythology it came to be associated with ferocity, courage and the warrior. Perhaps this is because it defended itself so fiercely when hunted, thus earning so much admiration and its place in legend and song.

This association with battle prowess can be seen in the popular design of the boar’s head on the carnyx, or Celtic war horn. According to Wikipedia,

“The carnyx was a wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts, used between c. 200 BC and c. AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape, held so that the long straight central portion was vertical and the short mouthpiece end section and the much wider bell were horizontal in opposed directions. The bell was styled in the shape of an open-mouthed boar’s, or other animal’s, head. It was used in warfare, probably to incite troops to battle and intimidate opponents.”

By Johnbod - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697
By Johnbod – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697

In Irish mythology, Torc Triath was the King of Boars, an Otherworldly creature who belonged to the Goddess Brigid. It is thought that he could be cognate with the boar of Welsh legend, Twrch Trwyth, the son of Tared Wledig, a prince of Wales, who had been cursed and transformed into a wild boar. He was hunted by King Arthur and his hound, Cabal, and driven into the sea off the Cornish coast, where he perished. Perhaps he swam to Ireland instead, and took refuge with our kindly Brigid! 😁

The motif of men being transformed into wild boars reappears often in mythological tales. The Great Boar of Ben Bulben was once a boy; he was the half-brother of Diarmuid O’Duibhne.

Diarmuid’s father, Donn, never liked the child, as he was the product of his wife’s infidelity with another man. One night, when a fight broke out in his hall between two hounds, in the confusion, Donn seized the boy, crushed him to death, then tossed his body into the melee, hoping everyone would assume he had been killed by the dogs.

The boy’s father, Roc, was not so easily fooled. He quickly realised what had happened, and distraught and angered, he performed a magical rite which brought his son back to life in the form of a boar.

He did this to seek his revenge against Donn; he knew of the prophecy which foretold that Diarmuid would one day be killed by a boar.

After betraying Fionn mac Cumhall by running off with his beautiful young bride, Grainne, Diarmuid settles in Sligo where he and Grainne live a long life together and have four sons and a daughter. When Fionn seeks a reconciliation, Diarmuid jumps at the chance, and recklessly agrees to join the Fianna on a boar hunt.

The mighty Ben Bulben. (c) Conor Walker
The mighty Ben Bulben, dusted with snow. (c) Conor Walker (my lovely husband 😍).

Sure enough, Diarmuid comes face to face with the enchanted boar, his half-brother, on the slopes of Ben Bulben. In a mighty battle, Diarmuid slays the beast, but is himself badly gored in the process by the creatures tusks. By the time the Fianna finds him, he is bleeding to death.

Fionn has the power to heal his old friend by offering him a drink of water from his healing hands. Twice, he lets their enmity come between them, and allows the water to drain from his hands. On the third attempt, he finally finds forgiveness for Diarmuid, but he is too late: Diarmuid is dead.

It is interesting that there are places in Ireland’s landscape which still bear reference to the importance of the wild boar: Kanturk in West Cork comes from the Irish Ceann Toirca, meaning ‘boar’s head’, and Ros Muc in West Connacht comes from the Irish word muc for ‘pig’. Mag Triathairne, on the other hand, is a place legend claims was named after Torc Triath himself, but I’m afraid I have no idea where this is.

The wonderfully intriguing Black Pig’s Dyke, or Claí na Muice Duibhe as it is known in Irish,  is a series of huge earthworks running through counties Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan, where I live. Archaeology has revealed the remains of wooden palisades dating to  390–370 BC upon a bank measuring 9m (30ft wide), with an external ditch and in inner ditch both approximately 6m (20ft) deep. All sorts of theories abound as to the purpose of this structure, such as that it once marked the boundaries of ancient Ulster, or that it was constructed in an attempt to halt cattle raiding. However, no one really knows.

Local folklore claims it was created by the tusks of a HUGE black boar, rooting in the earth for food. The story goes that a wicked schoolmaster was transforming his pupils into animals using a big black book of spells. When challenged by a student’s father, the schoolmaster demonstrated his skills by shapeshifting into the form of a big black pig. The father immediately snatched up the book and tossed it into the fire, and thus without the source of his magic, the schoolmaster was doomed to live the rest of his life as a pig. In a blind rage he rampaged across Ireland, gouging out the ditch and churning up the earth into the rampart we see today with his great snout.

There are other stories of wild boars in Irish myth, too. The Tale of Mac Da Thó’s Pig forms part of the saga of the Tain bó Cuailnge, and centres on disputes which arise over the champion’s share of meat, known as curadmír, a matter of great honour amongst warriors.

Also part of the Tain bó Cuailnge, is the Quarrel of the Two Swineherds: Friuch (who is named rather amusingly after a boar’s bristle) and Rucht (who is named after a boar’s grunt) are two swineherds minding their masters’ herds, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge.

Also, the Dagda, who was a much-loved and well-respected High King of the Tuatha de Danann, was said to have possessed two magical pigs,  one of which was always growing whilst the other was always roasting.

Sounds like a metaphor for typical Irish hospitality, if you ask me…


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The Friday Fiction with Michael Bolan

I am delighted to introduce Irish author Michael Bolan to you today. Like me, Michael bases his books on Irish myths. Here is an excerpt from his latest book, The Stone Bridge; check it out,  and give the gift of a book this Christmas… even if it’s to yourself! Enjoy!


Michael Bolan’s latest book

Isabella’s good mood stayed with her as she walked her horse slowly through the ancient trees of the forest. It seemed that most of the world was covered by trees, something she never complained about. The soft sounds of the forest soothed her, the rustling of the leaves overhead helped her forget the perils that lay ahead.

She kept thinking about her mission and about the family she had left hours previously. Their life was etched in sweat and toil, bound by the cycle of the seasons. It was so different to the pampered life she had enjoyed in Leuven, or even the unusual existence she had built for herself within the warband, something she had only been able to do because of the education, both formal and informal, that she had received as Duke Henry’s daughter. And yet, despite being simple, uneducated folk, Dentek and his family were happy; happier than most.

Spending time with them had refreshed her; as a long bath washes grime from the skin, her brief sojourn with the farmer left her feeling more alive than she had for weeks. Her burning need to rejoin her people was lessened, her desire for Conor banked like an overnight fire, as she found her thoughts repeatedly returning to the simple family. Leaving Dentek without offering some form of recompense for their hospitality galled her, so she slowed her horse and wheeled the beast around. She would hide her coinpurse where it would be easily found. She found herself humming a gentle ditty as she moved through the woods, dappled in the sunlight.

The sun was beginning to sink towards the western horizon when she smelled the smoke. Assuming that one of the farmers in the hamlet was burning stubble in the fields, she thought nothing of it and continued riding. Something struck her as odd about the smell. It was early to be clearing fields; that was done post-harvest, the ash serving to enrich the soil for the next year. And the smell was strange: not the golden dryness of burning straw, redolent of leather and sunshine; but a more acrid smoke which made her think of Leuven’s ironworks. Frowning, she picked up her pace, bouncing in the saddle as she trotted her horse towards the hamlet.

As she crested the ridge overlooking the shallow valley in which the homestead lay, she felt bile rise in her throat. The thatched rooves of the farmhouses were ablaze, the livestock running wild. Of Dentek, his family and his neighbours, there was no sign. She felt a curious detachment settle over her as she slipped from her saddle and unhooked her packs. Without haste, she loaded her four pistols, strung her bowstaff, checked the fletching of her arrows, and loosened her throwing knives in their sheaths. Satisfied she was ready for battle, she remounted and kicked her heels hard into the horse’s sides. Well-trained for war, the stallion galloped headlong through the trees towards the village.

*****

The roan steed crashed through the treeline like a cannonball, hooves ripping up great clods as it raced towards the homestead, rider clinging centaur-like to its neck. As they neared the village, Isabella could smell the metallic tang of blood and knew her worst fears would be realised. The dispassion that had taken her deepened. Her mind focused on what was to come.

Rider and mount burst into the open space between the houses, unable to stop. Her eyes caught glimpses of dead bodies strewn between the buildings, and she almost crashed into two demons running from one of the houses, swords dripping garish blood onto the hard-packed earth. The pistol in either hand boomed, and the two demons fell, their twisted carmine masks alive as they screamed. Her hands holstered the spent guns and raised her second pair. Hoping that the madcap ride had not loosened their deadly load, she raised and fired, dropping another pair of demon-masked men. And then she was through, her mount barrelling out of the homestead and back into the open fields.

Isabella paused at the treeline to reload her guns and then trotted the lathered horse along the edge of the fields to approach the village from a different angle. Her horse gathered speed once again, and she used her knees to steer it between houses, surprising yet another pair of attackers. One gun rang true, dropping a fifth, while the other misfired. With the grace of an acrobat, she drew her spare pistols and kicked her leg over the saddle, dropping to the earth and rolling, the farmyard dust coating her dark leather armour. She regained her feet with grace, sighting the attacker as she did so. Firing both pistols, she killed him without qualm.

Her senses were fast becoming overloaded with the rank charnel-house odour when stone chips exploded from the wall of the house behind her. She hadn’t even heard the report of the musket. Another shot boomed out, pinning her down behind the low stone wall of the communal well. A brief lull suggested that there were only two marauders left, and that they were reloading their guns. Thinking it likely they both had pistols as well as their muskets, Isabella’s mind raced, unfettered by emotion. Knowing her current position was untenable, she looked around for ideas.

The well-bucket lay on its side, its contents long soaked into the dry soil. Hefting it with her right hand, she used a throwing knife to saw through its rope before throwing it backwards over the well, towards the muskets’ position. Two shots rang out immediately, and she burst from cover, sprinting in a crouch towards the byre. The large double doors were barred shut, but the small picket hung open. Inside she could hear the bellowing of the bull, driven mad by the noise and smell. She dove headfirst through the door, hearing two more shots ring out, higher-pitched than before. Pistols, she noted, as she skidded face-first through the fragrant loam of the byre floor. She rushed to the doors and lifted the stout wooden bar that held them closed, before spinning and flipping the latches of the bull’s pen.

The enraged beast burst from its stall like a horse at the beginning of a race, knocking the byre doors from their hinges as it escaped its confines. Twelve hundredweight of prize beef made no attempt to pause for the man before it; in fact the bull’s weak eyesight didn’t register the obstacle until it was too late. Isabella followed the beast from the byre to see one of the remaining attackers crushed to a messy pulp under its broad hooves, dead before he could scream. She ran for cover, throwing knives in hand as she sprinted.

“A woman!” roared a voice behind her, astonishment colouring the anger it contained. “You demonic bitch!” it screamed, the irony of the statement lost. Isabella skidded to a halt beside the wall of one of the houses, realising with a start that it was Dentek’s. At least, it had been. Fury rose inside her, as she stood and walked into the open.

Before her stood a heavily-muscled man, his six-foot frame clad in blood-red leather armour. He cast his pistol aside, having no time to reload it, and drew a shortsword from his belt. His left hand held a long dagger, blade crimson with the spilled blood of the villagers. As Isabella walked towards him, he spat and stretched his neck from side to side, readying himself to pounce. “Who are you, whore? I would know your name before I fuck your dead body,”

The pair were separated by no more than three yards. Isabella dropped her knives. “I am the bull of seven battles; I am the eagle on the rock.” She undid her belt buckle, allowing her empty sheaths to fall to the earth, doing the same with her shoulder quiver. “I am a flash from the sun; I am a strong wild boar.” Her voice grew from a whisper, gaining strength as she stared at the man. Never had she felt such hatred, such righteous anger.

Impatient to finish her, the man attacked. His shortsword slashed crosswise before swinging back, as he stabbed his dagger towards her belly. He was fast, but Isabella was not where he had thought. She skipped aside. “I am a salmon in the water.” Her right foot shot out, catching the warrior in the side, knocking the wind from him. He whirled, both blades swinging low to catch her legs. She jumped, smashing a foot into his face as she spun sideways. “I am the word of knowledge,” she cried as he attacked again, his blades finding nothing but air as she spun away.

The man stepped back, ripping off his mask, exposing a cold face reddened with anger. “Who are you, bitch?” he shouted. “Ach, it matters not, you will die!” He leaped forward again, swinging both blades in sequence, chopping and scything as if cutting wheat. Isabella’s hands darted out, blocking the insides of his forearms, deflecting his blows, seemingly at the last possible moment. Her punches began to take on force, beating him in the stomach, the chest, the neck, the head, as she shouted in his face, “I am the head of the spear in battle!

Her hands flew back, striking his wrists at the same time, knocking the blades from unfeeling fingers. With all her force she drove her right fist forward, her bunched knuckles hitting the man’s throat. She heard the gristly crunch as his windpipe collapsed. He flew backwards, landing on his back.

Isabella stared down at his gurgling countenance. “I am the god that puts fire in the head. I am vengeance. I am Nemesis. And I will wait for you in Hell.”

She stamped her heel down on his face.




Michael Bolan: nomadic Irish storyteller

Author Michael Bolan
Author Michael Bolan

It took Michael Bolan over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realise that all he actually did was tell stories.

There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.

Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.

Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.

Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the thirty Years War raged around him.

His website (http://www.michaelbolan.org) is a place where he can post his thoughts and feelings – along with reviews of books he finds lying around the internet.

 Twitter: https://twitter.com/michaelbolan225

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michaelbolan225

LinkedIn: cz.linkedin.com/in/bolanov

Author Central: https://www.amazon.com/author/michaelbolan

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 Fairy Folk of Ireland

What kind of image does that expression, ‘the fairy folk’ conjure up when you hear it? Something a bit like this…

Maybe you see something a little more ‘Tinkerbell’, a sweet pretty little thing with gossamer wings, so tiny it could fit in the palm of your hand?

That’s the traditional view, but let me tell you, Ireland’s fairies are a whole other kettle of fish. Oh, and by the way, don’t ever refer to them with the ‘F’-word, as I have done here… they are not over-fond of the term, and may do you a mischief you may come to regret!

In Ireland, these magical beings are known as ‘the Sidhe’ (prounounced Shee), also the Aos Sí, and Daoine Sídhe, and in Scottish lore, the Sith, although it’s still pronounced the same. They are named after the mounds which dot the Irish landscape, and which are said to lead to their homes below the ground. In folklore, they are often referred to as ‘the Fair Folk’ (hence fairy), or the ‘little people’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Well. You know what I mean.

They are not tiny. They never were. In fact, they were larger than the indigenous people of Ireland. Think of the elves from Lord of the Rings: beautiful, terrible, tall, slim, powerful, magical… well, where do you think Tolkien got his ideas from? He borrowed from many mythologies to create his masterpiece, and he wasn’t the only one… Star Wars, anybody?

According to the Lebor Gebala Erenn, an ancient medieval text describing Ireland’s history as its Christian scribes understood it, the Danann were a supernatural race of people who invaded Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg people, who ruled at the time. You can read more about them in my posts, Who were the Tuatha de Danann Really? and The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.

In the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Leinster, the Tuatha de Danann are described as ‘gods and not-gods’. This is interesting because it seems to imply that whilst they possessed many of the powers one would expect of a deity, they were god-like, rather than actual gods.

I’d just like to point out here, that although it is popularly believed that the Danann constitute a pantheon of Celtic/ Irish pagan gods, the ancient texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Maige Tuireadh name them not as Gods but as Kings.

Now whilst this could simply be a case of demotion by monks who believed there could only be one true God, we must also consider the fact that perhaps these really are the tales of remembered chieftains, warriors and heroes of times gone by. My personal opinion is that the antiquarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries interpreted their archaeological findings, and the ancient texts, using the only model they had: their education in the Greek and Roman classics.

Now, back to the ‘not gods’. An example would be the question of immortality. The Danann were long-lived, but they did not live forever. They could be killed by injury, as in battle, or sickness, like any mortal, but not by old age, as they did not seem to age at all. This can be very confusing, if you think of immortality in its absolute sense, ie life everlasting.

High Kings held the crown for extraordinarily long terms. The Dagda, for example, was said to have reigned for 80 years. He eventually wasted away from a sickness caused by a wound he had received in battle from a poisoned sword.

Lugh of the Long Hand, another Danann High King, was murdered in a revenge attack, yet still popped up several centuries later to father Cuchulainn on mortal woman, Dechtire. Some years later, when Cuchulainn was grievously wounded, he returned to tend his son’s wounds for three days, and nursed him back to health. Not something a ghost could do, methinks.

In the end, the Danann were defeated and tricked out of Ireland by a race of mortal man known as the Milesians, or Sons of Mil. The Danann were forced to retreat to that half of Ireland which lay below ground, whilst the Milesions took ownership of the surface. You can read this story in my post, The Retreat of the Tuatha de Danann. From then on, the Danann and their descendants became known as ‘the Sidhe’.

According to the Book of Leinster, the Danann then took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and souring their milk. This apparently forced a treaty in which the Milesians were to supply the Danann with milk and butter, and no doubt other goods they no longer had access to.

The Sidhe did not disappear altogether, however; there are many stories in which they interacted with humans, although not always favourably. But as time passed, inevitably a distance grew between men and the Sidhe, and with it, distrust.

The Christians, when they came, severed any final loyalties and friendships that remained, by claiming them as devils, demons, evil spirits, and the like. This fostered fear, resentment and the rise of superstitions; gifts/ bribes would be left out in order to placate ‘the Good Folk’, for example, and fairy forts, mounds and certain trees thought of as the Sidhe’s property would not be harmed, for fear of earning their wrath.

Apart from their long lives, and apparent eternal youth, the Sidhe possessed other powers humans could not explain. They could shape-shift; the Morrigan was famous for transforming into a crow and flying across the battlefield, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.

When her amorous advances were spurned by Cuchulainn, she shifted into a red-eared heifer and tried to knock him over whilst he was engaged in combat with another warrior; then she turned into an eel, wrapping herself around his legs, before finally becoming a grey wolf which lunged for his sword arm. Unperturbed, Cuchulainn managed to keep his enemy at bay whilst, of course, he defeated her every attack; he broke the cow’s leg, trampled the eel underfoot, and poked out the wolf’s eye, and went on to kill his opponent shortly after. What a hero! 😍

They also had strange, inexplicable magic. What we might call technology. Nuada was fitted with a bionic arm an arm of silver when his limb was cut off in battle; he also carried a light sabre sword of light. They arrived in spaceships dark thunder clouds in the sky and lighted on the mountain Sliab an Iarainn. Lugh had a flame-thrower burning spear. They had a sound system to rival any current band a talking rock which announced the rightful king in a roar which could be heard across the land.

Ok. It’s a bit disrespectful calling the Lia Fail a talking rock. Sorry. But you get the picture. Oh, and the Dagda had a bottomless cauldron from which everyone went satisfied, ie he fed them till they were full… any ideas on what that particular piece of technology could be?

Visitors from the Otherworld crop up often in the old stories. They often took mortal lovers. Niamh of the Golden Hair appeared on a white horse to Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, to confess her love for him, and took him back with her. Ciabhan, Prince of Desmond,  risked his life in a little fisherman’s curragh on the stormy high seas, chasing after Cliodhna, having spent a few hours of passion with her on the beach. And Cuchulainn actually had an affair with Fand, the wife of Manannán, the sea-God… the audacity of that man!

Interactions between man and Sidhe were not always so benign. As a boy, Fionn mac Cumhall was the only warrior capable of slaying the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, who for many years had been laying waste to the Hill of Tara with fire every Samhain festival.

Often, the Sidhe would fight amongst themselves, and sometimes, humans would be caught in the crossfire. This happened on one occasion to Fionn, when he and five members of his Fianna were hosted overnight by the Sidhe after getting lost whilst out hunting. The next morning, they awake to find they are expected to fight on behalf of their hosts against the massive Sidhe army led by Bodb Derg lined up outside the mound. Of course, being particularly honourable humans, they don’t hesitate to jump into the fight.

And that’s your lot. I could go on, but it’s nearly midnight already, and I have uni in the morning… doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? 😜


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Mythology and Folklore | What’s the Difference?

This was something which confused the hell out of me when I first got into Irish mythology; what’s the difference between mythology and folklore, does it matter, and who cares anyway? They’re just a bunch of old stories, right?

Ancient text
Ancient text

The Oxford Dictionary defines mythology as…

“A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious. “

It describes folklore as…

“The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

Still confused? So much for the Oxford Dictionary. Clear as mud! I think the best way to do this is by giving you some examples.

But first, a bit of background; in Irish mythology, there are four collections of stories known as the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These can be found in three 11th century and 12th century manuscripts called  Lebor na hUidre, the Book of Leinster, and the rather un-romantically named Rawlinson B 502. There are also many other ancient texts, but these are considered the most important.

Despite their relatively late date, the content of these documents has been identified via linguistics studies to originate as far back as the 8th century and the 6th century. Christian monks assembled these stories from the oral tradition of the Irish storytellers they were listening to at the time, to try to provide a history for Ireland, and so the tales were finally committed to writing.

Whilst we should be very grateful for their efforts, we must also be mindful that in so doing, many of the stories were ‘Christianised’ in line with their own beliefs, as they tried to stamp out pagan culture.

The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.
The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.

And so to my first example: the Dagda. According to mythology, he was a Druid and a High King of the Tuatha de Danann. He was the father of Bodb Dearg, Cermait, Midir, Áine, Óengus Óg, and Brigit. Bres and Ogma were his half-brothers, and his father was Elatha of the Fomori, his mother was Eithne of the Danann.

He had a staff called the lorg mór, a cauldron known as the coire ansic (one of the Four Treasures of Eirean), and a harp named uaithne. Of course, these were all magical items:  the staff was said to be capable of killing nine men with one swing, whilst with the handle he could restore life to the dead; the cauldron was said to leave no one unsatisfied, and the harp possessed the power to rearrange the seasons, and control the order of battle.

Replica of the Dagda's Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre
Replica of the Dagda’s Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre

In Irish, the Dagda means ‘the Good God’, because it was believed he protected the crops. He was also known as Eochaid Ollathair ‘All Father’, and Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. You can see from all this that he was considered powerful, wise and knowledgeable, and that he was looked up to, admired and revered.

In fact, according to a text known as Cóir Anmann, or ‘the Fitness of Names’, translated by Mary Jones, the Dagda is described as…

“He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”

And then we come across this story; in preparation for the Second Battle of Moytura with the Fomori, the Dagda is sent by King Nuada to parlay with them.

“He was not a pleasant sight to behold: A cape which hung only to the hollow of his elbows; a brown tunic around him which only went as far as the swelling of his rump; a ragged hole in that tunic; two shoes on him of horse-hide, with the hair turned outside, and his private parts dangling in the air.

“He saw a fine-looking woman and of good shape, with tresses of beautiful hair on her head. The Dagda lusted after her but he was impotent because of his heavy belly. The girl began to mock him and to tussle with him. She hurled him so hard that he sank to his rump in the mud.”

Huh?

When I first read this, I did a bit of a double take. It just did not fit with any of the other things I had read about him. I realised that this piece could be a bit of ancient propaganda, designed to belittle and discredit the Dagda, and in fact all of the Danann.

But why? And by whom?

Well, the Christians were doing everything within their power to convert the masses to Christianity, and destroy the pagan Gods. This is a tale of greed, lust, slovenliness, weakness, certainly not a portrayal of a noble Danann god, and may have served some moral purpose, as well as mocking the Dagda.

Equally, it could have been an ancient folk tale. The Fomori were beaten in that battle by the Danann, and practically annihilated. The Dagda was High King at that time. Perhaps when the Fomori went home, it was a story they told themselves to feel better over their defeat… it would be quite a natural thing to do, to ridicule your hated enemy’s chieftain.

But of course, that’s speculation.

Let’s look at the Fenian Cycle; here we have a collection of tales concerning one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, Fionn mac Cumhall. He was a mortal, a noble hunter-warrior, leader of the Fianna, and close friend of High King Cormac mac Art.

He was famous for catching the Salmon of Knowledge and cheating the Druid, Finegas, out of achieving all that knowledge and wisdom. As a boy, he single-handedly saved Tara from being burned by the fire-fairy Aillen mac Midhna, when no-one else could, and thus he was awarded his birth-right to lead the Fianna by Cormac.

There are many, many stories of his adventures with the Fianna, of his battles and heroic exploits.

Giant's Causeway By Chmee2 - Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
Giant’s Causeway By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972

And then we have the story of Fionn as a giant; he creates the Isle of Man by throwing a clod of earth into the sea, and builds a pathway across the sea to Scotland, which we know as the Giant’s Causeway. He is married to a woman named Oonagh, and dresses up as a baby and hides in a cradle to avoid an even bigger giant named Benandonner, who charges over the newly made pathway from Scotland to fight him.

Hmmm… again, we have here a story which clearly does not fit with the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. Finn is portrayed as a coward who would rather masquerade as a baby than face up to his enemy, even though he is inflated to the size of a giant.

What’s interesting, though, is that this story is attached to a particular location, and can be seen as an attempt to explain something the people could not understand, the creation of local landmarks, ie the strange columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the Isle of Man.

And this is a typical feature of Ireland’s folklore stories; that a famous character would be taken out of context in a particular community and used to explain the unexplainable, or to highlight desirable/ undesirable behaviours and traits in a society, perhaps as a way of teaching moral conduct to children, for example.

Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew
Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew

My final example concerns a location closer to home, for me: Loughcrew, also known in Irish as  Sliabh na Caillaigh, meaning ‘the hag’s mountain’. At it’s highest point is the largest mound of the complex, known rather poetically (not!) as cairn T. At its base is a huge throne -shaped kerbstone called ‘the hag’s chair’, and it was from here that the ‘hag’ was said to have sat and surveyed her landscape.

Local folklore claims that the cairns of Loughcrew were formed when the hag, a giant witch, was carrying stones in her apron. As she leaped from one hilltop to another, she slipped and fell, the stones tumbling from her apron and scattering across the three hills to form the complex of monuments we can still see today.

Again, we see the same pattern repeated here; a community borrows a well known figure from mythology, in this case a Goddess of Winter, in an attempt to explain a prominent local feature in their landscape, and community. Note that she has also been elevated to the size of a giant, whilst at the same time, denigrated from Goddess to old hag.

Charming.

So… crystal, or still mud?


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Tree Lore | The Rowan

Right now, I am loving the Rowan trees. They’re always pretty, slender and delicate with beautiful soft fluffy-looking creamy blooms in spring, but at this time of year they really are the star of the show with their frond-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.

I have two in my garden; they’re thin and lithe, like gawky teenagers, but they bring me great joy.

In Irish, they are known as Caorthann, but other names are ‘Quicken tree’ and ‘Witches tree’. They are a native tree to Ireland, can grow up to 18m tall, and live for over a hundred years. They produce their flowers in May and June, whilst the fruits appear in September and are ripe by October.

The wood of the rowan is hard and pale, and in times past was used to make bows, tools, plates and bowls.

The rowan also had a great many medicinal applications. A tea was made from the berries to treat urinary problems, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea. Berry juice made a great mild laxative, and soothed inflamed mucous membranes as a gargle. As they contained high levels of Vitamin C, the berries were also used to cure scurvy. Today, one of the sugars in the fruit is apparently sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma. A decoction of the bark was thought to cleanse the blood, and was given as a treatment for diarrhoea, nausea, and upset stomach.

It's the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me... gorgeous!
It’s the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me… gorgeous!

Once revered by the Druids, it is hardly surprising that it later became associated with witchcraft, paganism and the supernatural. It was used in rituals associated with empowerment and protection, especially from fire and lightning. To increase virility and male strength, a small piece of rowan inscribed with ogham would be carried. Hung around the necks of hounds, it was believed to increase their speed, and it also possessed the power to protect from evil spirits and the prevent the dead from rising.

In the Celtic Tree Alphabet, the rowan is represented by the Ogham symbol luis. rowan6

Of course, it is not surprising that the rowan features quite a lot in tales of Irish mythology.

In the tale of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, Fionn mac Cumhail and his men of the Fianna are invited to dine in the beautiful hostelry of the same name, described thus…

“It was a fair and beautiful building, with bright intricate carvings on the wood of its uprights and a fresh thatch that shone in the sun like gold, and all around it grew quicken trees with berries full and red on them. “

No sooner had they entered, then the walls became rough planks with gaps which the wind howled through, and all the finery disappeared. Most alarmingly, the one door was firmly locked. They were trapped. Fionn put his thumb of wisdom to his mouth, and activated his second sight. He divined that Midac Mac Lochlan had raised the enchantment against them, and was bringing a huge army to kill them. Pity he didn’t think to try that trick before he led his men inside the hostel. Anyway, there were many battles, but in the end Fionn was freed when Diarmuid (who later eloped with Fionn’s pretty young wife, the Princess Grainne) cut off the heads of their enemy and sprinkled their blood around the hostel. Yuk! 😝

Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri
Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri

According to Lady Gregory, when Grainne was brought to her wedding feast with Fionn, she was disappointed to fin him older than her father. But then her eyes fell on Diarmuid…

“Who is that sweet-worded man,” she said then, “with the dark hair, and cheeks like the rowan berry, on the left side of Oisin, son of Finn?” “That is Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne,” said the Druid, “that is the best lover of women in the whole world.”

Hmmm… with a recommendation like that, it’s hardly any wonder that she jilted Fionn at the alter and ran off with Diarmuid. In all fairness, though, she wasn’t fickle. She and Diarmuid stayed together for twenty years until he was gored to death by the great boar of Benbulben, and they had a daughter and four sons together.

During their flight from the jealous Fionn, who was bent on vengeance, Grainne, who was by this time heavy with child, took a fancy for the rowan berries of a particular enchanted tree which was guarded by a giant.

You know how pregnant women with a craving get; poor Diarmuid had no choice but to challenge the giant. Such was his strength and valour, he outwitted the giant and killed him. Grainne was now free to gorge on the bright red shiny fruit. Despite her condition, she and Diarmuid climbed high into the rowan tree, where the berries were sweetest.

Meanwhile, Fionn agreed  to a truce with his enemies, the Mac Mornas, if they brought him either Diarmuid’s head, or a handful of the magical quicken berries. Yeah, I think you can see where this is going, right?

When the mac Mornas reported finding the dead giant, and half the rowan berries eaten, Fionn knew at once who was responsible. He went straight to the tree, believing Diarmuid was hiding in it, where he challenged his son Oisin to a game of chess. Each time Fionn was about to make a move which would defeat Oisin, a red berry fell out of the tree onto the square Oisin should move to. In this way, Oisin beat Fionn at chess for the very first time, and Fionn knew with certainty that it was Diarmuid who had helped Oisin, for only Diarmuid could ever beat him at chess.

Diarmuid leaped over the heads and weapons of the Fianna and escaped to safety. Poor pregnant Grainne was abandoned in the tree, but fortunately for her, Óengus Óg, the God of Love, took pity on herplight, and like the true gallant gent that he was, he came to her rescue.


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The Wolf King of Tara

My post on the Hill of Tara a couple of weeks back somehow managed to really offended someone, much to my surprise, who proceeded to respond in rather unpleasant troll-like tones on Facebook. Well, I thought to myself, all the more reason to do it again.

Not with the intention of causing offence, but because my blog is my own little patch where I can have freedom of speech; where I can express my thoughts and feelings on the ancient places of Ireland, their stories and characters that I love and admire and respect so much, and hopefully share it all with like-minded folk.

I understand there are people out there who know more about these special places than I ever will. I don’t claim to be an expert. As I state in my ‘About Ali’ page, the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

I’m on a journey. I am drawn to these places. I want to know them. I want to learn. When you read my blog, I hope I bring you on that voyage of discovery with me.

Rath of Synods viewed from the Mound of Hostages.
Rath of Synods viewed from the Mound of Hostages.

So who was the Wolf King of Tara? He’s someone who intrigues me very much. According to legend, Cormac mac Art was the High King of Ireland at the same time as Fionn mac Cumhall was the leader of the Fianna, c. the third century AD. He ruled from Tara for forty years, and during his reign, all of Ireland flourished.

Cormac was born of a one night stand between Achtan, daughter of a Druid/ Smith named Olc Acha, and High King Art mac Cuinn. The day after their liaison, Art was killed in battle by his nephew Lugaid mac Con, who took his place upon the throne.

After giving birth, Achtan decided to take her son to Fiachrae Cassán, Art’s foster-father, where he would be safe from Lugaid’s reach. One night, however, as Achtan slept, exhausted from her day’s travelling. the infant was stolen by a she-wolf and raised alongside her cubs.

Eventually, he was found by a hunter, healthy and well, and duly returned to his mother. He grew to manhood in the home of Fiachrae Cassán, and it was not until the age of thirty that he decided to challenge Lugaid for the Kingship.

When he arrived at Tara, he came across a man consoling a weeping woman. The man told him that the High King had confiscated her sheep because they had strayed into the Queen’s garden and eaten her herbs. Apparently, Cormac claimed “More fitting would be one shearing for the other,” meaning the sheep’s fleeces should be forfeit in payment for the ruined crops, as both the plants and the wool would grow again.

There are various different versions of what happened next; some say that Lugaid abdicated the throne, declaring Cormac to be wiser than himself; some say he was driven out by Cormac in battle, and still others say he was warned by his druids if he did not leave Tara within six months he would die. In any case, Cormac became the next High King.

This is one of my favourite stories. I love the wisdom and the fairness of it. It demonstrates perfectly why Cormac was so beloved of the people, and why they flourished under his rule.  In fact, he was said to be so wise and just, that he is often credited with creating the Brehon Laws.

Cormac led many battles during his reign, and many strange things happened to him, some of which seem reminiscent of the Arthurian story to me, leading up to his tragic and mysterious death. I will tell you more in future posts.

And finally, look what the local bookshop was selling… I have an article published in that magazine!

My article, 'Tribute to a Queen', is featured in this magazine!
My article, ‘Tribute to a Queen’, is featured in this magazine! You can just about make out my name on the cover.

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